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.