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April 01, 2013
Innovation, (Tampa) Bay Area--style: Welcome to the Silicon Valley of pitching, where baseball's most perplexing puzzle is solved on a shoestring
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April 01, 2013

The Rays Way

Innovation, (Tampa) Bay Area--style: Welcome to the Silicon Valley of pitching, where baseball's most perplexing puzzle is solved on a shoestring

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The 2011 draft dragged on, and Taylor Guerrieri waited for the phone to ring. A high school righthander from South Carolina, Guerrieri had been clocked as fast as 100 mph. An AL scout told Baseball America before the draft, "It's the best high school arm I've ever seen."

Five picks went by, 10, 20 ... still Guerrieri's phone sat silent. His free fall through the first round was due, in the parlance of talent evaluators, to "makeup issues" stemming from an incident at the 2010 homecoming football game at his high school in North Augusta. According to Guerrieri, before the game a police resource officer smelled alcohol on him; after Guerrieri admitted that he'd had a beer, she asked him to take a Breathalyzer test. The pitcher refused. Guerrieri was not arrested or disciplined, but upset over being confronted, he transferred to a school in nearby Columbia.

Guerrieri believes that the incident persuaded many teams to pass him up on draft day. Finally the phone rang: It was the Rays, who had the 24th pick. Guerrieri was surprised. They hadn't spoken to him much, and it was only the previous day that they bothered to ask him to fill out a standard questionnaire. "We obviously had scouted him," Friedman says. "We just didn't stalk him because we thought he probably would be gone."

On Aug. 15, 2011, Guerrieri signed for a $1.6 million bonus, becoming the next great homegrown arm in the Tampa Bay system. He told reporters he had plans to get to the major leagues quickly. "I wouldn't mind being up there in two years," he said.

Taylor Guerrieri was 18 years old. He had a lot to learn about how the Rays develop pitchers.

The Rays' key decision makers resemble a tight rock band; they've been playing together for so long that there are no surprises. Friedman has been with the club since 2004, one year before Maddon. Hickey has been pitching coach since 2006. Director of minor league operations Mitch Lukevics (1995), scouting director R.J. Harrison ('95), head trainer Ron Porterfield ('96) and assistant trainer Paul Harker ('96) were with the franchise before it played its first major league game, in '98. "We have really good people who work really well together," Friedman says, "and that continuity allows you to continually improve your process—as opposed to scrambling and trying to indoctrinate a lot of people into it."

Dick Bosman had served as a pitching coach for the Orioles and the Rangers and in the Rays' minor league system before becoming Tampa Bay's pitching coordinator in 2007. That meant a tour through such outposts as Wappingers Falls, N.Y., home to the Hudson Valley Renegades of the short-season rookie New York--Penn League. One pitcher in particular caught his attention that summer. James Shields had been a 16th-round pick the previous year out of high school in Newhall, Calif. Hudson Valley was his first pro stop. He had the gift of a wicked changeup.

Shields made five starts for Hudson Valley before he was moved to Class A. But his fast track took a detour when arm problems sidelined him in 2002. He pitched in '03 at High A in Bakersfield and began '04 at Double A Montgomery. Four rough starts into the season, Shields was demoted back to Bakersfield. He was 23 and had such poor arm strength that the Rays put him through tests to see if he was hurt. (He wasn't.) He was going backward.

What happened next would become a watershed moment in the evolution of the Rays' pitching culture. Shields is the cousin of former major league outfielder Aaron Rowand, who invited Shields to train with him after the '04 season.

"I'll see you tomorrow at 6 a.m.," Rowand said.

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