On Sunday, August 12, 2018, there was a very good article written by Devan Fink over at Beyond the Box Score suggesting that the Colorado Rockies solve their season-long first inning woes by utilizing what Brian Kenny (of MLB Network) dubbed “The Opener.” The concept is about using a top notch relief pitcher for one inning to start the game, against the opponent’s best hitters, rather than later on when 1) you don’t know if they’ll even get to be utilized, and 2) whether or not they’ll get a chance to shut down the best of the best on the opposition. It’s sound in theory. The Tampa Bay Rays have executed it at times this season and had reasonable success with it.
This article will not be about how the Cardinals should use an “Opener,” but a related idea on how best to utilize the pitchers that they have to the best effectiveness.
In advance, I’d like to thank Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Brooks Baseball for their invaluable troves of information. Simply incredible the stuff you can find at those locations if you know what to look for. I’d also like to thank Nicholas Childress (@NChill17 on Twitter) for the incredibly cool collages of pitchers seen below. They kinda rock and stuff. :)
St. Louis Cardinals pitchers have held opponents to a .239/.322/.371/.693 line the first time through the order. The second time through the order, batters have hit just .224/.301/.335/.636 off of them! Where that all changes (which is typical league-wide) is the third time through the order. Hitters bat .255/.329/.426/.755 off of Cardinals pitchers the third time through the order. That’s .119 points of OPS higher the third time through than the second time through. In other words, everyone collectively is 19% better offensively against Cardinals pitchers (in general) the third time through the order than the second time through the order. Hitters are also 9% better the third time through the order than the first time even. Pretty incredible. Therefore, could the 2018 Cardinals be the team that bucks the trend and really shortens games for “starters” and extends games for “relievers”? Should they be?
No matter what your optimal 12 pitchers you want to have on the roster from the above below of 22 names is, and there are a lot of ways to assemble a roster from that (646,646 if my math serves me correctly), you should be able to come up with a group that has about 8-11 guys who have started recently with success leaving you with 2-5 guys who have been relievers recently and should be more limited in the number of innings that they can throw. Let’s look at the current roster:
Cardinals Pitching Roster
The St. Louis Cardinals have the following pitchers who have been valuable starting pitchers at varying levels across the organization (majors or minors) in the past calendar year:
Daniel Poncedeleon (PDL)
Add to that mix a combination of Bud Norris, John Brebbia, Mike Mayers, Tyson Ross, Dominic Leone, Chasen Shreve, Matt Bowman, Adam Wainwright, Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson, Tyler Lyons, and Tyler Webb and you can find 2-3 more to help that group above or even take the place of some of that group above.
Here’s one way to align a pitching staff and the example I will use throughout the rest of this exercise, assuming all are healthy come September or in the playoffs.
“Starters” - Flaherty, Gant, Hicks, Hudson, Martinez, Mikolas, PDL, Wacha
“Relievers” - Norris, Brebbia, Mayers, Ross
Note: You could easily switch Hicks and Ross or Martinez (since he will be in the pen the rest of the year) and Ross - this was partly written before that news came down.
Now that you have the 12 men you want (8 “starters” and 4 “relievers”, which are really just long men and short men), you can begin to assemble what I will call a 4-game rotation. You would have 3 guys per game (2 “starters” and 1 “reliever”) scheduled to pitch. The first two guys would each get twice through the lineup (18 batters give or take, and hopefully accomplish that in 4-5 innings worth of hitters) and the last guy would finish off the game by pitching to 9 guys at most, but hopefully just an inning). Obviously, if the “starters” do their jobs supremely well, then the “reliever” might not be needed in that game, thus giving you an extra reliever for the next game, when someone might need help getting out of a jam
(Warning, MATH alert) The reasoning behind this is that the average team faces about 38.25 hitters per game to get 27 outs. If each starter is throwing to 18 hitters, they will face 36 men, assuming all goes well. If the starters can do that covering 9 innings, your roster flexibility goes up. With the starters only facing 18 batters apiece, your team never gets to the critical “third time through the opposing lineup” that is 19% better than the second time through and 9% better than the first time through the order. All hitters effectively become ~.650 OPS guys instead of ~.750 OPS guys that third time through because there isn’t a third time through the order (or 4th time, for that matter).
It takes the Cardinals (on average) 16.49 pitches to get through an inning and throws to 4.25 batters per inning. If each “starter” throws to 18 batters per game, they would throw about 70 pitches every 4 games. Each “reliever” would have a max of 35 pitches every 4 games. That seems quite feasible to me, personally, mathematically. Pitchers are creatures of habit however. That would presumably lead to some turmoil - and maybe this only being able to work for the playoffs - at least for now - as the playoffs are a crapshoot and are considered an “all hands on deck” doing whatever they can for the team for one common purpose.
The Mixing of Repertoires
Once you have the 12 men listed that you want to use on your pitching staff, I believe the best way to go about attacking other lineups is to look at your pitchers’ repertoires and find a good mix of lefty-righty (if possible - I have all righties for this exercise) and a good mix of hard throwing and soft throwing to keep opposing players off balance. (Note: The games I am about to list can go in any order, it just happens that I started listing these players in this order when I started typing.)
Game 1: Jordan Hicks, Michael Wacha, and Tyson Ross
In the captions, I am listing the primary two pitch arsenal by each pitcher, but will explain more below each collage.
Jordan Hicks throws a 101 mph sinker and an 86 mph slider the most but also has a 102 mph 4-seam fastball and an 84 mph curveball.
Michael Wacha throws a 94 mph 4-seamer, 87 mph changeup, 90 mph cutter, 76 mph curve, and 94 mph sinker as well.
