The Red Sox pitching staff is coming off a tremendously disappointing season in which it forged a 4.70 ERA and endured the sort of inconsistency that made repeating as world champions almost impossible. Not only did the team’s well-compensated rotation struggle, but its ability to plug rotation holes with solutions from inside the organization proved glaringly inadequate, as the Red Sox continued their years-long struggles to conjure homegrown starters.
Against that backdrop, the arrival of Chaim Bloom as chief baseball officer seems particularly timely. After all, when the Tampa Bay Rays helped reshape their sport’s landscape in May 2018 with their commitment to introduce “The Opener” to Major League Baseball, Bloom was there.
Bloom — then the Rays’ senior VP of baseball operations — was traveling with the team in Kansas City for the discussions that set in motion the commitment to a non-traditional strategy. Days later, Sergio Romo made back-to-back starts (recording three and then four outs) against the Angels, introducing a strategy that challenged baseball tradition while also helping the Rays to emerge as a surprise contender in 2018 and playoff team in 2019.
Yet while Bloom was the highest-ranking Rays official who took part in those on-site conversations in Kansas City, his strengths as an executive — the ones that drew the Red Sox to him to helm their baseball operations — may be better explained by the roles of other members of the organization in shaping the team’s strategy.
Bloom was part of the conversations — yet so were VP of baseball operations James Click (who was also on the trip) and GM Erik Neander (who took part by phone). More significantly, the conversation was guided by members of the field staff, particularly Rays manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder.
The Red Sox clearly are hoping the 36-year-old Bloom will allow the Red Sox to become a more innovative, cutting-edge organization, one that moves beyond the constraints of traditional baseball ideas and methods in search of getting the greatest possible contributions from their players, while also identifying competitive edges.
Bloom grew up in and played a significant role in the development of a Rays organization that did just that — yet his impact wasn’t felt so much in any single decision he made as in the development of a culture that allowed managers, coaches, executives, and players the freedom of creativity. Cash and Snyder could speak freely about the merits of an untested big league strategy and make the call about whether and how to use it.
“He’s had his hands on everything,” Snyder said. “[But] he develops a lot of trust, and I genuinely feel like he empowers everyone. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
The use of an opener represented the outgrowth of years of conversations that had been taking place inside the Rays organization as Bloom worked under and next to Andrew Friedman, Matt Silverman, and Neander.
The organization long had discussed the potential of bullpen games, maximizing matchups, limiting the exposure of a pitcher to a lineup for a third time, and helping to protect a young pitcher as he acclimated to the big leagues.
The opener was not merely a novel strategy, but a reflection of an organization — one that was and is determined to give opportunities to prospects, in contrast to a Red Sox organization that at times has been reluctant to give homegrown pitchers the latitude to struggle while transitioning to the big leagues.
“[The opener] just goes to the outside-the-box, front-line thinking,” said Snyder. “The conversations never stop as far as, ‘What can we do next from a team standpoint of innovation?’ He’s impacted our entire player development infrastructure. It’s not just pitching. He’s had his hands on just about everything that was done from a player development standpoint, and even more of an impact on the major league staff here the last few years.”
The Rays are an organization other teams examine for clues about best practices. From afar, the pitching infrastructure they’ve developed with Bloom’s input has been sufficiently impressive — dazzlingly so in 2019, when the Rays led the American League with a 3.65 ERA, more than a run better than the 4.70 mark of the Red Sox — that it has represented a constant area of study over the years for VP of pitcher development Brian Bannister.
Tampa Bay featured a holistic approach, finding players who had tremendous upside and then putting them in environments and situations to get the most out of their abilities. That requires understanding a player’s raw materials as identified by scouts and statistical data, recognizing how coaches/teachers and technology can help a player to leverage those abilities, and making determinations about how best to use a player to maximize their abilities.
“An expensive, elite starter can be closely replicated through an army of relievers with equivalent pitch quality for shorter bursts in a relay-race style, allowing a lower-payroll team to compete with big-market spending in a much more cost-effective manner,” Bannister noted. “It simply takes planning and time and a willingness to go against the grain.”
Success in such undertakings also requires tremendous communication. A great strategy developed in the front office carries no value if it fails to elicit buy-in from the players and coaches asked to implement it. Bloom’s history suggests that he has the ability to not only help foster ideas that can make a difference, but that he also recognizes the challenges of implementing them.
In 2013, when Gabe Kapler was an adviser to the Rays’ front office, he recalled a conversation with Bloom about helping players differentiate between traditional statistics — ones that weren’t necessarily valued by the organization — and new, less-familiar ones that more accurately captured what the organization valued.
“He asked me a very thoughtful question about the potential contradiction between trying to make sure players were concerned about the right statistics vs. having them become overly concerned about those new stats,” recalled Kapler. “He wondered if we were really minimizing the stress of players versus just shifting the cause of it.
“This was an example of his inquisitiveness and a unique focus for an executive. He cared about how players are motivated and discouraged and didn’t claim to know anything. He was looking to partner with me on discovering the answer.”
Bloom arrives Monday to join a Red Sox organization that faces challenging questions. The team features an enormously talented roster, but one that is destined to be reshaped, at a time when there are health and performance questions surrounding some of the team’s most decorated and expensive contributors (Chris Sale, David Price), as well as a minor league system that has been thinned by years of trades.
It’s a complex set of interrelated tasks that awaits. In Bloom, the Red Sox are adding a leader who is familiar with approaching relatively daunting tasks with a sense of possibility and opportunity.
“The conversation never stops about, ‘What can we do to give ourselves the next advantage?’ Now that will be working with a very different budget [with the Red Sox],” said Snyder. “There’s no question he’s going to do a good job building that farm system back up given the difference in philosophy between the previous GM and now. I think he’ll do a really good job initiating a change in culture.”