ST. PETERSBURG -- Standing in front of his locker in the back corner of Tropicana Field’s home clubhouse on Saturday night, Rays starter Zach Eflin put on a T-shirt many other Tampa Bay pitchers have been wearing during their pregame workouts over the last two weeks.
It reads “64.2” across the chest, with the silhouette of a pitcher throwing a baseball. It’s a clever design, with the Rays’ sunburst logo inside the “4” and the ball serving as a decimal point. It also comes with a deeper meaning, one that Eflin represented well on Saturday.
Turns out, 64.2 is the record for the highest first-pitch strike percentage by any team in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008). The Dodgers set that mark in ‘18. The Rays’ goal is to break it this season.
“Getting ahead in the count, that’s just always been our thing, just to challenge guys with our best stuff in the zone,” lefty reliever Jalen Beeks said. “Getting to 0-1 is really important, if you look at the numbers. … That’s just kind of been our goal as a pitching staff, to get ahead of guys.”
It’s a goal that pitching coach Kyle Snyder often repeats.
“If you sat in my meetings,” Snyder said with a grin, “you would hear me say it probably 96 different ways.”
The shirts, which were his idea, are just another way to hammer the point home.
For all the complex data and ultra-specific scouting reports the Rays have at their disposal, throwing a first-pitch strike is one of their most fundamental principles and one of the simple messages that Snyder constantly delivers.
“It’s just another message, subliminally or whatever [when] these guys are playing catch and they’re seeing it,” Snyder said. “Just things that kind of reinforce our standard, the thing that I believe is one of the one-size-fits-all in today’s hyper-tailored environment. Throwing strikes, the math bearing it out and the assistance and unpredictability that that provides, I just want that to continue to resonate.”
Reliever Jason Adam said the importance of throwing strike one and getting ahead in the count is “immediately” stressed upon joining the organization, with plenty of data to back it up. One rudimentary example, according to Baseball Reference data: Last season, the league hit .213/.258/.334 after falling behind, 0-1, compared to .255/.371/.428 after getting ahead, 1-0.
“It’s foundational for us, and the results show the numbers are on our side with it. I think what they do a good job of here is they keep reinforcing those numbers,” Adam said. “Especially earlier in my career, I’d think worst-case: ‘Oh, I don’t want to pipe this down the middle. He might hit it out.’ But it’s like, one, I’m probably not going to hit my spot down the middle, and two, even if I do, the numbers are still on my side. So constantly reminding yourself and being reminded is huge.”
The Rays aren’t quite where they want to be yet in that regard. Tampa Bay’s pitching staff entered Monday with a 60.5% first-pitch strike rate, below the league average of 61.1% and better than only 10 clubs. It’s an uncharacteristic step back for the Rays, who improved in that department each year from 2018-22 (59.3%, 62.3%, 62.6%, 63.4% and, finally, 64.1% in ‘22).
Which brings us back to Eflin. The right-hander faced 24 Brewers batters during Saturday’s seven-inning, no-walk, eight-strikeout start. He threw a first-pitch strike to 21 of them -- or 87.5%. That’ll work, too.
“When I get ahead of guys, 0-1, 0-2, try to put them away as soon as possible or get weak contact. That's kind of really what I've based my entire career off of,” Eflin said. “Look forward to kind of keeping that same mindset moving forward.”
Kevin Kiermaier had already been back to Tropicana Field during Spring Training, and he’d already played his first game that counts against the Rays last month. But Monday brought another new experience for Kiermaier, as the Blue Jays played their first regular-season game of the year at The Trop.
Here are a few highlights from the former Rays center fielder’s pregame chat with the media.
On playing at The Trop as a visiting player …
“This is a lot different. This is a place that was home for me for so many years. Making the drive over here today, like I have hundreds of times before, a lot of nostalgic feels going on today and just so many great memories. I’m so forever grateful for all the opportunities and everything that has come my way throughout my tenure here. … I’m a happy man. My family’s thrilled about it as well. This is very fun.”
On his hot start …
“Now that I have a much better hip, I feel like I’m a lot closer to back into my 2019 form of just feeling very close to full health for the first time in years. That’s a beautiful thing. … As you get older, you learn more things about yourself, and I like to think I’m the wisest I’ve ever been in this moment.”
On how well the Rays have played …
“I’m not surprised. I know the talent they have over there and what they’re capable of when they’re healthy and clicking. They came out the gates hot, and everyone in the baseball world was aware of the start that they got off to. They’re going to be good. They pitch. They hit. They do everything.”
• Tyler Glasnow is lined up to make his season debut Saturday against the Dodgers. Read more>>
• Randy Arozarena hosted a special guest from Mexico on Sunday, a meaningful meeting years in the making. Read more>>
• Stuart Sternberg said he plans to remain the Rays’ owner and expects to build a new ballpark in the Tampa Bay area. Read more>>
• The Rays remained atop MLB.com’s latest Power Rankings. Read more>>
The Rays announced the return of their “Reading with the Rays” program, which encourages and incentivizes summer reading for students from Pre-K to 12th grade.
The first reading event is set for Wednesday, when Jason Adam will read several books to third graders at Campbell Park Elementary School. Since the program’s inception in 2007, more than 500,000 children across nine counties have spent more than 2.85 million hours reading over the summer.
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