Yesterday, the Rays employed their opener strategy, the same one they had used to much success last season. If you’re still unclear what it’s all about, it’s basically a “bullpen game” but with a twist.
Analysis of historical baseball data has confirmed that pitchers are most vulnerable the third time through the lineup, so to ameliorate that issue, the Rays have figured out that if they start a reliever for the first inning or two, they can then go to what would be their “real starter” to pitch twice through the lineup, and then the later innings could be managed in a style to which we’ve all grown accustomed.
Optimally, the opener isn’t the best reliever, but someone with top reliever stuff — yesterday’s opener Ryne Stanek averages 97-98 mph with his fastball — and the efficiency to boot. He might also have had some success against the top of the opposing lineup. This was a key point when Sergio Romo opened last year for the Rays against the Angels:
The top of the Angels’ lineup features Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, and Justin Upton. That trio has a combined 260 plate appearances against the Rays and a .969 OPS coming into tonight’s game (Mike Trout has 11 career home runs against them to boot). Upton is 1-for-17 in his career against Romo and Cozart 0-for-4. Mike Trout is Mike Trout [he’s now 1-for-4 with three strikeouts against Romo]. The Rays’ experiment was to see if Sergio Romo could work through this part of the order to essentially prevent the Angels from jumping out to a lead and the game getting out of hand.
The Rays have done this out of a combination of necessity (injuries) and cost efficiency (relievers are fungible and cost less than a starter), but the strategy has been successful, and all success gets copied. The Giants don’t figure to hold on to all their starting pitchers through the season and it’s very possible the younger starters won’t be ready to assume any open spots when or if the time comes, so who would be your choice for opener if the Giants have to go in that direction this year?
Think about it... the Giants face the Dodgers. It’s Clayton Kershaw versus... well, ordinarily, in a short-handed situation, it’d probably be Ty Blach, but let’s say that Zaidi and the rest of the front office guys have really been itching to use an opener. Ty Blach has a 1.88 ERA in 57.1 IP against the Dodgers, there’s already a history of flummoxing them, sure, but he’s also, historically, been very bad the second and third times through a batting order (.881 OPS and .821 OPS, respectively). That doesn’t suddenly go away just because it’s the Dodgers, but let’s say that Blach is intended to be the 3-4 innings guy anyway, the one who comes after the opener. Of the current relievers, who’s your choice against the Dodgers’ lineup?
Well, first, here’s their typical lineup against right-handed pitching:
LF Joc Pederson
SS Cory Seager
3B Justin Turner
1B Cody Bellinger
CF AJ Pollock
2B Max Muncy
RF Alex Verdugo
C Austin Barnes
Now, before you go jumping in to say that a left-handed pitcher should start the game, consider that the Giants’ best relievers are lefties, and like I said above, you still need your closer and setup guy when using the opener strategy.
Travis Bergen might be an exception here, considering he’s supposed to be good against both lefties and righties, but consider that he’s yet to throw more than one inning in his brief career. That multi-inning capability is a key component. That leaves only a few options of the current bunch:
Gott gave up a run on three hits, walked two, but also struck out two in his season debut with the Giants last week in San Diego. He also pitched 1.2 innings. Last season with the Nationals, he had three appearances of more than an inning — two 2-inning appearances and one that lasted 1.2 innings. Only his first 2-inning relief appearance was scoreless.
Against that typical Dodgers lineup: 2-for-14, 2 K, BB, HBP, 2 RBI (both sac flies).
Oddly enough, it’s two righties in the lineup (Turner and Pollock) who have the hits. He has also never faced rookie Alex Verdugo before, either.
Gott works quickly and averages 94 with his fastball.
He pitched 1.2 innings in his second appearance of 2019 — last Sunday’s finale in San Diego — and allowed an unearned run on 14 pitches. To me, he’s the best opener candidate. He’s not elite, but he pitches effectively.
Last year, he thrice pitched 2 innings and three more of 1+ innings. and in 2017, he pitched more than one inning eight times (four of those were 2 inning appearances). In these types of appearances, he averages around 24 pitches. That’s his magic trick — a sinker that ends plate appearances very quickly. Moving him to the opener could provide a lot of bang for the buck.
A baserunner could really screw up the plan, though, as his painfully slow pitch pace could lead to a walk or single becoming a stolen base, which could lead to a single bringing the Dodgers a run. And when Dyson isn’t on, he’s really bad. Moving a late-inning reliever to the first inning could be enough of a preparation disruption to cause just that kind of appearance.
Against these Dodgers: 10-for-25, 5 K, 2 BB, 1 GIDP, 3 doubles
He hasn’t faced Alex Verdugo either. Justin Turner and A.J. Pollock have three hits apiece against Dyson. Hmm... maybe he’s not the best option.
He has a handful of 2-inning relief appearances for his career, but a lot more of the 1.1 innings variety. He might not be a solid candidate because of “length”. He still looks like a better candidate than Gott on the basis of a career walk rate of 2.2 per 9 innings coupled with 8.9 strikeouts per 9 (Gott’s rates are 3.9 and 6.2, respectively).
Against the Dodgers: 4-for-14, 1 K, 3 BB, 2 doubles (both to Joc Pederson).
Who’s your choice for an opener in 2019?
This poll is closed