Greatly devoid of starting pitching depth, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash has drawn national attention for using a reliever to open some games. As USA Today‘s Ted Berg noted, the Rays are 21-19 in games in which they use an “opener.” The Rays over/under coming into the season was 77.5, a number they look likely to cruise past since they will enter their two-game set with the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday with a 70-61 record and 31 games left to play.
For a manager of a small-market team, Cash and the Rays brass have come up with a unique idea on how to attempt to overcome a lack of reliable starting pitching options. Sergio Romo, who once closed a World Series, has started five games in 2018. Ryne Stanek has started 21 games, posting a 2.53 ERA across 53. 1 innings. It’s a trend that we may see copied around the league in the coming years, perhaps even by teams with deep pockets.
For example, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak says that while the club is unlikely to utilize the strategy of using a relief pitcher to open a game in 2018, it’s something that has been bandied about internally.
“We’ve discussed a lot, which probably won’t surprise you,” Klentak told the collective media Monday, including Howard Eskin of SportsRadio 94 WIP. “There are some things going on around the league that we’ve considered, most notably in Tampa. We’ve talked about if something like that makes sense for our team. I think the simple conclusion is we have five starters right now that give us a really good chance to win every time they pitch and does it mean we would never consider an “opener” or something a little bit different? No, it doesn’t mean we would never consider that, but right now, with the guys we run out there every day, I don’t think we have to consider that.”
It is worth noting that the Rays top starter, All-Star Blake Snell, has started every game in the traditional first inning, rather than coming in the second time through the order in hopes of pitching six or seven innings. Prior to trading former All-Star Chris Archer, Cash had Archer make all 17 of his appearances as a traditional starting pitcher. So even if the Phillies experimented with this strategy at any point in the future, it’s unlikely to be something they would use with Aaron Nola. Frankly, it would seem to work against Nola, who has struggled in the first inning and seems to get stronger as he gets deeper into games.
However, this strategy could potentially help someone like Vince Velasquez, who has seen his ERA skyrocket to 6.23 his third time through the batting order. If Velasquez started in the second or third inning, he could still pitch relatively deep into the game without having to face the top-of-the-order a third time. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy, though, because Nick Pivetta and Zach Eflin have been better the third time through the lineup than the second. Some of that has to do with the fact that if you struggle the second time through the order you don’t get a third time through the order, but both have struggled when going through the order a second time, which isn’t a problem an “opener” could potentially help to limit.
It’s not entirely clear who on the 2018 Phillies would make a good opener. Bigger arms like Seranthony Dominguez and Luis Garcia are still arms the Phillies would like to presumably have at their disposal for innings seven through nine. But perhaps someone like Pat Neshek would make sense as an “opener.” Really, who opens a game would vary on what the opposing lineup would look like.
One potential downside to this strategy is that it’s possible that if an “opener” gives up four or five runs to begin the game, someone like Velasquez would come in during the second or third inning with the game possibly already out of reach. Of course, any starter – whether it’s a traditional one or an “opener” – could turn in a clunker on any given day, that’s baseball. The harder part may be getting veteran relievers, who are creatures of habit, to buy into coming into the game in an entirely different situation than they are accustomed to.
But it’s a copycat league, and teams are definitely likely to try their hand at a strategy that has been successful for the Rays. It will be interesting to see whether in the National League, the strategy’s level of success will be any different than in the American League. Presumably, relievers could be matched up even more specifically early in games against players unlikely to record a hit against them without the fear of the opposing team using a pinch-hitter so early in the game. On the flip side, that may also mean that your second pitcher (who would be a traditional starter) would likely face the opponent’s staring pitcher one less time.
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