Detroit Tigers: Could Using an Opening Pitcher Help the Team?

So much has been said about trading away Detroit Tigers players, but why can’t the Tigers just figure out how to use what they have more effectively?

I am happily stealing this idea for the 2017 Detroit Tigers from Brian Kenny’s book, Ahead of the Curve. In his chapter titled “Bullpenning,” he advocates for the end of the starting pitcher. In fact, he advocates for using an “opening pitcher.” Since the Tigers are loaded with pitchers who cannot go beyond a handful of innings without giving up excessive numbers of runs, why not give this unique idea a try?

Kenny advocates for using an “opening pitcher.” Since the Tigers are loaded with pitchers who cannot go beyond a handful of innings without giving up excessive numbers of runs, why not give this unique idea a try?

In Kenny’s book, he shares statistics about runs scored per inning in the DH era that began in 1973. Out of all 9 innings, the most runs are scored in the first, an average of .56 runs. The next highest is the sixth inning, with .53 runs scored on average. Other than the ninth inning where only one team often bats, the second has the lowest runs scored with .45. He shares several suppositions about why so many runs are scored in the first, but they are all just suppositions. What is known is that the first inning is where the most runs are scored. This needs to stop.

Let the Pitchers Go All-Out

So, instead of putting in a starter who has to manage his pitches and his speed to go five or six innings, why not just bring in a pitcher to throw all-out in the first inning and shut down the first three batters?

Sep 26, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Bruce Rondon (43) pitches the ball during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Comerica Park. The Indians won 7-4 to clinch the AL Central Division title. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Kenny says on page 175, “Sprinters are faster than milers. Pitchers are more effective in shorter spurts.” The idea that pitchers throw hard for one inning and one inning only lets them focus on just getting batters out. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Manage in a Style that Works for the Players’ Abilities

If the Tigers are unable to trade pitchers like Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, why not use them to open the game? Due to the fact that there are no rules about pitching, other than not being able to re-enter games, Brad Ausmus could use as many pitchers as he wants or needs on any given day.

Imagine Anibal Sanchez coming in for just one inning. He throws as hard as he can for the first. Then, he’s done. No worrying about the second or third time through the lineup. Bruce Rondon could even come in early to stimy batters with his fastball. Then, in the second through fifth, one of the “starters” comes in to keep the momentum going. But, once they start to slow down, they are immediately yanked for another single-inning pitcher. No questions ask.

Bullpenning Can and Does Work

Remember that game against the Cleveland Indians on September 17, 2016, when Carlos Carrasco was injured in the very first inning. To stay in the game against Justin Verlander and the Tigers, Terry Francona “bullpenned” his way to victory. His nine pitchers dueled it out, striking out 10 Tigers batters. Verlander struck out seven batters on his own and Alex Wilson managed three more. But, the Tigers Justin Wilson gave up the winning run in the 10th inning. The bullpenning worked and it made the Tigers traditional ways of running the pen look outdated.

The days of starting pitching date back to the early days of baseball when the hitters could actually ask for a specific pitch. Speed and endurance were non-issues. Pitchers lobbed the ball in so it could be hit. Now that pitching has evolved, the way that pitchers are used should, too. Managers should work hard to get the most out of their pitchers and many function better when they only have an inning or two of work to complete.

Why can’t the Tigers be ahead of the curve, rather than the last ones to adopt something that statistically should work? Why not make the game fit the team? It shouldn’t be a novel idea to use people and their skill sets in the best way possible, rather than trying to get them to fit into a pre-determined role that has proved to be ineffective time and time again.

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