Could Phillies employ Rays strategy of starting relievers?

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PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 07: Seranthony Dominguez #58 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws a pitch in the eighth inning during a game against the San Francisco Giants at Citizens Bank Park on May 7, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 11-0. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - MAY 07: Seranthony Dominguez #58 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws a pitch in the eighth inning during a game against the San Francisco Giants at Citizens Bank Park on May 7, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies won 11-0. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images) /
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The Rays debuted a potentially game-changing strategy last weekend by starting reliever Sergio Romo two days in a row. Could it work for the Phillies?

When the Phillies hired Gabe Kapler to be their manager, he made it clear that he would handle the team in an unconventional way. They have rapidly increased their usage of analytics in games to help decide pitching matchups and lineup combinations. While Kapler has certainly taken it down a notch with his bullpen usage, it remains a key part of the team.

Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash debuted his own unconventional method last weekend. Facing the righty-heavy Angels, he decided to start veteran reliever Sergio Romo in two straight games. It was the first time Romo had ever started a major-league game in his 11-season career.

Cash’s line of thinking was this: the Angels have a lineup almost entirely comprised of righties. With guys like Mike Trout, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler, and Zack Cozart at the top of the Angels’ lineup, Cash wanted to get them out of the way early on. A reliever like Romo has a better chance of getting these guys out compared to a bottom-end starter.

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It turned out that this strategy actually worked. Romo struck out the side in the first inning of Saturday’s game, then picked up three more strikeouts in 1.1 innings Sunday. The Rays only won one of those games, but the fact that it worked at all has prompted plenty of discussion around the league.

The Phillies, like the Rays, are a team that has placed heavy emphasis on their bullpen this season.

The Rays have taken it to a much further extreme, but they are still similar in this regard. Kapler has been advertised as the unconventional, bold manager, and this is certainly a bold strategy. Would it actually make sense for Kapler to use it?

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Cash and the Rays employed this strategy in a very niche situation as the Angels’ best hitters are all right-handed and hit back-to-back at the top of the order. Philadelphia would have to be facing a team with a similar situation at the top of their lineup. It would make more sense if it was a  lineup stacked with righties as they only have one lefty in their bullpen.

The main issue with this strategy is deciding which reliever to use. You don’t want to use your best reliever in case you need him later in the game in a high-leverage situation, but it wouldn’t make any sense to use one of your worse relievers instead of a starter. A righty specialist like Romo makes sense since you are bringing them in to retire one type of hitter.

The Phillies have a bevy of righties they could use in this kind of role. Edubray Ramos, Luis Garcia, and Victor Arano could all succeed as a starting reliever. Seranthony Dominguez has experience starting as a minor-leaguer, but he is far more useful as a late-inning, high-leverage arm.

Ultimately, Kapler may not ever feel the need to employ this strategy. The Rays only have four true starters, using a mish-mosh of long relievers when they have to. Meanwhile, the Phils have a strong rotation going as it stands now. Kapler should and does feel very confident in his rotation, so there isn’t as much reason to start a reliever.

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Overall, starting a reliever makes sense in very specific situations. The strategy could spread around the league depending on the teams in play. Philadelphia may not be the perfect fit for this, but Kapler has iterated he is willing to try unconventional strategies if they work.

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