Should Cardinals consider the “Opener”

The Tampa Bay Rays currently sit two games ahead of the Yankees in the AL East standings. Since 2018 they have been effectively deploying the “opener” strategy. The opener works by rearranging how pitchers are deployed: a middle reliever starts (or “opens”) the game, with the usual starter slotting in thereafter. The idea is to match up with the opposing teams first few hitters in order to take advantage of matchups and protect weaker starting pitchers that can be over exposed if they are forced to go through a line up more than three times. 

The Cardinals entered the 2019 season believing their starting pitching depth was going to be the catalyst for the season.  Injuries, inconsistencies and youth has changed the outlook of the season, forcing the Cardinals to use the bullpen at an extremely high rate, currently the Cardinals bullpen has pitched 46% of the innings for the staff. While this is not ideal the bullpen has shown that it can be reliable.  Multiple players have stepped up including John Gant, John Brebbia Giovanny Gallegos and the recently sent down Ryan Helsley.  Eventually they will welcome the return Carlos Martinez.  While you don’t want to mess the one-two punch of Brebbia to Jordan Hicks there are multiple statistical reasons behind the idea of utilizing the opener.

Major League Baseball has seen an increase in scoring in the first inning.  While most starters are getting prepared they tend to leave pitches in bad places resulting in a wRC+ of 110, by far this is the highest of any inning in 2018, the next highest inning being the 6th inning where traditionally the starting pitchers is facing the lineup for the 3rd or 4th time of the game. In fact, baseball in general has had a problem with the middle innings based on this 2018 wRC+ by inning chart. The Cardinals do not differ from the rest of the league.

If you dive deeper into the St. Louis starting staff, you can see that many have issues as the game goes on below are the statistics of starters going through the lineup for the 3rd time during the 2019 season.  Outside of Jack Flaherty and Michael Wacha each pitchers ERA inflates by over a run. Wacha in small sample size for 2019 actually hasn’t given up a single run in four innings when facing a lineup for the 3rd time, his struggles come entering in the second time through the lineup with a 7.71 ERA. His xFIP the 3rd time was actually the highest of any other time frames.

ERA third time through the order:

Wainwright: 7.36 ERA (6.00 ERA in 2018)

Flaherty: 3.60 ERA (7.71 ERA in 2018)

Mikolas: 8.20 ERA (4.25 ERA in 2018)

Hudson: 3.26 ERA

Wacha: 0.00 ER (xFIP 4.56)

The Cardinals rank 20th in the MLB giving up .44 first inning runs per game.  If they transition into the opener role for a guy like Adam Wainwright or Dakota Hudson they can avoid a potential rough start and allow your starter one less at bat through the heart of a potentially tough lineup. St. Louis has already made a move to a 13-man bullpen with the addition of Luke Gregorson and the demotion of Tyler O’Neil. This setup is very similar to an American League team.  Having that extra man in the bullpen can open up the options for Manager Mike Shildt.

The next step would be deciding who would take the role of the opener.  Options for me would be Giovanny Gallegos or recalling Ryan Helsley.  Gallegos has the ability to work multiple innings if the matchup calls for it, holding lefties to a slash line of .111/.238/.278. Helsey is a plus arm that has been justifiably considered for a future spot in the back end of the bullpen.  Starting off the game with a100mph fastball is never an easy thing for an opposing lineup to face.  Both of these pitchers are guys you would look for a shutdown middle inning role, why not have them start out the game and allow the Cardinal offense to try and jump on the opposing starting pitcher.

With the depth of Cardinals pitching staff they can utilize multiple players in better leverage roles, they can also look to limit innings for younger starters that will undoubtable be forced into inning restrictions. 

  1. To limit the innings of your young starters.  Dakota Hudson and eventually Alex Reyes.
  2. To get the most out of veteran and injury prone pitchers Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.
  3. To not expose starters that have statistically shown an inability to handle lineups multiple times through.

