After stretching, the pitchers break into three groups in the outfield. In leftfield, 20 of them walk alongside high hurdles and swing their legs over the obstacles. In rightfield, another 20 or so jog in a zigzag pattern around small orange cones. And in center, the rest gather in a large circle and stand on one leg in a series of poses: knee up and bent, as in the early stage of a windup; one foot behind them; one foot to the side, etc. It's as if a gaggle of 6'3", 190-pound flamingos—the Rays lean toward athletic pitchers with the body type of centerfielders—had alighted in centerfield. This yogalike drill—which accentuates balance, which promotes a repeatable delivery, which in turn promotes the command of pitches—goes on for 20 minutes, whereupon the groups switch stations.
Two weeks earlier the major league pitchers gathered in the bullpen on this field. They sat on the ground to listen to pitching coach Jim Hickey teach. It would be the first of three lectures Hickey gives annually to promulgate "our core philosophies" on pitching. The subject of the first one, Hickey would say later, is "the most important" of all.
Hickey spoke about getting ahead of hitters. It may sound pro forma, but boilerplate has no place in baseball's Silicon Valley. Let the rest of baseball regard the first pitch as the most crucial in getting ahead of hitters. The Rays use the first three pitches to define getting ahead, with the third often the most important. There are 11 possible counts in an at bat. The Rays believe no pitch changes the course of that at bat more than the 1-and-1 delivery. "It's almost a 200-point swing in on-base percentage with one ball and two strikes as opposed to two balls and one strike," Hickey told the pitchers. "Get ahead, and everybody becomes David Price," the team's 2012 Cy Young Award winner. Last year Rays pitchers allowed a .204 OBP after 1-and-2 counts, as opposed to a .363 OBP after 2-and-1 counts.
The Rays' staff ranked seventh in baseball last year in first-pitch-strike percentage (60.9). But they ranked first in getting to 1-and-2 counts (30.9% of all plate appearances). The trick to getting ahead, Hickey told his charges, is to command the ball around the inside and outside edges of the strike zone so that balls look like strikes to both batters and umpires. "We led the major leagues in pitches out of the zone getting called strikes," he explained. "It's tough to expand the zone up and down. But you can do it side to side."
The Rays work the head as much as the body. The holistic approach is guided by manager Joe Maddon, author of the "thought of the day." "The first thing most coaches want to do is change something physical," Maddon says. "Why? Because it's easier than working the mental side. The mental mechanics take more work but provide better results."
Pitching has been the heart of winning baseball since batters were forbidden from asking for the ball to be thrown to an area of their choosing, a courtesy that ended in 1887. But it has become increasingly important and dominant in today's game. Pitchers strike out batters more than ever and have allowed fewer hits per game for six consecutive seasons. Runs have dropped to levels not seen in a generation.
Of course the most valuable currency in today's game isn't just pitching—it's healthy pitching, especially starting pitching. The most significant determinant for championship baseball is getting four starting pitchers to the mound 30 times each. Over the past five seasons, only 15 teams, including the 2012 Rays, achieved the 4 × 30 trick. Of the 15 teams who did it, 12 made the playoffs, and all five world champions are on the list. (The 2012 Rays were the rare team to miss the playoffs with such healthy pitching, but they won 90 games.)
No franchise better understands how to identify, develop and maintain quality pitchers than the Rays. They are to pitching what Google is to algorithms, and—under owner Stuart Sternberg, president Matt Silverman and general manager Andrew Friedman, all of whom came to baseball from the investment banking world—nearly as protective of their proprietary knowledge.
This year, for the third straight season, Maddon can choose an all-homegrown rotation: Price, 27 (selected with the first pick of the 2007 draft); Jeremy Hellickson, 25 (fourth round, '05); Matt Moore, 23 (eighth round, '07); Alex Cobb, 25 (fourth round, '06); and Jeff Niemann, 30 (first round, '04). Over the past five years the Rays haven't once used a thirtysomething starter developed by another organization.
How have they solved the most perplexing puzzle in baseball?