By Noah Trister
AP Baseball Writer
In Kevin Cash’s first season as manager, the Tampa Bay Rays had a pretty clear philosophy on how to handle their starting rotation.
If a pitcher was facing the opposing lineup for a third time in a game, the Rays were willing to be a lot more careful.
“Last year, we took an approach that was, I won’t say criticized, but scrutinized a little bit,” Cash said recently. “It worked out in our favor quite a bit. When it didn’t work out, we had to answer some questions.”
There will always be questions when a team does something unorthodox, but Tampa Bay’s approach underscored the dilemma managers always seem to face in the middle innings. Statistics indicate that batters fare better when facing the same pitcher for the third time in a game — but there’s still no foolproof way for teams to combat that.
“There’s clearly an effect,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “For decades, they said, ‘Hey, third time through the order.’ Now they just have the number to tell you exactly what the entire league does third time through, what individual pitchers do third time through, but it’s been part of the game for decades.”
In 2015, major leaguers hit .247 when facing a pitcher for the first time in a game, with an on-base percentage of .312 and a slugging percentage of .390. When facing a pitcher for the second time, they hit .261/.319/.416. When batting for a third time against the same pitcher, major leaguers hit .270/.330/.440.
In a 2013 piece for Baseball Prospectus, Mitchel Litchman took a deeper look at the numbers and declared that pitchers generally become weaker each additional time they have to work through the lineup — and he said this phenomenon is not simply a fatigue issue. Even at reasonably low pitch counts, a batter has a better chance once he’s had more chances to face the same pitcher in a game.
That’s consistent with anecdotal evidence, according to Boston catcher Ryan Hanigan.
“Big league hitters see pitchers a couple times, they’re going to be more comfortable. That’s just how it is,” Hanigan said. “A lot of pitchers are smart. Veteran guys will have a way they want to get a guy out and they’ll save it until they need it, until there’s guys on base or until it’s a situation. So it’s a chess match that they’re trying to figure out and not let guys obviously beat you with big swings later in games when they’re more comfortable with what they’ve seen.”
Last year, Tampa Bay pitchers faced 893 batters when going through the lineup a third time — the fewest of any team in baseball. That was in large part because of injuries that left less-proven pitchers playing crucial roles in the rotation. The Rays’ plan called for quick hooks in order to protect young arms by limiting innings — and, yes, in some cases to keep pitchers from facing a lineup for a third time.
This issue is tough for a manager to navigate, in part because it’s not always practical to pull a starter when the top of the lineup comes up for a third time. In 2015, the average major league plate appearance took 3.8 pitches — meaning pitchers can often go through the lineup twice in under 70 pitches.
It might have made sense for a team like Tampa Bay to protect less heralded starters by getting them out of games earlier. The New York Mets, however, let their pitchers face 1,129 batters during the third time through the lineup, the second-most in baseball.
An elite starter going through the lineup for a third time might still be preferable to a reliever — and New York had three of the best starters in the game in Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Still, manager Terry Collins is cognizant of the risks of letting hitters have one chance too many against a starting pitcher.
“You talk about the third time through the lineup, a lot of guys, we’ve got numbers to indicate how guys are and how certain pitchers do against a lineup the third time,” Collins said. “That dictates a lot of the time whether it’s time to come out.”
While a manager has to make decisions about who pitches and how long, a pitcher can only try his best to stay effective for as long as possible, no matter how many opportunities a batter has had against him.
“Obviously, that third time is a bit different because they’ve seen a lot more pitches. They make adjustments,” Baltimore right-hander Yovani Gallardo said. “Any time you see a hitter making an adjustment, you have to make an adjustment as well and try to interrupt that timing that they have. They’ve seen a lot of pitches throughout the game, so you want to mix certain things up.”