D-backs starters have had trouble in the first inning so far this season. As Nick Piecoro wrote at the beginning of the week, the team is aware of this, and they’ve tried changing up prep techniques, etc. If this is a real problem, it’s a perfect time to use one of the best baseball ideas I have ever come across, ever: Bryan Grosnick’s “opener” strategy that would have a reliever open games.
It is true that the D-backs have struggled to limit runs in the first inning. Maybe they’ve turned a corner, maybe using one of the techniques discussed in the Piecoro piece; since then, the team actually has kept the Rockies and Padres off the board in the first frame, having a lot of success overall as well. As it stands, opposing teams have scored .70 runs per first inning, the equivalent of 6.33 runs in a 9 inning game (compare to 4.75 overall runs per 9). That’s a real thing. But it’s not necessarily some kind of preparation mystery.
D-backs relief has been really good, with some bumpy rides in the 8th. But if starters have struggled in an inning, it’s not necessarily the first. The green line above is exactly 0.48 runs below the blue line, just to help visualize these differences in the context of the fact that the D-backs have been 0.48 runs/9 worse than league average in general. We’re only talking 27 games here, so there’s more noise than signal. But you get the idea, it’s not all about the first.
Except that it kind of is. Watch what happens when I compare last year’s NL rates to the AL ones:
This, too, is not rocket science. The AL points are more in line with what we’d expect; yes, lineups are built to take advantage of the first inning, but after that, the talent level of AL hitters is a little more consistent top to bottom than their NL counterparts. That’s due in no small part to the DH (and probably to money, as well). NL pitchers, on the other hand, almost never get the benefit of facing the opposing pitcher in the first inning — and when they do, it’s because damage has already been done. Sprinkle that face-the-pitcher advantage over the next few innings, and you probably explain a big part of what we’re looking at.
Add it all up, and you have a case that if anything, the first inning is more difficult for the average NL team than for the average AL team. If there’s something to the D-backs’ current struggles, that’s a partial explanation. It’s still possible that, generally speaking, D-backs starters and their limited or limited-success repertoires are better against the bottoms of NL lineups than we might expect, at least as compared to what they’ve done against the tops of lineups.
That’s where the “opener” comes in. I encourage you to read Grosnick’s whole introduction here. In broad strokes, it’s about using a particularly good reliever for first innings. One of the several benefits is that you could still select an “opener” (as you might have more than one) based on the opposing team’s expected lineup; maybe an Andrew Chafin if you’re most worried about a hitter like Adrian Gonzalez, etc. The day’s starter would simply start the second inning instead of the first. You go from there. And while one of the benefits of setup men is that you get a good read on whether to use them on a particular day based on the score toward the end of games, the reverse is also true — if you burn one of those guys in the first before knowing the game will end up close, you still retain a helpful option in, say, the sixth or seventh inning, of whether to lift the “starter” early, also because of the score. The advantage of making decisions based on the score is still there late in games.
In March, Grosnick wrote about which teams were best suited to see a benefit from using an “opener,” and he settled on the D-backs as the best candidate. The team’s performance thus far has only made him look smarter (if that’s possible!). He was right: the D-backs have had a very good bullpen, especially in contrast to the rotation. And Jeremy Hellickson‘s tricks aren’t working, and Josh Collmenter‘s seem to have a shelf life, and Rubby De La Rosa and his fastballs have either seen an easy first inning and a great outing, just like last night, or a rocky one and terrible outing. Chase Anderson is so reliant on his changeup for overall success that he’s an especially nice fit, as well; maybe you can use a change as an out pitch against the dregs of a lineup more frequently than you can deceive the game’s best.
It also just so happens that the D-backs — at least as much as other teams — have good relief fits. Do you want to get the talented Evan Marshall on track, without relying on him in high-leverage spots with inherited runners? Great. Brad Ziegler could do it, Chafin could do it, hell, you could have Addison Reed do it if you’d decided in advance that he was going to pitch that day because of extended time off (the first inning actually being a higher-leverage spot than the ninth in most games, although the ninth can get much more hairy). As Grosnick wrote, Oliver Perez is an excellent fit for this spot, and we’ve already been told that the team is hoping to avoid wear with Perez by having him pitch only one inning at a time. I think three other things have developed that make this “opener” option even more compelling for this particular team at this particular time. One is above: regardless of the cause (it doesn’t help that NL West teams seem to have particularly front-loaded lineups), the first inning has been a problem. We’ve seen it. But consider this, also:
2. Daniel Hudson. Daniel Hudson! I’m not sure there could ever be a better candidate for this “opener” role than Hudson, especially if the team isn’t going to actually use him as a multi-inning guy. He’s almost a reason to do this, all by himself. Here, we’ve got a team trying to ease a pitcher back after two Tommy John surgeries. Starting is too taxing too soon; okay. Relieving presents its own challenges. Hudson feels like he can pitch on back to back days, and the team would like to get him to that point where he can be treated as a regular reliever. But why? What is the value of getting Hudson to that point, if he is to return to the rotation anyway? As an opener, Hudson can know in advance when he’s pitching. If he wants, he can prepare just as he used to, when a starter. There’s no extra worry about trying to warm him up too fast. Hudson has also been really damned good, with another great inning last night, exactly the type of setup man that Grosnick was looking for as an opener. You want Hudson facing the top of the lineup, and here you could guarantee that without doing so at the potential cost of shortening your starter’s outing by lifting him early. Hudson as an opener is perfect. It’s the perfect baseball move based on an unusual set of constraints. Tell me I’m wrong.
