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One step into the Rays' spring training clubhouse is enough to confirm that you have entered the Silicon Valley of pitching, a state-of-the-art convergence of New Age thinking; youthful, entrepreneurial conviction; and proprietary data that are the envy of the industry. On the wall inside the entrance, next to the day's lineup card and practice schedule and bulletins regarding car washes, haircuts and designer wardrobe consultations, the "thought of the day" is posted. "Pitchers," the sign read one day early in camp, "during a side session, how many pitches did you 'will' to the spot versus how many did you 'hope' would get there?"
Inside the clubhouse proper, in front of the row of blond-wood lockers farthest from the door, a dozen pitchers, all of them in their 20s and almost to a man homegrown prospects who are more lithe than thick, are kicking and heading a blue-and-silver soccer ball in a circle about 15 feet in diameter. The point of the exercise is to keep the ball in the air as long as possible without using your hands, with one added degree of difficulty: the pitchers are seated in swivel chairs. Their athleticism is impressive—at one point rookie Jake Odorizzi "catches" the ball between his shoulder blades and lets it sit there. Mostly, though, there is hilarity, especially when one well-struck ball smacks Odorizzi in the chops.
Opposite the clubhouse is a low-slung, flat-roofed building, one side of which is covered in a montage of buzzwords such as STRENGTH and TEAMWORK. This is the Rays' meeting room, their equivalent of a lecture hall. While the major league pitchers are playing office-chair soccer, the minor league pitchers and catchers are getting their daily 9 a.m. tutorial. Yesterday the topic was the importance of holding runners and delivering pitches to the plate in a timely manner. The goal for every pitcher is to let no more than 1.3 seconds elapse between the start of his delivery to the ball's hitting the catcher's mitt.
Today's lecture might well be titled, The Importance of the Changeup. The minor leaguers are told that last year Tampa Bay had the lowest ERA (3.19) in the American League in 22 years. No staff in baseball was close to being as good. The Rays also held batters to the lowest batting average (.228) in the AL since it adopted the designated hitter 40 years ago, and struck out more batters (1,383) than any team in the league's 112-year history.
The changeup, the students are told, is the key to such success. Last year, according to Fangraphs.com, the Rays threw a greater percentage of changeups (18.4) than any team in baseball. (San Diego was next, at 15.5%.) And they did it with the second-best average fastball velocity (92.9 mph, two ticks below the 93.1 average of the Nationals).
The lecture lasts about 30 minutes. When it ends, the pitchers walk onto a practice field in brilliant golden sunshine under a morning sky of robin's-egg blue—hues that have been prominent in the Rays' color scheme since 2008, when they ditched the Devil Rays nickname and began one of the most astounding and efficient runs of success in the free-agent era. Tampa Bay has won an average of 91.6 games during the last five seasons, lower than only the Yankees and the Phillies. Of course the Rays, who will have the AL's third-lowest payroll this season ($65 million), did so while spending a total of $286 million, a fraction of the five-year expenditures of New York ($1.04 billion) and Philadelphia ($688 million).