Recent Posts

Which Pirates Pitchers Could Use Openers?

Joe Musgrove has struggled in the first inning the last two seasons. It may be time to have his starts begin in the second inning. Photo by the AP.

First, the Pirates took Corey Dickerson away from the Rays. Then they took Chris Archer. Now, it looks like the Pirates may be taking one of Tampa ?s strategies: the opener.

It ?s an idea worth exploring. Last year, the Pirates allowed 95 first inning runs, which was the third most in the National League. The first inning was tied with the sixth for the most dangerous for Pirates pitchers, averaging 5.31 runs allowed per nine innings pitched.

Courtesy of FanGraphs. Click to enlarge.

I wrote about how Nick Kingham could probably use an opener back in July. He was a slow starter, allowing 19 of his 50 runs surrendered in the first inning. Meanwhile, he still finished with a 4.43 ERA and 4.27 xFIP in every other inning. Considering he was jerked around through the majors and minors and starter and reliever roles, that ?s not terrible for a rookie. With a little growth, more consistent playing time and an opener, he could still be a decent back of the rotation arm in 2019.

If Kingham does win the fifth starter job out of spring training, it ?s a safe guess he ?s their opener guinea pig. But why stop there? Not every starter needs an opener, but even good pitchers can struggle in the first inning. Of the four pitchers with guaranteed jobs for next year, who else could use a hand?

Jameson Taillon

Season: 69 runs allowed over 191 IP (3.25 R/9), 3.46 FIP, 179 K (8.4 K/9), 46 BB (2.2 BB/9), .294 wOBA

1st inning: 12 runs allowed over 32 IP (3.38 R/9), 3.85 FIP, 32 K (9 K/9), 7 BB (2 BB/9), .285 wOBA

When I began researching this post, I suspected Taillon was not going to need an opener. He doesn ?t. Nothing here screams ?do not let this guy set the pace! ?

Honestly, there ?s not much to write here. That’s a rarity for Taillon posts. Perhaps one can make the case his 3.85 first inning FIP may be a tad high for the guy who is supposed to be the ace, but that is a stretch. Besides that, Taillon enjoyed the same success he had last year in the first inning as well. It ?s not worth risking rocking the boat.

Chris Archer

Season: 77 runs allowed over 148.1 IP (4.67 RA/9), 3.75 FIP, 162 K (9.8 K/9), 49 BB (3 BB/9), .330 wOBA

1st Inning: 7 runs allowed over 27 IP (2.33 RA/9), 3.31 FIP, 31 K (10.3 K/9), 7 BB (2.3 BB/9), .266 wOBA

2018 was a tough year for Archer. He started slow in April (I theorized on Bucs Dugout that a dip in his release point and a change in his placement on the rubber may have been the chief causes) and then missed almost all of June with an abdominal strain. His start in Pittsburgh wasn ?t so hot either, and to top it off, he went under the knife to take care of a hernia on Nov. 27. For a guy who was an All-Star in 2017 and the quintessential healthy workhorse over the past couple of seasons, he was in uncharted territory for most of the year.

One of the few constants Archer had in 2018 was his first inning performance. Including his time as a Ray, he was better in the opening frame than every other starter on the team by a good margin. That ?s a bit unexpected considering he struggled out of the gate in 2016 and 2017, allowing 45 runs- all earned- in 66 IP (6.14 ERA). That was in the bottom 15% among pitchers who logged at least 25 first inning IP those two years.

There ?s another problem surrounding Archer: he is losing his edge against lefties. His strikeout rate against them dropped (29.7% in 2017 to 23.4% last season), and southpaws started hitting him harder. Again, this could just be a product of being injured and changing teams, but 2018 is hardly an outlier. Lefties had been catching up to him the last couple of seasons.

Courtesy of Baseball-Reference. Click to enlarge.

The Pirates need Archer to have a big season if they hope to succeed. He survived the opener in Tampa, but if he can ?t change his luck against lefties, or if he regresses back to 2016 and 2017, he may need someone else to start games for him against LHH lineups.

