Part two of a two-part series.*
Near the end of the 2011 season, Tampa Bay Rays’ manager Joe Maddon explained that baseball players go through five stages once they begin their major-league career:
Stage 1 – I’m happy to be here.
Stage 2 – Survival mode.
Stage 3 – I belong here. I can do this.
Stage 4 – I want to make as much money as possible.
Stage 5 – All I want to do is win
In September, Maddon said two of his own players had enter “stage 3” of their careers. Left-hander Jake McGee along with the right-handed Brandon Gomes rebounded from early season struggles to become – partly out of necessity – high-leverage, late-inning, relief options during the team’s epic run to the playoffs. Their paths to the important third stage were very different; however, their simultaneous arrival could have a long-lasting effect impact on the construction of future bullpens.
For Gomes, reaching stage one was quite an accomplishment given his pedigree or lack there of. A 17th round pick of the San Diego Padres in 2007, the right-handed Gomes lacked the size (five-foot-eleven) and pure stuff (average fastball velocity near 90 MPH) to be labeled a true prospect. Despite those obstacles, he produced right away as a minor leaguer and by the end of 2010 he had already racked up 324 strikeouts in 295 minor-league innings.
Prior to the 2011 season, the Rays acquired Gomes as part of a five-player trade that sent Jason Bartlett to the Padres. Although the tall, righty Adam Russell appeared to be the prize for Tampa Bay at the time, it was Gomes who was pitching high-leverage innings for the Rays in September despite never pitching above Double-A before the start of the season.
Gomes’ first stint with the Rays was decent; however, unspectacular. He spent the month of May in Tampa Bay, tossing 11.2 innings over 10 appearances. Although he struck out nine batters, he walked five and allowed a .347 on-base percentage in the small sample size. Not uncommon for a young pitcher, he relied heavily on his fastball (62%) in his first taste of big-league baseball.
This strategy may work for some pitchers; however, for ones like Gomes – with an average fastball – the development of secondary options is key. The good news is Gomes already had a good slider and off-speed pitch. He just needed to learn how and when to use them. Like McGee, he was sent to Durham with a list of things to improve upon including but not limited to: improve versus left-handed batters (think better use of his split-finger) and go a better job and holding runners.
Gomes returned to St. Petersburg in early July with a more diverse portfolio. “Gomes 2.0” had a much more balanced attack despite still leading with his fastball (50%). Although the fastball remained number one, he increased the overall usage on his breaking ball (from 21% to 30%) and splitter (from 12% to 14%). In May, he used the off-speed pitch around 20% of the time against lefties. In August and September that usage was nearly 30%. In regards to the breaking ball, Gomes was throwing it as frequently if not more than his fastball versus right-handers by season’s end.
Gomes Secondary Usage Rates
Good results followed the change in process as Gomes struck out 23 batters while walking 11 over his final 25.1 innings. He allowed one earned run in his final 15 appearances which included 13 strikeouts and three walks in 10.1 innings. Overall, left-handers got the best of him;however, by the end of the season he was facing batters on both sides of the plate in high-leverage situations.
Similar to McGee, Gomes had his “moment” versus a division rival. On September 27, the Rays took a 5-3 lead into the eight inning against the New York Yankees. In a sign of confidence, Joe Maddon called on Gomes to face Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixiera, and Nick Swisher. Gomes responded with a scoreless inning, inducing a flyball wrapped around a pair of swinging strikeouts. In the frame’s final match-up, he fell behind in the count to Swisher (3-2), but came back with an 85 MPH splitter to strike out the left-handed batter on a whiff. The next night, the right-hander pitched a perfect 10th inning in the contest simply known as “Game 162.”
Gomes is not yet a finished product. This spring – in addition to recovery from off-season back surgey – he must continue use his secondary offerings to help improve versus left-handers or he may be labeled as a platoon specialist. Meanwhile, with two solid options beyond the fastball, he could become an effective, high-leverage option against batters on both sides of the dish.
In the cases of Gomes and McGee, the Rays kept feeding them opportunities despite early struggles. Maddon said even if young players “stub their toes” it does not mean you stop throwing them out there. Instead of running away from the moment, the highly competitive, young arms, “got angry” said Maddon, and acquired confidence that allowed them to feel as if they belonged. Welcome to stage 3.