Does this really work?  There is a small sample size to base the effectiveness of the opener. The most compelling evidence that has been presented in favor of the opener strategy is Rays pitchers’ performances relative to Baseball Prospectus’ projections. Almost all exceeded expectations. Among them: Ryne Stanek (actual ERA of 2.98 vs. projected ERA of 3.79), Diego Castillo (3.18 vs. 4.90), Hunter Wood (3.73 vs. 4.64), Ryan Yarbrough (3.91 vs. 4.56), Yonny Chirinos (3.51 vs. 4.43) and Vidal Nuno (1.64 vs. 4.86). The pitchers who didn’t: Sergio Romo, Matt Andriese, Jalen Beeks, Austin Pruitt and Ryan Weber. This might not be definitive proof that the opener strategy worked, but the results are persuasive.

The pitcher’s stats are a great way of judging the effectiveness, but their performance of the field has seemed to be the greatest factor in whether or not the opener works.  There may be other factors to the way the Rays have played over the last few months begin last season, but the facts are that they have been winning. 

Who do you use the “opener” for would be the biggest question.  The Rays still featured premier starters Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton and of course the great Blake Snell.  The Cardinals feature Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas but after that it can be a mystery at times with which starter is going to give you the best outing. Both Wainwright and Dakota Hudson seem like likely candidates for an opener role due to the fact they have both within the last two years spent time coming out of the bullpen and it could be an easy transition to warmup later and make your way into the game.  The facts of the matter are you have great pitching that is still developing itself and veterans that have a history of wearing down.  The opener may not be the ultimate answer but with the depth of arms you have it very well could be an option to consider until Alex Reyes, Austin Gomber or Dakota Hudson are ready to make the next step into rotation mainstays.

Thanks for reading would love to hear your opinions @italksportsti.

Wainwright or Flaherty? The Debate

Adam Wainwright has been the backbone of the St. Louis Cardinals rotation since he became a full time starter in 2007.  146 wins over his career has earned him the respect of players and fans alike, but as he steps on the mound Thursday for the Cardinals home opener the fan base has been split on whether this is the right decision.

Jack Flaherty has been a top prospect in the Cardinals system for the last few seasons.  Reaching as high as #38 on MLB.com’s prospect rankings.  The former first round pick carried his spring training momentum into the regular season striking out 9 over 5 innings against the vaunted Milwaukee Brewers lineup.  Flaherty had the misfortune of being the odd man out of the rotation with the return of Wainwright.  The question for Flaherty is, What happens next?

Flaherty will continue to make starts in Memphis.  While he has nothing more to prove in the minors sending Flaherty down was the only choice to the Cardinals.  Wainwright may one day be an option for the bullpen but as of now you have to see if he still has anything left in the tank. If he does have the ability to get outs it can be a huge asset to a playoff run with his veteran presence on the mound.  No one will debate that Flaherty was great in Milwaukee, but has not yet earned the confidence to say that he is the answer in the rotation.  2017’s 6+ ERA may be a thing of the past but it still lingers in the mind of Cardinals management.

The reason the move has caused such a backlash from Cardinals Nation is really due to Cardinals management giving mixed signals to its fanbase.  During the offseason John Mozeliak made it clear that the Cardinals were set with their young arms.  They planned to move forward with the young arms rather then spend money on a veteran like Jason Vargas or bringing back long time Cardinal Lance Lynn.  After making such a bold statement in the offseason they seem to contradict themselves by sending down the young arm before you are sure your veteran is ready to go.

The St. Louis fanbase lives for their Cardinals.  They are allowed to question the decisions by management.  But when you look at this situation, this was the only move that made sense.  Adam Wainwright is not going to the bullpen, Jack Flaherty makes no sense moving to the bullpen.  By sending Flaherty down now it also allows him to continue his regular rotation spot.  Flaherty has to stay positive – especially with the injury histories of Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright – the uncertainty of Luke Weaver and Miles Mikolas there will be a spot for the young hurler to make an impact in the 2018 season.

Jack Flaherty is going to be a good, possibly great starting pitcher on the major league level but he has to be patient and mature during this process.  Go talk to Carson Kelly about how to handle this situation.  Don’t ask Pham.