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SuperNova Dims, The Opener With Lyles & Kingham Rises

Jordan Lyles and Nick Kingham could team up to be an unorthodox 5th starter

On Tuesday, the Pirates traded Ivan Nova to the Chicago White Sox for 19-year old pitcher Yordi Rosario and $500K of international bonus pool money. He’s a fringe prospect at best (35 FV by Fangraphs), so this is probably the last time you’re going to hear (or remember) his name. The trade was to move Nova’s $9.1M to give some financial flexibility, every Pirate fan’s favorite term, for the team in the offseason.

Neal Huntington immediately placed a bet in Vegas on Jordan Lyles for 1 year/$2M. Lyles is only 28, but he’s been around forrrrevvvver, at least to me. The former 1st round pick of the Astros in 2008 has 768 innings under his belt as a back-end starter and swingman. Lyles re-invented himself to a degree with the Padres last season, as he recorded his highest swinging strike rate of his career at 10.3%. Lyles de-emphasized his fastball and slider in 2018, throwing more curves and changes.

He got waived and picked up by the Brewers in early August. Lyles did well for the Brew Crew, but not good enough to warrant picking up his $3.5M option for 2019.

In discussing Lyles, Neal Huntington has said that he’s a candidate for the rotation. Considering that Taillon-Williams-Archer-Musgrove are all near locks, that means Lyles is the 5th starter. Right ? Well…

Hell, yeah. Let’s go full Rays!

Lyles might be the 5th starter, but it was never specified how long in the game he would be starting. As young grasshopper Alex Stumpf so adroitly pointed out last summer, Nick Kingham is not very good at the beginning of games. His full-season stats bear out that the 1st inning was not kind to the now out-of-options Kingham.

In 15 games where he pitched the 1st inning (i.e. starts), Kingham’s ERA was 8.40. The batting line against him in the 1st was .333/.454/.565 (999 OPS). In essence, every batter that faced Kingham in the 1st inning was hitting the equivalent of Mookie Betts did for the full season.

But in the 2nd and 3rd innings, Kingham’s ERAs were cut in half to 4.05 and 4.15, respectively. His batting lines against were .204/.291/.429 (719 OPS) in the 2nd and .250/.339/.521 (860 OPS) in the 3rd. Those aren’t enough to alert the Cy Young voters, but it’s respectable enough for a 5th starter.

In contrast, Lyles was very good in the first three innings last year. His ERAs were 2.25/2.08/4.00 in albeit very small samples of 8 innings each. Likewise his batting lines against in innings 1-3 resulted in OPS figures of 788, 520, and 736.

So what if the Pirates go with the tandem look of Lyles-Kingham on the 5th day ? Lyles goes 2 or 3 innings, Kingham comes in for 2 or 3 innings, and then the bullpen has to vacuum up 3 or 4 innings. Not ideal, but if the Pirates are more open to skipping the 5th spot here and there it could be even more manageable.

Some other Pirate sites will lead you to believe that Ivan Nova was terrible and this move was addition by subtraction. I disrespectfully disagree. Nova was slated to be a much better than average 5th starter. His $9.1M salary made him Pirate-expensive for that role. In an offseason where it appears the Pirates have to sell to raise monies to spend, it was either going to be Nova or Francisco Cervelli’s salary on the block. I’m glad they kept Cervelli (for now) as I’m not enamored of the depth behind Diaz at this point.

The Pirates may be going experimental with the opener concept, but the Rays put it to excellent use last year. To win a baseball game, you need to get 27 outs. It doesn’t matter how many pitchers it takes to get there.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

10 Comments on SuperNova Dims, The Opener With Lyles & Kingham Rises

  1. I suppose it’s possible that Kingham and Lyles can be piggy-backed to create a reasonable fifth starter, though there isn’t much in Lyles’ body of work to suggest that he’s going to be successful. What nags at me in re the Nova trade is that I really can’t figure out what the ballclub is thinking. On the surface, the deal looks like a classic salary dump, which is not what you’re hoping for when a team looks to contend. Obviously, there is a whole lot of offseason to go, and looking at any deal in a vacuum is not particularly instructive. That said, looking at a team’s transactions and not being able to have much of an idea what the club’s direction is…that’s Mets and Orioles territory, and that ain’t company you want to keep.

    • Kevin Creagh // December 13, 2018 at 2:18 PM //

      The word on the street is that payroll was set at mid-70’s for the 2019 season, which is unreal if true. Again, Huntington is working with 1 hand tied behind his back.

      • If such were true (and I would concur that “unreal” is the correct adjective), what in God’s name would be the rationale for the Archer and Kela deals? A payroll of $75 mil is essentially a tank job, and if you’re going to tear down, do it right, for chrissakes.

        • Kevin Creagh // December 13, 2018 at 3:17 PM //

          At the time of the deals in July, they were still in the playoff hunt. Also thought that Archer/Kela being under control for multiple years would allow them opportunities to lurk at the periphery of the race. The full extent of their attendance issues as it related to 2019 budget were probably not crystallized yet, too.