Trevor Williams

Season: 64 runs allowed over 170.2 IP (3.38 RA/9), 3.86 FIP, 126 K (6.6 K/9), 55 BB (2.9 BB/9), .287 wOBA

1st Inning: 15 runs allowed over 31 IP (4.35 R/9), 4.13 FIP, 21 K (6.1 K/9), 11 BB (3.2 BB/9), .288 wOBA

Williams is a bit of an interesting case. At first glance, his 2.90 first inning ERA looks healthy, but that doesn ?t take five unearned runs into consideration. Like Kingham, he allowed more runs in the first than any other inning last year.

Courtesy of FanGraphs. Click to enlarge.

But this may need an asterisk. 10 of those 15 runs allowed came in just two games, and he started 25 of his 31 outings with a first inning shutout (80.6%). We ?re working with small sample sizes, so an outlier or two can skew the data. His wOBA allowed is basically the same in the first inning as it was overall, as was his expected wOBA (.303 and .307, respectively). It hardly looks like batters had his number early on, even when teams were sending out their 1-3 hitters.

You can ?t erase those two performances, but Williams ? first inning tendencies seem like a microcosm of his 2018 campaign: there were extended stretches of brilliance with a couple of duds souring the season average. All an opener could hope to do is do what he did four times out of five last season: start the game with a zero. Right now, the potential reward doesn ?t seem worth the risk. That might change if those first inning runs he allowed are more equally distributed over his other outings.

Joe Musgrove

Season: 56 runs allowed over 115.1 IP (4.37 RA/9), 3.59 FIP, 100 K (7.8 K/9), 23 BB (1.8 BB/9), .295 wOBA

1st Inning: 10 runs allowed over 19 IP (4.74 RA/9), 3.74 FIP, 18 K (8.5 K/9), 5 BB (2.4 BB/9), .285 wOBA

Musgrove struggled in the first as an Astro, allowing 10 runs in 15 IP in 2017. The stats indicate he improved a bit in 2018, and his FIP and wOBA are basically in line with his season average. Additionally, he’s drawing softer contact. In his final year as an Astro, Musgrove allowed 26 batted balls off of a fastball. According to Baseball Savant, 13 of those balls had an exit velocity of 95+ MPH. This year, he allowed 40 batted balls, but only 12 had an exit velocity of at least 95 MPH (30%). That ?s a tick lower from the 35% hard hit rate against his fastball this season.

But Musgrove relies on his heater and has been a contact pitcher in Pittsburgh so far. Top of the lineup hitters love guys who will feed them heaters and strikes, especially when the pitcher is still getting loose and hasn ?t made any in game adjustments yet. Then again, this stereotyping rather than trusting the peripherals. The first inning has been a problem for him so far, but those struggles may be on the way to being fixed. If he still gives up too many early runs, his game would translate well coming out of the bullpen in the second.

Who ARE those openers?

So it ?s safe the say the Pirates may want to look into openers besides just the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Which relievers are good candidates for the job?

Richard Rodriguez was elite against left-handed hitters last year, holding them to a .152/.233/.207 slash line over 130 batters faced. If a team has multiple lefties near the top of the order (such as the Brewers, Cubs and Reds), he can get them out of the way early.

Kyle Crick is another candidate. He actually has experience starting games, and he was almost as hard on righties as Rodriguez was on southpaws (.152/.261/.214). Going by the same mindset, Jordan Lyles is a starter by trade. If he doesn ?t win the No. 5 job out of Bradenton, his elite two-seamer could pair well with Musgrove ?s moving fastballs.

Rodriguez and Crick may be ?seventh inning guys ? to some, but the outs they will get count just as much. The difference is the Pirates could control when they ?re used better this way and exploit splits that are in their favor. The opener is all about creating advantages other teams aren ?t brave enough to try. The Bucs don ?t have to dive in head first, but they should do more than just dip a toe.

Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.

10 Comments on Which Pirates Pitchers Could Use Openers?

  1. Potentially dumb question incoming:

    The Rays don’t have to send their pitchers to the plate, so for them, this is moot. But is there consideration w/ the Pirates lineup, as well? If you bring in Crick for an inning, then piggy back him w/ Kingham, for example. Then Kingham just slots into the 9th spot and we move on.

