Guerrieri knows he will be pitching this season at Class A Bowling Green. He should expect to spend the entire season there, he will be limited to five innings or 75 pitches in his starts, and he will be shut down when he gets in the neighborhood of 100 to 110 innings. He has come to realize that his goal of getting to the big leagues in two years is not likely in this organization.
Before every series Hickey receives a report on the opposing team that includes one or two pages on each hitter. The report is prepared by Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom, the Rays' directors of baseball operations, and their staff, which is the equivalent of the franchise's research and development department. Neander graduated from Virginia Tech in 2005, went to work for Baseball Info Solutions, interned with the Rays in '07 and was hired full time the same year. Bloom is an '04 Yale graduate who wrote for Baseball Prospectus and interned for the Padres before the Rays hired him in '05.
Hickey and bullpen coach Stan Boroski pay particular attention to extremes in the reports: approaches that work especially well or poorly against a hitter. Their job is to distill the reams of numbers into a few key points for the pitcher and catcher to remember. Says one rival executive, "They find and attack weaknesses as well as anybody."
The Rays are particularly vigilant about finishing off hitters. The major league average last season in all two-strike counts was .178. Tampa Bay held batters to a .156 average, the lowest in baseball. "If our guy has a put-away pitch or two, you can usually identify five or six guys where you can end this at bat right now," says Hickey. "It gets to 0 and 2, 1 and 2, you can elevate a fastball, front-door a two-seamer, bounce your hook—whatever it is—and he'll swing at it every time. Whatever it is, we'll know it."
Analytics also influence how the Rays play defense, which they understand is an inseparable part of pitching. Tampa Bay uses more extreme shifts than any club in baseball, reflecting the data mining of their operations department. Athletic pitchers who can repeat their deliveries are more likely to put pitches where scouting reports say they should go. When those balls are put in play, they're more likely to go where they are expected to go. And when the defense is expecting them, they become outs. The Rays annually are among the best teams in baseball at defensive efficiency: the rate at which batted balls are turned into outs. Beginning in 2008, the turnaround season when Tampa Bay won the AL pennant, the Rays have ranked first, fourth, tied for second, first and fourth in the AL in defensive efficiency.
If analytics play a key role in finding bullpen bargains, another Tampa Bay strength, Friedman isn't saying. The Rays have had enormous success unearthing cheap, journeymen relievers and turning them into key contributors. Their finds include Joel Peralta, who was signed in 2010 at 34 after bouncing among five organizations; Rafael Soriano, who was swiped from the Braves in a December '09 trade; and Fernando Rodney, who was signed before the '12 season and immediately gave the Rays the best ERA by a reliever in history (0.60). "The fact that we have hit on as many guys as we have is luck," Friedman says. "If it continues the next three to five years, I may have to come up with a new answer."
The truth is that the Rays do as much as any club to remove luck from developing pitchers. The campuslike environment of their training camp, the pitchers "willing" pitches to their spots, the analytics and the swivel-chair soccer games—it all defines the culture of the Rays' way.
As pitchers age and get expensive, they are traded off: Shields this off-season, Matt Garza in 2011, Edwin Jackson in '08 ... the list goes on. Price will test that pattern—he is eligible for free agency after the 2015 season, when he will be 30. In the meantime the Rays keep lining up young pitchers: Chris Archer, 24; Odorizzi, 23; Alex Colome, 24; and Montgomery, 23, are next in line, with Guerrieri, 20; Ames, 22; Snell, 20; Felipe Rivero, 21; Enny Romero, 22; and Jesse Hahn, 23, in the next wave of the Program.
"I don't know what other teams do," Lukevics said, standing in a parking lot adjacent to one of the Port Charlotte training fields, "but I feel good about our program. I'm happy to say we're one of three teams that won 90 games four of the past five years—with our type of payroll. But nobody stops working."
With that, Lukevics left to go watch pitchers work off bullpen mounds, where the staccato pop of catchers' mitts equates to the clicks of keyboards. It's the sound of more data being crunched, more feedback in the process of getting pitchers to the big leagues and keeping them healthy. But Lukevics suddenly stopped, turned on his heels and walked back across the parking lot. He had something else to say. "Do you know what this organization really is about?" Lukevics asked. "I'll tell you. Last year I lost my wife."