Every few years, a new innovation breaks onto the scene in Major League Baseball, drastically changing the game as we know it. Luckily for us baseball fans, we are living in the most innovative generation of baseball yet. In the past six years alone, we have seen the rise of the shift and the fly-ball revolution completely change the game as we know, as teams and players alike search for competitive advantages (legal ones, at least). When the Astros began to excessively implement the shift in the early 2010s, teams ignored it for a while before it became commonplace. When J.D. Martinez and Daniel Murphy used launch angles to revitalize their careers, it did not particularly catch on…but now, it’s the hottest craze for struggling hitters (after all, J.D. Martinez began his launch-angle journey all the way back in 2014). Every baseball fan who has ever seen the movie Moneyball knows that innovation brings a massive temporary advantage to whichever team or player embraces it first.
With that said, congratulations to the Tampa Bay Rays for embracing the Opener!
Oh, yes. Those pesky Rays are at it again. This time, they are starting 35-year-old relief pitcher Sergio Romo on consecutive weekend games. This is arguably the greatest innovation of a decade that has already brought baseball the shift and launch angles, and it could not have been started by a team that needed it more. The Rays do not have a pitcher-hitter extraordinaire. They do not have a bulky payroll, either. What they do have, however, is a 10-year veteran relief pitcher with a 4.67 ERA, a 5.05 FIP, and a -0.2 fWAR, and a very intelligent, forward-thinking organization. By implementing an Opener, Kevin Cash is giving his team three massive advantages in this pair of games against the Los Angeles Angels.
Playing the Match-Ups
As previously mentioned, Sergio Romo is actually below replacement level this year for the Rays. Why, then, did Kevin Cash decide to make his Opener a guy who can hardly get outs the first time hitters face him? Well, it all comes down to the match-ups.
Angels One-Through-Three Hitters Entering Sunday, May 20, 2018
|Batter||2018 AVG/OBP/SLG||Career Versus Romo|
|Zack Cozart||.227/.298/.411||0-4 (.000 / .000 / .000)|
|Mike Trout||.296/.433/.636||1-3 (.333 / .333 / .333)|
|Justin Upton||.256/.318/.477||1-18 (.056 / .105 / .056)|
Yes, we are working with very small sample sizes in terms of Cozart and Trout’s career numbers against Sergio Romo, but one thing is clear: Justin Upton cannot hit him. Furthermore, there is a clear advantage in sending out a right-handed pitcher with a breaking-ball-heavy repertoire such as Romo against three right-handed sluggers in the first inning, especially when the real starter of the game is a rookie left-handed pitcher. By implementing a reliever who has a clear advantage against the one-through-three hitters in a lineup, the Rays reduced the probability of being punished by Trout and Upton in the opening frame.
The Third Time Through the Order
Beginning the game with a reliever has implications on the later innings as well as the opening of the game. In recent years, successful teams such as the Astros and Dodgers (hey, they were successful until now) have been well-known for pulling their pitchers quickly, especially in postseason action. Teams are shifting away from the need to have pitchers go five innings in order to secure a win. After all, team wins are more important than pitcher wins. As The Ringer wrote in March, starter usage is sharply declining, and the data backs it up.
Triple-Split by Time Through the Line-Up, 2015-2017
Ultimately, teams are playing the odds. More often than not, a reliever is more useful than a starting pitcher the third time through the order. This may not be true if you are taking out Justin Verlander for Tony Sipp, but it is definitely true if you are taking out Homer Bailey for Raisel Iglesias (sorry Reds fans; at least Bailey has the same number of no-hitters as Verlander).
By starting a reliever in the first inning, Kevin Cash is delaying the inevitable. He knew that Yarborough would reach the third time through the order (assuming Yarborough did not pitch poorly enough to warrant an early exit), but by having a reliever go early, that third time against the order comes later. The plan worked out perfectly in yesterday’s game: Romo struck out the side en route to a one-two-three first inning in Saturday’s game against the Angels, then exited in the second inning for Yarborough. From there, Yarborough never had to face Mike Trout or Justin Upton a third time, as the Angels were strategically batting Trout in the second spot of the lineup (which research suggests is the optimal spot to bat the team’s best hitter).
Sure, Mike Scioscia could adjust on the fly and bat Mike Trout cleanup today with Romo going again in the first inning, forcing the Rays true starter to face Trout a third time, but in doing so, Mike Trout will possibly receive fewer at-bats than the one-through-three hitters. By bringing a reliever out for the first inning, an entirely new dynamic is introduced to setting a line-up, and this dynamic is a headache for opposing managers.
First Inning Run Expectancy
The first inning is a particularly dangerous inning for pitchers. In fact, more runs are scored in the first inning than any other inning.
Runs Per Inning, 2017
|Inning||Runs and Percentage of Total Runs|
In 2017, nearly one hundred more runs were scored in the first inning than any other inning. Meanwhile, only the first and fourth innings accounted for over 12% of the runs scored in games. There are a few possible reasons for this. Of course, teams set their lineup so that their best hitters come to the plate in the first inning (and therefore again in the fourth inning), and many teams alternate speed and power in the top portion of their lineup to set their team up for stolen bases and for runners to score from second base on singles. More subjectively, some pitchers seem to have had issues easing into starts over the years. One pitcher notorious for his first-inning performance was Hall-of-Famer Tom Glavine, who had a career 4.77 ERA and 5.29 xFIP with an unusually poor 4.3 K/9 and 4.8 BB/9 in the first inning throughout his career, all much worse than his overall numbers.
Old-school (“the nerves of the first inning make it more difficult”) and new-school (“there is a higher run expectancy in the first inning”) thinkers alike agree that the first inning is a nervewracking place for starting pitchers. Furthermore, scoring first is absolutely invaluable in a game. While it does not guarantee a victory, the team that scores first in a game typically wins 64 to 67 percent of the time. By beginning the game with an Opener, managers like Kevin Cash give their team a greater chance to grab that early lead and enhance their chance of a win.
The Opener is the next big innovation in baseball. By implementing an Opener, managers can play match-ups to start a game, prevent their starters from facing a team’s three best hitters a third time (or force opposing managers to bat their stars later in the lineup), and reduce the odds of trouble in an already troublesome first inning. And hey, if the Opener enters the game, the next pitcher becomes the pitcher of record, thus starters will not have to go five innings to get wins (this, of course, only matters if you are still counting wins in 2018). It is only a matter of time before more teams begin to utilize their relievers as Openers in games. For the time being, however, the Tampa Bay Rays will reap the benefits of their innovation.
(Photo Credits: Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons.
Statistics Credits: Baseball Reference Play Index.)