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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.