The Rays were the first team to do it and now the Dodgers have joined them in what seems to be a new trend. The idea is to start a relief pitcher to pitch the first inning and maybe even part of the second then bring in your actual “starting” pitcher after that.
The Rays are the team that seems to make sense as the first team to try this. They are a smaller market team who isn’t really competing for the playoffs this year and won’t get a ton of fan push-back if the idea blows up. The Dodgers however, are a huge market team with a very large payroll and the fans expect success. A lot more attention is drawn to a decision like this from them. The Dodgers struggled to start the season, but they are playing well now and it’ll be interesting if they keep this strategy up in a pennant race.
So what is the logic behind doing this? It’s pretty simple. Statistically, opposing teams hit the pitchers the best the third time they face the pitcher in a game. Which makes sense because hitters are seeing more pitches from the same pitcher. That makes the third time through the batting order the most dangerous for pitchers. The most dangerous hitters in the batting order typically bat at the top of the order. If you start a relief pitcher then when your actual starter comes in for the second or third inning, he will face hitters lower in the order first. This is important because that third time through he will face the weaker hitters first. The starter may actually be able to pitch longer if he were to get replaced against the tougher hitters the third time through. The graph below shows the MLB batting average for the entire league broken down by the different times the batter is facing the same opponent in the same game. The graph shows each season over the last four complete seasons and 2018 so far. As you can see there is a clear difference in each plate appearance. Batters are more likely to get hits the more they face the same pitcher.
Another advantage to this idea is the manager can get the match-up he wants with whichever reliever he chooses because he knows for sure which batters he will face. Usually, you cannot plan out in advance which batters will be up in a certain inning. For example, if the team you’re playing has 2 good lefties batting at the top of the lineup, you could start a left-handed reliever in order to get the match-up you want. You are not guaranteed that opportunity later on in the game. In addition, the second time those top hitters come up they will have to adjust to a different pitcher than the first time.
The Rays have been doing this basically at the 4 and 5 spots of their starting rotation. They start Chris Archer, Blake Snell and Nate Eovaldi at the 1-3 spots. Then they go with the “opener” for the 4 and 5 spots in the rotation and then use Austin Pruitt and Ryan Yarbrough as the second pitchers on those days. The Rays even had a game on May 25th where they started Sergio Romo, who only went 0.1 innings. Vidal Nuno then pitched 3 innings and Austin Pruitt pitched the last 5.2 innings and got the save. Below is a section of the Rays box score from their June 7th game against the Mariners. This graph illustrates what the order of appearance looks like for the Rays in these opener games.
Since the Rays have employed this tactic they are 2-5 in games started by the opener and 4-5 in games started by a traditional starting pitcher. It’s important to take into account these traditional starting pitchers are also the better pitchers on the Rays. Would it be more successful with an ace like Chris Archer pitching on the second part of the opener games? The Rays are also 29-35 overall, so it’s hard to tell if this could be successful with a better team. When looking specifically in games as an opener, these Rays pitchers have an ERA of 9.58, which is terrible. However, it is a small sample and is not the world’s best pitchers (it’s Sergio Romo, Ryne Stanek and Jonny Venters once). In addition, they are facing the opposing team’s best hitters. At the same time, the Rays’ pitchers following the openers have an ERA of 3.04 in the same games. In this small amount of time it seems that the first inning is definitely more difficult, but it makes the game easier on the actual starting pitcher coming in later. Maybe if a team starts a reliever with better stuff or more velocity than the Rays have, this could be an effective strategy.
On June 1st, the Dodgers tried this approach with Scott Alexander. He gave up 1 run in 1 ⅓ innings, but the Dodgers won the game. Then on June 7th against the Pirates, the Dodgers had a complete bullpen game. They pitched 9 different pitchers over 9 innings, no one more than 2 innings. A complete bullpen game and they won the game 8-7. This may have been more due to starting pitching injuries, but nevertheless it is interesting.
We’ll continue to watch and see if anyone else uses this and how it continues to work for the Rays.