Never knowing what's coming tomorrow, Rays right-hander Louis Head takes the mound every time like it could be his last day in the major leagues.
Not long after Head picked up his first major league victory against Cleveland on July 24, a reporter asked him about pitching with the uncertainty that comes with competing in a "bullpen game," where the Rays purposely use a stack of relievers to piece together nine innings. Did he plan ahead mentally to pitch for one inning, two, or more? Did he give maximum effort on every pitch from the first batter until the last, or did he conserve his energy?
Head said he didn’t think about that stuff at all.
"I can't think too far ahead about covering as many innings as possible," he said. "I was just trying to execute the pitch at that moment."
Head could have been answering a related question about what it's like to be a human yo-yo, someone who has been called up from the minors 11 times and sent down 10 more this season. After spending nine years just trying to reach the big leagues, Head's first taste of The Show has come in a seemingly never-ending series of small bites.
Head has excelled with the Rays, putting up a 2.67 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 30 ⅓ innings over 23 appearances, but much of it has come in pieces. Three games in April, three more in May, just one in June, and four more in July before August got busy: nine appearances, but also three trips to Triple-A. He’s been back with the big league team since Friday.
Regardless of his own success, Head might not be in the majors next Friday. Because MLB roster expansion in September is limited to 28 players, and with the Triple-A season extending to Oct. 3 because of COVID-19 (not including any minor league playoffs), Head could be on the move — again, multiple times — before the offseason.
Here's a total rundown of Head's transactions, starting with April 23 (also his 31st birthday):
The Rays didn’t make it their intention to tease Head, even if the whole thing seems like a form of cruel harassment, but they are taking advantage of a system that encourages teams to, at will, move players around who have less seniority. It comes down to this: have options, will travel. Like all new major leaguers, Head has three options in his contract. That means he could be an up-and-down guy next season, too, along with the one after — if that’s what his team wants.
Head, aware of how fortunate he is to be playing Major League Baseball, isn’t about to complain. Being in the majors at all is preferable to being bound to the minors for the better part of a decade, or out of pro baseball entirely. But all of the coming and going takes its toll, with the Tampa Bay Times quoting Head as saying:
“You can definitely let it get to you,” he said. “And I’m not going to lie and say it’s been perfect every time and I’m happy about the decisions. Obviously, we all want to be up here, we all want to be in the major leagues."
Cleveland drafted Head in the 18th round in 2012, and he played seven years in the organization before the Dodgers signed him in 2019. Head would have played with the Mariners organization in 2020 if not for the COVID-19 pandemic; their Triple-A team released him a year ago in May. Head only got calls from independent league teams thereafter — an option he said he could not afford financially — until the Rays called in February. It had felt like “a long time” in-between, Head said.
What kept him going? More like “who?” His wife, Jenny.
“She’s been the backbone, and pushed me through stuff, even at times when I may not have believed in myself,” Head said.
Head described feeling “shock” and being overwhelmed when the Rays called him in April to say he was being promoted above Triple-A for the first time. He had doubted the major leagues would ever happen for him and didn’t even presume that pro baseball was still in the cards after the pandemic prompted the cancellation of most minor league competition a year ago. Head said he spent four months going door to door selling solar panels in Arizona because there was no baseball to play.
“I did pretty well,” Head said. “My goal was more to set up the appointment than it was to make a sale. I figured that if I could just set an appointment, the sale would happen.
“It was tricky at first.”
Head prefers pitching baseballs to pitching solar panels any time, so the details of how he’d be used were always going to be a secondary concern. This much is true: It’s always a sunny day when you’re in the major leagues.
Head having to shuttle back and forth between Triple-A Durham so often has been extreme, but it's not the exception for the Rays. Right-hander Chris Mazza has been optioned nine times since March 28. Left-hander Ryan Sherriff, five times since May 11. Left-hander Dietrich Enns, three times since Aug. 12. The frequent flyer method is a significant part of how the Rays do it.
Instead of putting their resources into a more traditional five-person starting rotation, the Rays peck at opponents by constantly replenishing their stable with capable relief pitchers from the minors and elsewhere. They've used 34 pitchers (not including three position players) to cover the innings. And it's working. The Rays are running away with first place in the AL East, and they have one of the top overall ERAs in the league. Their bullpen ERA ranks even better.
It’s effective for the Rays, but the method can be hard on the pitchers. Right-hander Andrew Kittredge, now a mainstay in the Rays ‘pen, was optioned five times in 2018. Kittredge told The Times:
“It can be very hard. It’s tough because at times you can’t help but think, like, ‘Is today the day I’m going to have to get on a flight and go somewhere?’ … It’s a grind mentally just as much as it is physically. So the fact that he’s done what he’s done having had that happen, as much as he has, has been pretty impressive.”
Head credits the Rays not only with an opportunity to play but also with making him a better pitcher after he arrived. The coaches and analytics department reworked his slider so it breaks more horizontally and less vertically, a difference that better complements his fastball. He is obviously grateful.
“That was the only adjustment I’ve made mechanically, but it’s really made a world of difference,” Head said.
Looking back to when he debuted in April, Head gave everyone an indication as to why the Rays considered him fit for such duty. A reporter asked Head what was going through his mind, considering his nine-year journey from the 18th round to Tropicana Field, as he ascended the mound for the first time. Head had come into the game in the eighth inning with the Rays trailing by a run to the Blue Jays. All he had to do was face Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero and Randal Grichuk. No worries: Head just threw himself into his work.
“I was facing the heart of the lineup, so what was going through my head was making solid pitches, just executing, and not trying to worry about the situation or it being my debut,” Head said. “I think (that kind of mentality) helped a lot with the nerves. Focusing on the game, pitch to pitch, really helps you settle down.”
Settling down sounds nice. Not that Head is in a spot where he can. Not yet. He never knows when that next phone call is coming.