The best Rays breakout of 2021 wasn’t Wander Franco…

2021 was a fantastic year for the Tampa Bay Rays – A franchise-best 100 wins, a Rookie of the Year campaign from Randy Arozarena and back-to-back AL East titles for the first time in the team’s young history. For such a campaign to take place several players would have to emerge from the shadows and become genuine superstars from relative obscurity, and this was definitely the case down in St. Petersburg.

The consensus number one prospect, Wander Franco, made his name known the moment he arrived in the big leagues for his unbelievably mature plate discipline and contact skills, but I would argue it would be a disservice to the 20-year-old Dominican to call his record-setting rookie season a breakout. Anyone that had seen the youngster play or had read a scouting report on his abilities would quickly prepare you for just how special a player he is. The hype around Wander was growing to mountainous levels and living up to that would be impossible for almost any player, but he delivered exactly as advertised. I would argue that Franco’s 2021 performance was not a breakout at all – but setting the bar for what’s to come.

For me, a breakout is when a player defies precedent for what they are expected to achieve. A player that has toiled in mediocrity suddenly delivers an all-star campaign. MVP bronze medallist Marcus Semien’s 2019 season would be a perfect example of how a player can suddenly turn a corner and ascend to a whole new level of baseball player. Tyler Glasnow’s first half before being struck by Tommy-John was the beginnings of what seemed to be a tremendous breakout and Mike Zunino finally earned his infamous ‘Zunino is good’ tagline too. However, one of the Rays’ biggest success stories fell completely under the national radar. The breakout star of the 2021 Rays goes to Drew Rasmussen.

With more middle infielders than I’ve had hot meals and a desire to give major-league time to Franco and his Triple-A compatriots, Taylor Walls and Vidal Brujan, Tampa decided in May that it was time to move on from their current shortstop Willy Adames. Adames was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for relief pitchers J.P. Feyereisen and the aforementioned Rasmussen. Feyereisen and Rasmussen were both putting up solid numbers in the Crew’s bullpen and were expected to immediately contribute to the final innings of games. This was the case for Feyereisen, as he earned the save in his very first appearance with the Rays, but for Rasmussen, it was clear from the beginning the front office had a very different plan in mind.

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‘Razz’ started his time with the Rays assigned to the Durham Bulls in Triple-A. Immediately turning heads with his exceptional fastball rise and a slider that dips so much it seemed almost curveball-esque. Before long he found himself back in the big leagues and picking up relief outings under Kevin Cash. His first few appearances were shaky at best, but before long it became obvious that the Rays had seen something in the young right-hander and started straying from their characteristic gameplan. Many fans were startled to see that Rasmussen started to pick up multiple inning appearances despite the early struggles. One inning turned into two, then suddenly three. If Tampa, a team known for being ridiculously strict with their pitchers, was letting Rasmussen go longer and longer, there must be a long-term plan in mind.

That was indeed the case. On 30 June, Rasmussen made his first major-league start against the Washington Nationals. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it an ‘open’ than a traditional start. He pitched two innings and allowed two runs. But things would go up from there, he would slowly but surely be stretched out to a reliable two-time through the batting order pitcher. By September he was showing why the Rays took the risk of converting him to a starter. Over five starts in 24 innings, Rasmussen went 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA, walking only two batters in that time frame. He performed so well, in fact, that he was called upon to get the start in Game Three of the ALDS against the Red Sox and is considered one of the more reliable pieces of a young and developing Rays rotation.

With most managers keeping a close eye on inning management and erring on the side of caution with their pitchers, the Rays took an immense risk in trying to covert Rasmussen to a starting pitcher, particularly without having made any starts above Single-A. But he not only succeeded, but he also excelled in the role. ‘Razz’ recorded a 142 ERA+ last season, which means that when adjusted for the ballparks he played in, Rasmussen was 42% better than the league average pitcher last season. This puts him as the fourth-best pitcher under 25 with at least 75 innings pitched. The tremendous break on his fastball and slider allows him to deceive hitters in a unique way, forcing a lot of soft contact against him. According to Statcast, Rasmussen was in the 82nd percentile in barrel percentage this season, meaning that it was extremely rare for hitters to make solid contact against him.

His postseason start may be a warning sign that he will need to develop a third pitch in order to keep his opponents guessing – as a two-pitch mix as a starter does not lend itself to longevity no matter good those pitches are. That does not mean that was Rasmussen did over the 2021 season any less impressive. The Rays have once again used sleight of hand to make the lesser-known name in a trade provide the most value to the team. Out of nowhere, Erik Neander has added another elite fireballer to the seemingly never-ending production line of pitching depth in his system. Drew Rasmussen has definitely earned the Rays breakout player of the year in my eyes, and I can’t wait to see who will dazzle us all next.

Photo by Winslow Townson

Patrick Davenport is one of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @UKRaysBoi

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