3. We want some traction for the D-backs starters. If you’re wondering why the team is still treating Nick Ahmed as a starter, stop wondering. It’s worth it. In 2014, Trevor Cahill and others weren’t just not good; they crossed that threshold, the ERA equivalent of the Mendoza Line (or Ahmed line?) beyond which you just couldn’t justify letting them work it out during real games. The team made as many changes as it could. At some point, you’re just not developing. I do think Ahmed’s playing time — which carries with it the benefit of Chris Owings defense at second — is an indication that the D-backs are on board with this, even though signing Jarrod Saltalamacchia is in direct conflict (even for basically no money on a minor league deal, Salty is toxic for a pitching staff, but that’s another topic entirely). Artificial an advantage it may be, but chances are still really good that the D-backs starters actually would perform better if they had an opener. If Jeremy Hellickson were going good and likely to face part of the lineup a fourth time, wouldn’t you rather that part be the bottom? The team has plenty of good relievers that I’d rather see face the top of the order that one extra time.
Using an opener is not without drawbacks. It does mean there’s no chance of an official no-hitter or perfect game for the starter — that doesn’t strike me as any kind of reason to not be in a better position to win, but not everyone would agree, and I’m not going to pretend it wouldn’t matter to the pitchers in question. It does mean no chance of a complete game, which does matter — but if this works, it will probably mean more of the quicker outs for the starters, and I’d gladly take that trade. If a bullpen is so taxed that you’re going to try to hand the whole game to a starter come hell or high water, like with Josh Collmenter in San Francisco, well then you’re already saying that success isn’t the top priority — you skip the opener that day and hope for the best, just like you’d do otherwise.
Maybe the biggest drawback, however, is what it means to pinch hitting. The whole point is that the “starter” will go deeper into the game; that means you might start to get those guys hitting for themselves later in games. You’ll take away one pinch hit opportunity in the sixth, seventh or eighth at least occasionally. That’s a real loss. But you can do something about that: set yourself up to get that opportunity back at the beginning of the game.
When the lineup card is delivered to the umpire, it has a pitcher designated. That pitcher must pitch to at least one batter. So it’s not like you can have a lineup without a pitcher for away games; if you could, you’d put the previous night’s starting pitcher in at the 9th spot, lift him for a pinch hitter if he would have come to the plate, replace him with that day’s starter if you didn’t. But that rule makes getting this pinch hit advantage a little more complicated. In home games, you’d have to think seriously about slotting the opener into the top of the lineup. That’s less than ideal, because either you burn two position players, or the actual starter will also be in that batting slot for the main stretch of the game. Still, it has the benefit of working every single time; the opener is done pitching, and you can guarantee that his hitter replacement will actually bat before the real starter takes over. On the road, it’s harder. You’d want the opener’s spot in the order to rarely come up in the top of the first, but you’d also want to try to make sure that it would come up in the top of the second (the third is too late; the starter is in). Bat him seventh, maybe.
Grosnick’s idea also spawned a thread at Tom Tango’s blog, and there, MGL made another point:
There are some things that are NOT in the spirit of the game. Those things are usually things that are obviously an advantage and other teams can employ. If one team uses them, all other teams can do the same, nullifying the advantage. So there is a tacit understanding that no one will do them. That happens all the time in the business world. It is the reason why the gas station across the street from his competitor doesn’t lower his prices by one penny, right (in that case, they cut each other’s throat)?
I think there’s still a benefit of being first; if you knew the owner of the gas station across the street was the only one that could change that station’s gas prices, and if you knew he left at 5pm, you might get a whole evening/early morning in, reaping the benefits of having your gas be one penny cheaper. I don’t think MGL was saying anything different than that; one night is drop in the bucket (barrel?) if you’re a year-round business with no expiration date. You can’t keep doing it every day before it stops being worth it. In baseball, it’s always about the next thing you can be first on. But we can still take MGL’s point, and if Ken Kendrick cares about other owners’ frowns at owner meetings, that’s his prerogative.
That all falls away, however, if the main point we’re making today is that the D-backs are particularly well-positioned to take advantage of an “opener.” Hudson alone does that for me. I don’t really care to find out whether Jeremy Hellickson can reduce the 14.40 ERA he currently has in the first inning. The D-backs won’t always have an above-average rotation, and they don’t have one right now. They’ve got a great bullpen. I want to see those guys face the top of the order that one extra time anyway. But watch this:
|Lineup spots faced?||1-4||5-8||9-3||4-8||9-4||5-9||1-4||5-8||9-4|
No, it won’t always be that exactly 4 or 5 batters come to the plate in every inning. But the point is that by having a short reliever both before and after the starter, you can have those better relievers face the top of the lineup not just one additional time, which is currently the maximum, but two extra times. In this example, the top of the order bats five times and faces relievers three of those five times, even though the starter pitches five of nine innings. The starter still faces the bottom of the order three times — as in, three of the four times that the bottom of the order bats at all. Normally, you’ll see the starter pass the baton when the lineup is about to turn over, keeping things about equal — or you’ll see the starter yield to a reliever right after the top of the order is through. Always with the starter facing the top of the lineup more often, on a rate basis, than the relief crew — and never the other way around. For a team with good starters and iffy middle relievers, that’s a good thing.
For the Diamondbacks, at least right now, it’s not. The entire idea of an “opener” is a fantastic one — and if there’s any aspect of the above that you like, assume it’s straight from Grosnick’s writings somewhere or other. But just as he wrote in March, the D-backs this year shaped up as a particularly good candidate for that system. All I’m saying is that to me, the case is even more compelling now than it was then.
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