John Smoltz: Can the Tampa Bay Rays’ approach work in the postseason?

The Tampa Bay Rays (73-50) have been one of MLB’s best teams all season, but have they hit a wall?

Tampa Bay recently announced that ace Shane McClanahan (3.29 ERA across 21 starts this season) is undergoing Tommy John surgery, officially ending his 2023 campaign and likely his 2024 season, as well. The Rays have traditionally boasted elite pitching staffs, especially those with relievers who can throw multiple innings at a time, which has been a primary catalyst for them likely cracking the playoffs in four of the last five seasons.

FOX Sports lead MLB analyst John Smoltz feels that the Rays will have to rely more on their bullpen moving forward, which he shared on the latest “Saturdays with Smoltz” segment on “Flippin’ Bats.”

“They (the Rays) have had pitching injuries for the last five-to-eight years,” Smoltz said. “I mean, you go all the way back, and they’ve had a ton of them, but they’ve proven that they could overcome most of them in the compartmentalized season of fractional bullpening. They’ve made self-adjustments from year to year. Remember when they said they would never let a starter face a team three times? Well, they quickly adjusted on that and realized all their relievers were getting burned out. So they said, ‘Alright, we can’t do that.’ But they’re a big believer in arm angles and different things, and they think differently, and they win.

“Does that mean that’s a postseason success? I don’t think it is, but they keep proving people wrong. They find ways to get in and make it difficult to beat them, but these are huge losses. These are losses that made them elite to now just very good, and very good can get it done. You’re gonna burn out some pieces because whatever you miss, and those guys you got to replace, and those replacements are going to come primarily from the bullpen. They’re going to piece the starting rotation together, but they’re going to rely heavily on the bullpen.”

I think, to a degree, the Rays have kind of proved the narrative wrong, but they haven’t won. We’ve seen the Rays get to the World Series, but we haven’t yet seen that blueprint be able to win a championship. I think it’s great for regular-season success. 

I think you can win in the playoffs. Over the last few years, I can’t think of a team that doesn’t come to mind where they have at least two, most likely three studs in a rotation for the playoffs. 

Look at the Philadelphia Phillies last year (Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suarez) and the Houston Astros for years (Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke). I feel like the blueprint to winning a World Series is, offense aside, having two aces in a rotation and a third guy who shows up in the playoffs, and next thing you know, you’re throwing them out two games in a World Series run, and that’s how you win.

Smoltz argued that the Rays’ model is geared more toward the regular season than the playoffs.

“The interesting thing from an analytical standpoint is that they (the Rays) have proven that in 162 games a lot of what they do works,” Smoltz said. 

“Analytically, they can compete with the big boys at a low salary structure; they can interchange pieces. But what I think at times people won’t admit is the postseason, it’s not a regular season. You cannot bring those same algorithms and apply them to a best-of-five series. You just can’t. It’s not the same. They’ll tell you it’s a randomness and that it’s luck and so many things come into play.

“The perfect storm was in the pandemic World Series in the bubble. That was where 60 games, they were the most dangerous team because I think that that is a formula where they could’ve succeeded and almost did. They didn’t deviate from their scenario; we all know about the Blake Snell situation. What I will tell you, though, the Rays — of all the teams that have utilized analytics and things that separate one from the other — they just do a better job of being able to navigate a season when everybody thinks, ‘Well, yeah, they can’t make a deep run this way and sooner or later, they think they will.’ … The playoffs have a formula that is proven successful, and the teams that adhere to it usually go on to win it all.”

I think the Rays deserve a ton of credit for how good they are and how they’ve been a machine for a decade. They’ve taken over the analytic world, and they’ve become a wins machine; they can tell you at the beginning of the season how many wins they will end up with in a season. 

I think back to the Moneyball A’s, and I think that’s a blueprint to win. But take the Moneyball era with the A’s, the Rays with the very analytics-oriented approach, who has proven that it is enough to win a championship? 

Ultimately, it’s not about having 100-plus wins in a regular season and getting playoff games: it’s about winning a championship, and I’ve yet to see this approach work.

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