  2. Adam Yarkovsky // December 13, 2018 at 12:01 PM //

    Obvious the main intention was to live the salary attached to Nova. With an eye to improve his roster spot with a cheaper addition or with aggregate production through using the opener. Clearing him from the 25 man also opens doors for guys like Kingham to stick with the club and not blocking the imminent call up of Keller.

  3. I am still far from sold on this “opener” business. Yes, it seemed to work well for the Rays; however, that is a sample size of 1. There are lots of reasons the Rays could have been better than expected last year.

    I simply cannot get past the idea that it’s silly to concede using so many pitchers in a game, each with a predetermined job and use. Continually hoping that 3, 4, 5, or more pitchers will be “on their game” for a given day just doesn’t make much sense.

    You can argue that if 3 pitchers put up zeros, 1 pitcher gave up 3 runs, and 1 pitcher gave up 1 run, that 4 runs is average and keeps the team in the game. But then why not just let 1 or 2 guys with 4.00 ERAs do it? At the very least, this bullpenning puts a lot of unnecessary strain on the relievers. I would not be surprised if rates of reliever injury start to increase as more teams employ this strategy. I know teams flirt with 8-man bullpens, but then that just handicaps offensive strategy, particularly in the NL.

    In the case of Kingham/Lyles, I’m definitely open to trying it for 1/5 or less of games. It will be an interesting experiment for sure. I don’t consider myself an “old school” or “purist” baseball fan, either. In fact, there are strategies that make sense that have never been tried that I’d fully support. I’m just not sure Bullpenning is one of them.

    • Kevin Creagh // December 13, 2018 at 2:19 PM //

      Most of it is rooted in the very real Times Through Order concept that the more looks a hitter gets at a pitcher, the less effective the pitcher becomes. The element of surprise, if you will.

      • My thoughts with regards to your comment are threefold:

        1) Later-inning statistics don’t necessarily indicate a hitter “figuring out” the pitcher. Most hitters see most pitchers multiple times a year. Most hitters also spend hours a week watching videos and studying the pitchers they are going to face. If later-inning struggles were indicative of hitters getting wise, then it would carry over into future games, would it not?

        My theory is stamina. Plain and simple stamina. By the time a pitcher rolls around to the third time through an order, more balls are left up in the zone; breaking pitches break a little less; disparity between the fastball and change-up narrows.

        2) I recognize that even if my theory (stamina) is correct and the other (Times Through Order) isn’t, that does not affect the arguments in favor of bullpenning. However, it does change how we approach a solution, generally. If the problem is pitchers getting tired, then the solution is to increase the effectiveness of the pitching side of the game. If the problem is hitters getting smarter, then the solution is to find ways to fool or throw off the hitters.

        In the end, the actual solution COULD be the same for both problems; however, the solutions could also be vastly different. For example, more focus on conditioning, cardio, strength, etc., for pitchers vs. using more pitchers.

        3) Lastly, whether bullpenning is used more or not, it still makes sense that you’d want a pitcher to pitch effectively for as long as possible. Conceding predetermined pitching schedules is simply not wise. Anything can happen in baseball.

        What if the guy you plan on pitching 3-4 innings gives up 5 runs in the first inning or two. If a pitcher stinks that day, you still need to remove him from the game. The bullpen is now even more taxed then it would have been otherwise. String together a few bad games and you either need to wear out and risk injury to your relievers or shuffle the roster to bring in fresh AAA arms.

        Now, I’m a young guy who doesn’t exactly have tons of life experience or a superior understanding of the game of baseball. But bullpenning seems to be a bit of overthinking by people who don’t have much experience with combining strategy and baseball. The game was relatively stagnant for a long time and convention ruled everything. Bullpenning just seems like an overcompensation.

        Then again… I could still be very wrong about this. HAHA

        • Kevin Creagh // December 13, 2018 at 6:39 PM //

          Let’s say the Pirates planned to have Lyles go 3 and Kingham go 3, but Lyles soils himself in the first inning. Kingham could go 3 or 4 or even 5 at that point. Or Kingham goes 3 and a long reliever type (Brault, possibly) eats a couple innings.

          • For sure, that’s what would need to happen. My greater point is that you are then still banking on at least 3 (ie, when they bring in multiple pitchers for match-ups) other pitchers having a good game. My mindset is that this means Kingham should go as long as he can optimally hold up. If that’s 3, then whatever. If it’s 8, perfect! If it’s 1, then hopefully the next guy can give you as close to 7 as possible.

            And what if this same situation happens the next night? Now the entire bullpen is wearing down.

            I hope it doesn’t sound like I am trying to argue with you. Just questioning the premises that I’ve never really heard questioned. I’m probably a little more open to the idea than it seems. They are just concerns I would have if I were a manager, gm, owner, or player.

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