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Why The “Opener” Strategy Is Not Actually A Good Idea

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Before delving into the topic at hand I want to make a few things pre-emptively clear. I think highly of the front office and every day I am grateful that they, not I, make front office-y decisions for the Oakland A’s. I also fully recognize that not only do these folks have access to a ton of proprietary information, they cull their information carefully and make decisions based on careful and thoughtful analysis.

They are also the same people who, while making a truckload of excellent calls, intentionally hired Bob Geren and retained him for 5.5 years, thought through the Josh Donaldson trade and judged it to be a good move, and so on. In other words, great and competent people who make lots of great and competent decisions can, at times, miss. I’m not judging people here, just specific a line of thinking.

And I fully understand the reasoning behind using an “opener” followed by an “artist formerly known as the starting pitcher,” hoping to squeeze 2.5 times through the order from the “SP” without asking him to face the best hitters three times.

I should also note that the A’s aren’t in fact even doing this. Last night Daniel Mengden faced 16 hitters, which is less than twice through the order no matter whether you begin with the leadoff hitter or, as it happened last night, the #4 hitter. Chris Bassitt’s outing lasted 3+ IP, facing 12 batters.

In any event, let me explain precisely why I do not believe the “opener” strategy to have been a good call despite the fact that the A’s keep losing starting pitchers.

In the name of trying to line the “SP” up to face certain parts of the order certain numbers of times, you are limiting the SP’s outing over some general trend whereby pitchers often lose effectiveness as they turn the order over a third time. Trouble is, this is an aggregate statistic based on some times when SPs thrive for 6-8 IP going through the order 3-4 times but in other instances hit a wall and might implode. It’s not that a SP always struggles the third time through the order, it’s that he does more often than the first two times and when he does often it’s dramatic.

Just as an example, go through the order a third time for 5 different innings, work a scoreless frame 4 of those times, but cough up a 4-spot the other time, and your ERA for those innings will stand at an unsightly 7.20. Pitch a 3-up, 3 down inning three times but give up a run 2 other times, and it will stand at a disappointing 5.40.

What the “opener” strategy is losing is those good outings SPs have in them in the name of not risking a bad one. So instead of letting Daniel Mengden pitch and show what innings 5 or 6 might be made of, you set it up for him to be yanked after 3-4 IP. Then you rely on a number of relievers all to be better than your SP might have been and if one of them should have a really bad day? Oh well.

There is absolutely no certainty that on a given day, Mengden, or Frankie Montas, or Chris Bassitt, or Brett Anderson can’t give you 6-7 solid innings running through the heart of the order more than twice. In 4 of his last 5 starts in 2017, Mengden pitched between 6-9 IP allowing 2 ER or fewer. In Houston, Montas shone with 6 shutout innings, finishing as strong as he started, and 5 times he has gone 6 IP or more allowing 2 ER or fewer.

The certainty comes when you line up your pitchers so that you will pull them at some arbitrary point where they become statistically more likely to begin failing. Even though they have not failed that day, and that day may not be a day this stat surfaces as relevant. Certainty also comes when you guarantee innings to guys who are not your plus pitchers — we’ll call these guys “Liam Hendriks” — because you don’t want to see if you might not need to go that far down on your depth chart in order to produce 9 quality innings of pitching.

So what should the A’s be doing, knowing that the third time through the order is riskier than the first two? They should be cobbling together the best rotation they can, which at any point recently would have meant Fiers, Jackson, Mengden, and 2 of Cahill, Anderson, Bassitt, Montas, putting the SP on a short leash as they went through the order a third time. This usually means around the 5th inning.

Two relievers, Shawn Kelley and Ryan Buchter, serve as your primary “janitors” whose job is to finish an inning the SP begins at this stage of the game and gets into trouble. So while sometimes Mengden might go 7 IP strong, at other times he will last 4.1 IP and be pulled for Kelley to face a couple RH batters, or Buchter a couple LH batters, to get out of that jam.

Once you’re through 5 IP and in a strong position to win, you’re gold because the A’s have the guys ready to take it to the finish line. One day it might be Rodney 1 IP, Familia for 1.2 IP, Treinen for 1.1 IP, and the next day it might be Petit 2 IP, Trivino 1 IP, Treinen 1 IP. These guys don’t have to work every day precisely because some days the SP will last 6-7 IP (and because other days you will not be in position to win, which is why you have your other relievers).

Keep in mind that the difference between a pitcher going through the order 3 times, and carefully designing it so they face the bottom of the order 3 times but the top only twice, is a difference of all of 4 batters faced. The upside of the traditional model is that it allows you to recognize when a SP is “on his game” and to continue deeper into the game on any given day. You can always pull him.

Now you might point out that all this is still possible with an “opener” throwing the 1st inning and the “SP” going up to the next 8 IP, and you’re right. But the mindset, the basic blueprint, of the “opener” is to protect the SP from the horror of maybe throwing 7 great innings. “No, no we must yank him after 2.5 turns through the order the way we’ve carefully manipulated the matchups just for that purpose.” If that isn’t your mindset, just let the SP start the game and react to what happens as he hits the order a third time. “Routine” and “comfort” are not the be all and end all, but they are a real thing and if I’m going to interfere with it I need to have a more compelling reason than some self-imposed barrier based on general statistics that may have no application to today’s particular game.

Do you know how many times, throughout baseball history, a starting pitcher has gone through the order a third time successfully? A lot. They also often don’t, so be ready for either occurrence. But don’t turn potential 6 IP efforts into 3-4 IP efforts because you’re afraid to see your SP face a good hitter for the third time. Make that assessment in real time as it happens and try to get your SPs through at least 6 IP as often as it’s prudent to do so.

All season the A’s have been losing starting pitchers and winning anyway, cobbling together more and more absurd rotations and winning anyway, lately winning at about a .700 clip and for the season at a .600 clip. Oh and then there have some games recently where they’ve been doing the “opener” thing, each one with a different story line as to how it unfolded. The A’s are 2-4 in those games. Yes you can’t always keep doing the same thing and hope it’s sustainable. And sometimes when it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.