As a few teams have tried it, the Texas Rangers will have a relief pitcher start tonight’s game vs. the Angels to pave way for their actual starting pitcher.
The starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers tonight will be relief pitcher Jeffrey Springs. That doesn’t make sense, does it? A relief pitcher starting a ballgame should be classified as a starting pitcher, right? Not when all 10 of that pitcher’s major league appearances have come out of the bullpen.
Starting pitchers are typically expected to pitch at least five innings. If all goes to expectation, they pitch the bulk of the game and set the relievers up to solidify a win in the remaining three or four innings. Jeffrey Springs is not expected to pitch five innings tonight, probably not even three, and maybe not even two.
Starting a game with a relief pitcher is an innovative strategy put in place by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018. The strategy has been deemed “the opener” by some of the MLB media. It’s difficult to monitor the success of “the opener”; however, there is no arguing the surprising emergence of Tampa Bay this season.
Sure the Rays are 20 games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East, but that’s not a fair critique. What stands out is Tampa’s record of 73-63 record. 10 games above .500 for a team that shares a division with the Red Sox and Yankees, has no defined pitching order beyond ace Blake Snell, and sits league average or worse in practically every offensive statistic. Perhaps there is something to this new pitching approach.
The idea is to have a reliable reliever start the game and dispose of an opposing team’s top of the batting order (in other words, a team’s best hitters). Depending on the opponent, this might mean pitching one inning or two innings. Then, the actual starter takes the mound. If the strategy goes to plan, the starter (reliever, in this case), will avoid a team’s best hitters and get into an easier rhythm against a team’s lesser hitters. The starter will also face the top of a lineup one less time than usual over the course of five innings or so.
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Let’s take tonight’s Texas Rangers vs. Los Angeles Angels matchup as an example. Springs will hopefully get the team off to a nice start by handling hitters like Mike Trout, Kole Calhoun, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons and Shohei Ohtani. This is the first time Texas is trying this approach so we’ll see how many inning they decide to pitch Springs, whether one or two. Once Springs is done, and if all goes accordingly, SP Ariel Jurado will takeover against the bottom of the Angels’ order. Jurado should pitch four or five innings, and the bullpen will be required to pitch a few innings at the very most.
“The Opener” strategy works if:
-A team has a strong reliever to open the game
-A team has a reliable late inning relief unit
Springs has earned the opportunity to pioneer this approach for the Texas Rangers as he has an impressive 2.55 ERA over 17.2 innings this season. Texas has used him frequently and they clearly trust him to do a good job in this unique scenario. The best route to get to ball in the hands of Jose Leclerc with a lead is the route the Rangers should take. Leclerc has been one of the best closers in all of MLB since taking over the role at the start of August.
In addition, it makes sense to try this strategy with Jurado set to pitch. Jurado has a first inning ERA of 18.00 this season and a second inning ERA of 1.26. Those two statistics alone tell you all you need to know.
In general, the strategy makes sense for the Texas Rangers. Why not try something like this in a lost season? The team’s starting rotation is as bad as you’ll find across Major League Baseball and, frankly, the rotation can only improve from its current state. Perhaps a change such as using an “opener” will spark the pitching staff to perform better. If the strategy fails, it doesn’t really matter. Texas can keep trying it or go back to the old way. The fact that they are trying it is definitely encouraging.