San Francisco Giants: Time to experiment with an opener?
The 2019 San Francisco Giants have yet to score a run in the first inning of a ballgame. Almost equally concerning, however, has been their inability to prevent first-inning runs on the mound.
The use of an opener—a relief pitcher who specializes in getting the first outs in a game—has most commonly been used by the Tampa Bay Rays, and divides opinion amongst fans.
The San Francisco Giants got to see it at first hand earlier this month when the Rays used Ryne Stanek to pitch the first two innings of the game on April 6.
The first inning is key to any ballgame, generally setting the tone for the rest of the game.
Obviously, one reason for this is that the top of any lineup features a team’s most dangerous bats, and teams are therefore more likely to score runs right out of the box.
Another, less measurable, reason could be that with the goal of enduring five or more innings, a traditional starter may avoid going full throttle in the first inning in order to preserve himself for subsequent innings.
Certainly, a quick look at the numbers shows that Giants starters have been much less effective in the first inning compared to subsequent innings.
In the first 23 games of the 2019 season, Giants starters have a 6.26 ERA in the first inning of games, which puts them last in the National League and tied for 27th in the majors.
Conversely, in all the other innings combined, the team’s ERA is 2.83, which is elite.
While 23 games is admittedly a small sample size, if we expand the sample to include last year’s performance as well, the imbalance remains. In 185 games since the beginning of 2018, the Giants have a first-inning ERA of 5.21, and a 3.67 ERA in all other innings.
Contrast that with the Tampa Bay Rays, who have posted a 3.36 ERA in the first inning since the beginning of 2018, and you can see why the opener is a strategy that has its merits.
Ten teams in addition to the Rays have experimented with the idea since the beginning of last season, including the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees.
And because one of those teams was Farhan Zaidi’s Los Angeles Dodgers, it led to some speculation during the offseason that the new president of baseball operations might be keen to employ the strategy with his new club in San Francisco.
Eventually, Zaidi felt moved to clarify his stance on openers in January, telling Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle: “We’re not attempting to be gimmicky or cute about things. The easiest way to start a ballgame from Bruce’s standpoint is still to get six, seven quality innings from the starter.”
Whilst the idea was met with some sympathy from the relief corps, veteran starters Jeff Samardzija and Madison Bumgarner have made no secret their dislike for the strategy.
Ironically, in 2019 it’s Samardzija who would stand to benefit most from the use of the strategy. He has struggled to the tune of a 9.00 ERA in the first inning of games so far, giving up four earned runs in the first inning four different times.
He’s not the only one who might benefit from pitching behind an opener, though, as the following table illustrates:
Given that right now the Giants have arguably the best relief corps in the National League with a 2.23 ERA that’s more than a run better than the Cincinnati Reds (3.25) in second, it might make sense to employ some outside of the box thinking.
The strong starts from Trevor Gott, Reyes Moronta and Nick Vincent in particular, along with some dominant displays from a resurgent Mark Melancon, has led to speculation that the Giants might be planning to trade away some of their more experienced relief arms.
Part of that plan could include a willingness to begin using the bullpen more creatively, at least one an interim basis to see how effective it could be.
In a season when offense has been at a premium, the front office needs to do everything they can to prevent runs.
Statistically, there is some rather compelling evidence to suggest that the idea of trying an opener might be worth exploring sooner rather than later.