The Tampa Bay Rays entered this season looking to be innovative with the pitching staff. They decided to go with a four-man rotation and then a “bullpen day”. With an injury and a lot of off days, they took it to a three-man rotation and two bullpen days.
This past weekend, the Rays were in California to face the Angels and their right-handed centric line-up. With a lefty on the rotation to start, and seven righties leading off the line-up Saturday, the Rays and manager Kevin Cash decided to start Segio Romo, a right handed reliever with a nasty slider, and follow up with lefty Ryan Yarbrough.
It worked. Romo worked through a perfect first with three strikeouts, and Yarbrough actually got through more than two times through the order, working 6 1⁄3 innings in a 5-3 win. It worked so well that Romo started Sunday, too! He worked into the second inning this time, with two walks and no strikeouts. The Rays lost this one, but...
The Rays had actually worked this system on May 2nd, too, so perhaps it’s time to wonder if the Brewers dominant bullpen might be suited to such a strategy.
Of course, this isn’t new, as this piece by Mister Lizzie of Drays Bay explains in fine detail. If you are interested in the evolution of the idea, read the above article. It’s worth your time. In fact, my brother used it in a Strat-O-Matic league in the early seventies. He was avoiding having his pitchers bat, as we weren’t yet using a DH. It worked well.
This is one of the issues the Brewers would face in using the “opener” strategy (that’s the terminology used to differentiate from a starter). The DH makes the strategy much easier to use. It doesn’t make it impossible, just more difficult.
One of the justifications for this strategy is that more runs are scored in the first inning of baseball games than any other, so preventing that gives you a better chance of winning. The ninth inning is one of the lowest scoring innings. Perhaps these things are because the ninth innings have the best relievers throwing their best stuff, and the first inning historically has a starter who is pacing himself to go deep into the game. In fact, I’m pretty darn sure that explains the differential well.
Teams in the playoffs have been much more open to different pitching strategies. The first sign of trouble and the bullpen is called in. So this adjustment isn’t out of the blue; it has precedent and is an evolution.
So if the Brewers were to entertain this idea, what would be the ideal system? Would Corey Knebel in the top of the first inning make sense? It doesn’t feel right, does it? Josh Hader would, but his value in the late innings is undeniable. Maybe Taylor Williams, but that lack of control (at this point) is an issue.
Probably something along the lines of a start by Brandon Woodruff, followed up by Brent Suter, would make more sense. Or vice-versa. We are probably looking at more of a piggy-back system here, but you get the idea. In fact, the way the Brewers have used their 'pen seems to me to be more in line with their personnel than the one-inning start. But never say never.
In fact, the one thing I am really taking from this whole strategy is to make sure that starting pitchers are ready to get a scoreless first inning. If they are going to be counted on just for two times through the order, there is no reason to pace themselves. Be ready to go in the first inning; runs allowed are detrimental in any inning. Games can be won more often by giving up fewer runs.