Last week Baseball Prospectus published an article proposing an outside the box strategy for the Padres to try with their below (way below) average rotation.
The theory is basically starting the game with a reliever on the mound as an “opener.” This opener pitches an inning or two before being relieved by the regularly scheduled starter (preferably an opposite-handed pitcher from the opener) who comes in to pitch his five, six or seven innings. You then finish the game with your best relievers if you have the lead. The advantage would be if your opponent has stacked its lineup with lefthanded hitters to counter your righty starter, opening the game with a lefty reliever would take their matchups and advantage away for at least couple innings.
It’s definitely an unconventional strategy and one that would make headlines around baseball, but why shouldn’t the Padres try it? Their rotation is a mess and employing a new strategy to test out may lead to them gaining an advantage over their opponents they normally wouldn’t have had.
When Terry Francona called on Andrew Miller to come into the 5th inning of the ALDS and World Series last fall, I remember thinking to myself “Geez what’s next, relievers starting the game?” Well, we may be here now if a team gives this a shot in the near future.
I thought a lot about this strategy, and I hope we see a team try it because I like its litany of advantages. And then I thought of how the Pirates pitching staff is currently constructed. Why couldn’t the Pirates try it?
If Tyler Glasnow or Drew Hutchison earn the fifth spot in the rotation this spring, the Pirates will travel to Boston to begin the season with five righthanded starters in the rotation. On top of that, their bullpen will be loaded with southpaws. Tony Watson, Antonio Bastardo, Wade LeBlanc, Felipe Rivero and even Rule 5 pick Tyler Webb are all lefties. Even if Webb doesn’t make the bullpen out of camp (he’d have to be sent back to the Yankees if so), the Pirates pen will still feature an unconventional four lefties.
With five RHP in the rotation, teams will toss any lefthanded hitter into their lineup against the Bucs this season. Imagine starting the game with LeBlanc, creating a disadvantage for the opponent with some lefty-lefty matchups. Last year, lefties recorded just a .680 OPS against LeBlanc. He pitches one or two innings and then Gerrit Cole comes in and pitches five or six innings. And after Cole is finished, Rivero and Watson come in to close the door in the 8th/9th.
There’s more advantages than just the mismatch you’d start with. If your starters aren’t going deep into games (a problem that plagued the Pirates immensely in 2016), they can get their work in and possibly avoid the dreaded third time through the order. The numbers and trends are widely known around the league by this point—the more times a starter turns over the order, the less effective they are against the same hitters. This opener strategy allows your bullpen to be much more of a factor and keep your starters fresh.
I also like the idea of this strategy because it puts pressure on your opponent. Should your opponent play their platoon and just take the bad matchups early? Or do they throw the platoon out and not have the best matchup against the starter? In a move akin to poker, you put the pressure on your opponent and as a result, there’s a good chance they make a mistake.
Also, would you believe that MLB teams have scored more runs in the 1st inning than in any other inning? It’s in the BP article linked in the lead above if you don’t believe me. For whatever reason, teams jump on unsuspecting starting pitchers right away more so than any other part in the game. Would you rather see Chad Kuhl in the 1st inning or flame-throwing Rivero pitching to a lineup set up to fail against him? Exactly…I know my choice is Rivero.
And just to address the old school Hurdle thought of “but the starters start the game so they can get the win,” this would still be the case. We can roll our eyes and laugh at the notion that anybody still cares about pitcher wins these days, but it’s a reality that wins are important for players when it comes to arbitration and contracts. Numbers are everything. But in this strategy, a win may be easier to come by for a starter. Once the starter, in this theory the “opener,” leaves the game after the 2nd inning, since they didn’t go five innings to qualify for a win, the official scorer gives the next pitcher who pitched effectively the win would be in line for the win. In this scenario, Jameson Taillon could only pitch four innings and pick up the win because he was the next pitcher. The notion that Hurdle leaves a struggling starter out there to grind through five innings just so they can be in line for the win (at the team’s expense) would go away with the opener starting the game.
Change is tough to do with baseball set in their traditional roles, but the Pirates have been on the forefront of other trends seen around baseball. The Bucs willingness to add hundreds of defensive shifts in 2013 played a crucial part in preventing runs and led to their first winning season in 21 years and a postseason appearance. I think any small market team with limited financial resources should be open to trying new strategies to gain an advantage, no matter how crazy it may seem. The Pirates have definitely been willing to try outside the box thinking in recent years, and I think they’d be smart to do so here. It doesn’t even need to be every day, maybe this is a strategy best used two or three times a week possibly with just the back end of the rotation.
This might not be a strategy that works for every team nor should every team attempt it, but with how the Pirates pitching staff is currently constructed, it makes sense for them to do it. Actually, having five starters and four or five lefties in the bullpen may be the most optimal situation to pull the trigger on this strategy. It may just be in the Pirates best interest to give the “opener” a shot.