Rays keeping close eye on staff as fatigue can set in

With young rotation not used to heavy workload, September may be tough month

Rays keeping close eye on staff as fatigue can set in

ST. PETERSBURG -- Vince Lombardi once noted that fatigue makes cowards of us all.

For starting pitchers, fatigue doesn't necessarily make them cowards, but running on empty does make pitching more difficult. And September is the month when the rubber meets the road for young pitchers who came up through the Minor Leagues pitching until the end of August.

Chris Archer accrued the most innings of his career last season when he logged 178 2/3 combined at Triple-A Durham and in the Major Leagues. He felt September.

"It's not your arm [that gets tired], it's your legs. Because as a pitcher, you don't really work out your upper body," Archer said. "So the biggest thing for me was pacing myself better. And I was talking to [Rays head athletic trainer] Ron Porterfield, telling him I feel so much better at this point of the season than I did last year around mid-August.

"This is when it really shows -- when you see guys not get stronger, because you're not going to get stronger at this point of the season. You maintain your strength. Or you might start to dip a little bit. And you see it all across the board."

Jake Odorizzi pitched a career-high 154 innings (combined Minor League and Major League totals) last season, so he knows how having rubbery legs will affect his pitching.

"It's just harder to get the ball down, drive through the glove," Odorizzi said. "[The result is] usually leaving things up. You're not on target all the time. So those things are usually the giveaway that you're getting tired. Along with your body -- you just get a little out of whack -- you don't control your body as much. When you're up higher than high, that's when you normally know something's going on. You're trying to compensate for being fatigued. When you start doing that, it starts messing with everything else."

Andrew Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president of baseball operations, called the effects of fatigue "a kinetic chain."

"Sometimes it's hard [to see]," Friedman said. "And some guys are more honest than others about how their body is feeling. There are just so many factors. And on top of it, it's all individualized. We look at it in the offseason going into a year, we have a pretty good feel with rough guidelines for where our young guys will end up, and [we] kind of manage towards that. Once we get them to a certain point, they're basically ready to fly. It's just getting them to that point where they're ready to fly."

Archer learned from last year's experience and trained differently this past offseason than he had leading up to previous years.

"I started training [in the offseason] at the same time," Archer said. "But the intensity wasn't as high until December and January. November was just getting the base of strength, not really trying to build and crush myself. Because the year before, I started in late October right away, killing it. And I was feeling it by the end of last season."

A critical advantage Tampa Bay holds over many of the teams it plays is its relative youth. The bodies of younger players recover more quickly than those of older players. But pitching can be a different animal, so the Rays pay close attention to the number of pitches logged by their young staff.

"It's a double-edged sword," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "I think we've had that advantage [of being young] for a long time. That's one of the reasons why we've been good. And that's one of the reasons that we've probably been healthier than the rest of the league is because of our youth and athleticism. So, yes, we have younger guys going forward, so they can take it. But they're also younger guys that you want to just make sure you don't overdo it. So it kind of cuts both ways."

As the team heads into September, Hickey feels like the starters are "in a really good spot."

"I don't have any real concerns," said Hickey, adding that based on the innings Drew Smyly has logged in the past "he's someone that you're not going to expect to stick 180 innings on" this season.

"He's really about the only one that I would be concerned with about the number," Hickey said. "The other guys -- I think Alex Cobb is OK, and he was actually on the disabled list for a while and has had a little bit of a break.

"Odorizzi is a guy that you probably just pay attention to, but I don't see it as a situation where you end up shutting him down or anything like that. Archer, I know it's only his second full season. But for the most part, the workload hasn't been a whole lot of tough innings, so that makes it a little bit more manageable. But I don't think you're in a situation there, either, where you might shut him down. You monitor it, though."

Archer, Odorizzi and Smyly all say they feel prepared to head into September.

"It's up to [the Rays how I'm handled]," Smyly said. "They haven't said anything to me. As far as I know, it's not an issue."

Friedman summed up the situation.

"It's more about workload and where they are relative to past years, more than it is the magical month of September," Friedman said. "It's just how they accrue innings and where they are. And each guy is different."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.