Tyson Ross throws an 85 mph slider most often, a 92 mph 4-seamer, 90 mph cutter, 91 mph sinker, and 87 mph change.
So here, you’ve got easily the hardest thrower on the team in Hicks - who may not be able to be a “starter”, that’s why Ross is with him - in case a flip flop is needed. Wacha throws a hard 4-seamer but uses a change up often, whereas Ross offsets him by using a slider more often with a slower assortment of 3 fastballs.
Game 2: Dakota Hudson, John Gant, and Bud Norris
Hudson has been working solely out of the pen so far in the majors and has deployed 3 pitches: a 96 mph sinker, 91 mph cutter, and 88 mph slider.
Gant throws a 94-mph 4-seamer, 82 mph changeup, 77 mph curve, and 84 mph slider.
Norris throws a 90 mph cutter, 95 mph 4-seamer, 95 mph sinker, 85 mph slider, and 89 mph change.
Norris has an assortment of fastballs, Gant works on his 4-seam/change up combo mostly, and Hudson attacks people with an incredibly good hard sinker - almost Hicks-worthy. Almost.
Game 3: Miles Mikolas, Daniel Poncedeleon, and Mike Mayers
Mikolas has a 5-pitch repertoire with a 95 mph 4-seamer, 89 mph slider, 94 mph sinker, 79 mph curve, and 89 mph change.
Poncedeleon throws a 94 mph 4-seamer, 90 mph cutter, 84 mph change, and 78 mph curve.
Mayers throws a 97 mph 4-seamer, 87 mph slider, and 90 mph change.
I think it’s easy to say that Mikolas and Mayers repertoires are fairly similar and that Poncedeleon’s cutter might be too much like a slider - but PDL uses his change up in there as well, splitting up the other two. Mikolas also has 2 more pitches at his repertoire than Mayers, helping him go more. This group might be a bit too homogeneous, but of the 4 groups, they average the 2nd least pitches thrown per inning and still have a combined very good line on the year, especially the first time and second times through the order.
Game 4: Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, and John Brebbia
Martinez throws a 93 mph sinker, 84 mph slider, 95 mph 4-seamer, 91 mph cutter, 87 mph changeup, and 78 mph curve.
Flaherty throws a 94 mph 4-seamer, 84 mph slider, 92 mph sinker, 78 mph curve, and 86 mph changeup.
Brebbia throws a 95 mph 4-seamer, 83 mph slider, 95 mph sinker, and 89 mph change.
So here’s the deal here. They all throw the same top 3 pitches - a 4-seamer, a sinker, and a slider, in some order. I still feel like with all three of their repertoires being between 4-6 pitches deep, the hitters still won’t be able to figure out what is coming at any given point so long as the pitchers and Yadi keep the rhythm moving and not getting caught up in patterns. The guys have just too good of stuff that it shouldn’t matter. I’m more worried about the numbers of pitches these three end up throwing, but maybe cutting down on their number of pitches and just throwing their best stuff could help this group challenge each other to be better.
The Problems I Could See Arising
One problem, with the Cardinals being a National League team, is that there will be times when a pinch hitter is necessary in the middle innings, thus potentially affecting the 2nd pitcher’s ability to throw to 18 batters without a controversy. The manager of this team will have to be extremely aware of in-game situations. If a pinch hitter could/will be necessary fairly quickly, then maybe you go with the “reliever” as the 2nd pitcher instead of the third pitcher. Or if you know that you might need to pinch hit in the 6th (for example) and the second pitcher will still have gas in the tank, maybe you double switch when you bring him into the game. This particular problem would be a good time for you to have a 13th pitcher on the roster - which is something that many teams are moving towards. That 13th pitcher could potentially get the absolutely horrendous “break glass if emergency” treatment that Shildt’s predecessor put on certain relievers throughout his tenure, making the Cardinals’ roster spot 1 shy of full effectiveness.
Another problem could arise if your third pitcher - the “reliever” only consistently is able to throw one singular inning? Or that there could be a case in which he throws, say, three games at one inning a game, but then he needs to go three. Is his arm in shape to do this? My solution to this problem is as follows: The 4 “relievers,” going only every 4th game will only be called on 40-41 times throughout the course of the year. Therefore, they should be able to be available every other game if only used as a last precaution. For example, in Game 1 when I use Hicks, Wacha, and Ross if I need to cover an extra inning because I needed Ross for the 8th and 9th but he could only give me one, I turn to the game 3 reliever, Mayers (in this case). Now, you obviously wouldn’t need the guy every time through, so he wouldn’t be needed for 80 innings over the course of a year. He might be needed half the time (which I believe would likely be too often) in which case he’d throw about 60 innings - or what a good reliever throws now for the most part. This would also help keep those relievers more “sharp” in the pen.
The biggest obstacles are ones that aren’t on the field of play on game nights. Do players and agents get upset, especially in a walk year? Does this drastically (because it will to some measure) throw off side sessions? What psychological effects would this have? That’s why I suggest in the beginning of this as something the 2018 Cardinals could/should try. There are only 6-7 weeks left in the regular season and possibly playoffs. In the playoffs, it’s a situation where it’s “all hands on deck” anyway, so I don’t see anyone having problems with this unless they’re having a circa 2014 Madison Bumgarner type post-season.
Despite the obstacles and problems in the way, I believe that this Cardinals team is somewhat uniquely equipped to handle this extraordinarily different method of managing a pitching staff. I believe that they have the front office that would try it. I believe they have a coach in place that wants to keep his job and would be willing to do anything to help his team win consistently to do so. I believe, maybe moreso through hope than actual belief, that they have a manager now that thinks outside the box and can motivate players in a way that they can understand the benefit of this type of drastic change.
Thanks for reading!