    But say you piggyback Lyles/Kingham. If Lyles goes 2-3 innings and his spot comes up in the line up, do you then PH for him? Do you double switch? I’m sure this could be resolved w/ “Depends on the circumstances,” but I’m not sure what the best course of action would be. I doubt you want to double switch your way through the game starting from the 3rd inning, but it does present potential advantages if you have a strong bat coming off the bench.

    • Not a dumb question at all–the opener is an interesting notion, and has its merits, but given the scenario you present plus issues around roster construction, it’s something that you can do with one spot in the rotation, maybe two if you have a pitcher who can really hit.

      • Maybe you even turn in your lineup with the pitcher in a higher spot (maybe 6?) with the idea that you are going to pinch hit for him. You could then use whatever type of bat is needed off the bench for the circumstance. (leftie, rightie, lead-off type, or power hitter.)

        • That’s an interesting idea, but I think the idea of burning a bench piece in the second or third inning is a serious downside.

          • Phillip C-137 // December 18, 2018 at 4:52 PM //

            If burning a RP as an “opener” is OK (because an out is an out and you need 27 of them), then isn’t burning a bench piece to get a run “whenever” basically the same?

            But if Baseball is entertainment, then isn’t the “opener” and an early burning of bench pieces going against the premise that you build drama throughout thus leading up to a climax? And isn’t that (an unsaid) part of the “too much shifting” argument going on?

  2. This questions is probably born out of ignorance, but if a pitcher struggles in (his) first inning, what difference coming in on the second or third inning will do. I think an opener will help those starters that have a tough time getting through a line up a third time, then in that case a normal bullpen used is needed.

  3. Phillip C-137 // December 18, 2018 at 4:41 PM //

    Alex, I love the article, the data you presented in making your case and particularly the graphs. But a couple of thoughts concerning Williams.

    Overall GS = 31, IP = 170.23, RA = 64
    Inning IP (RA/9 Per Inning) Act. RA
    1 31 4.35 15
    2 31 2.61 9
    3 30.1 4.15 14
    4 28 4.18 13
    5 26.2 3.04 9
    6 19 1.89 4
    7 4.2 0.00 0

    I’m just not sure the numbers are telling us what we think they are. For instance, TW averaged giving up less than 2 (1.90) ER per start or 2.06 RA per start. I’d say that was good since he averaged almost 5.2 IP per start. He also started 31 games, which gave the Pirates 2 guys with 30+ starts. (Or expanding it to 29 games to get Nova in, the Pirates had 3 guys when there were only total 63 guys who started 29 = slightly over 2 per team.)

    I didn’t check all of the math, but this one in the Musgrove section did jump out at me.

    “This year, he allowed 40 batted balls, but only 12 had an exit velocity of at least 95 MPH (40%).” Doesn’t 12 out of 40 = 30%? Or am I misreading what you meant the 40% to represent? And if the 30% is correct then that’s actually better than the 35% figure.

    And here’s a quick and dirty summary of the Pirates best Pitcher (ERA) by inning (min 5 innings).
    1. Williams 2.90
    2. Musgrove 1.42
    3. Taillon 2.32
    4. Archer/Kuhl 1.80
    5. RRodriguez 0.00
    6. Williams 1.89
    7. Brault 1.46
    8. Glasnow 1.46 (Rivero/Vazquez 2.35)
    9. Crick/Brault 0.00

    • Alan Posey // December 18, 2018 at 7:44 PM //

      For me, watching a poor hitting pitcher like Nova try to hit wasn ?t entertaining. I think the opener could add drama from start through finish. Plus you have a bench piece to burn because you carry an extra bench piece and one less pitcher. I figure at times the bullpen may get overworked during the course of a full year though and would require more replenishment help from AAA from time to time.

    • Alex Stumpf // December 18, 2018 at 8:53 PM //

      Holy cow, I whiffed on fairly basic math. Updated, and thank you!

Comments are closed.