Rays feel they can cover for loss of Shields' workload
Hickey stressing importance of finishing off batters in three pitches or less
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Do the math.
James Shields gave the Rays 200-plus innings the past six seasons, but the organization traded the veteran right-hander to the Royals in December. So subtract the surplus of innings lost from Shields' departure and what you have are the many frames Tampa Bay must find a way to fill.
"Obviously we're going to miss what James brought," pitching coach Jim Hickey said, "but I think we're going to be able to cover the 40 or so innings it's going to take."
The question is: How will the Rays do so?
Ace David Price has pitched 200-plus innings the past three seasons, so the Rays are counting on him to continue that run. Looking past the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner to the projected Nos. 2-4 starters, there is room for improvement.
Jeremy Hellickson made 31 starts and contributed 177 innings. Matt Moore made 31 starts last season and pitched 177 1/3 innings. Alex Cobb, who made eight starts at Triple-A Durham, made 23 starts for the Rays and gave the team 136 1/3 innings.
"Moore, Cobb and Hellickson are all ready to pitch that 200 innings," Hickey said. "And it's not so much the need to, it's their performance warrants throwing 200 innings.
"You want to keep them out there for 200 innings. There are a lot of guys who are capable of pitching 200 innings but never make it to that plateau, because you choose to remove them from the game. Hopefully that won't be the case here."
Each of the aforementioned trio understands the situation. Predictably, nobody in the group is backing away from the challenge.
"I feel ready," Hellickson said. "Even last year I felt like I could have thrown 200 innings. There were a few games there where I threw way too many pitches and had to come out after three or four innings, but I felt like my body was strong enough and my arm was strong enough to do it. It was just a matter of actually doing it and working towards it."
Hickey's mantra is all about putting away the hitter in three or less pitches. If executed properly, the benefits of said mantra are immeasurable.
"I don't think it can be stressed enough," Hickey said, "because that's what I have continually stressed -- whether it was the '07 Devil Rays or the '08 Tampa Bay Rays."
Hickey likened an 0-2 count to a first and goal situation.
"You don't want to run three plays and hope to score," Hickey said. "You want to score on the first play. That's exactly what we're talking about."
Expanding on the three-pitch concept, Cobb pointed to the misdirected glory of the strikeout.
"I think that everybody kind of puts a high regard into strikeout numbers," Cobb said. "I've realized that the strikeouts are just a flashy stat for fans and for other people. What we're trying to do as pitchers is get the guys out in three pitches or less. If they can roll over a first-pitch fastball, that's going to help me tremendously getting through all those innings.
"My approach is definitely not to miss bats, but to pitch to contact and hopefully get some quick outs, and I think that's the approach that everybody is going to need to take this year."
Hellickson chuckled when asked about the three-pitch concept.
"That's definitely easier said than done, but it's a goal to try and reach with every batter," Hellickson said.
Snapshots from Hellickson's 2012 season offer a glimpse at how a pitcher can occasionally lapse into a mode of inefficiency. Some of that had to do with Hellickson's penchant to throw his cutter more than Hickey and manager Joe Maddon wanted.
"I threw it the first game last year against the Yankees, and it might have been my best game of the year," Hellickson said. "So I had it in the back of my mind that the cutter was one of the main reasons for that."
On April 8 against the Yankees, Hellickson scattered just three hits over 8 2/3 scoreless innings. Enamored with the wonders of his cutter, Hellickson estimated that he threw 20 to 25 in his next start against the Red Sox. He lasted just five innings, surrendering five earned runs on seven hits while earning a no-decision. Nevertheless, the in-house debate about how much Hellickson should throw his cutter remained throughout last season.
"I think I finally started leaning towards what [Maddon and Hickey] were saying," Hellickson said. "I just think I tried to overuse the pitch without really seeing what hitters were doing."
An as-yet-to-be-determined No. 5 starter will also be asked to help fill in the missing innings. There are countless candidates to fill that slot, including Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, to name a few.
If the starters can't fill Shields' vacated innings, a heavier load will be placed on the bullpen. Last season, the Rays had one of the top relief corps in baseball. A big reason why was because relievers were used in the right situations. That ideal circumstance could quickly change if the bullpen has to be used to cover innings as well.
"[Filling the gap] is one of those things we all need to account for, and that will come down to not wasting pitches in the inning," Moore said. "Our pitch count is what it is and we're going to have to make do with what that is, and that means stretch more innings out of those pitches, and that means not wasting as many."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.