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The Case for an Orioles “Opener”

Mychal Givens pitches.
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The Tampa Bay Rays turned heads on Saturday night when they opted to use set-up man Sergio Romo as their starting pitcher against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Romo had made 589 big league appearances prior to Saturday, with every single one of them coming in relief. The thought process employed by manager Kevin Cash and the Rays front office was simple: allow Romo to pitch to the right-handed heavy top half of the Angels lineup and then allow left-hander Ryan Yarbrough to take over in a long relief role. The plan worked to perfection, as Romo struck out all three batters he faced (Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, and Justin Upton) before giving way to Yarbrough in the second inning.

MLB Network analyst and sabermetrics guru Brian Kenny had long advocated for a similar plan of bullpen usage. In theory, this would allow a club’s top relief pitchers to face the opposing team’s top hitters right off the bat and prevent them from getting a third at-bat against the same pitcher like they would against a conventional starter. In a clip posted to his Twitter feed on Saturday, Kenny lauded the Rays move as revolutionary and noted that MLB clubs have scored more runs on average in the first inning than any other inning in the modern era. Kenny also threw in a statistic that may be of particular interest to O’s fans: the Orioles lead the major leagues with 60 runs allowed this season in the first inning alone.

Would an “opener” make sense for the Birds? Maybe, but only against teams like the Angels whose top three or four hitters hit from the same side of the plate or who have similar splits against a particular handedness of pitcher. The top four hitters (sorted by 2018 OPS) of the Orioles’ four AL East opponents are as follows:

Three of the top four hitters in the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays lineups are right-handed. Of course, using a right-handed opening pitcher against these teams wouldn’t be as straightforward as what the Rays did to the three right-handers at the top of the Angels lineup, as the opener would still need to face at least one lefty hitter. Further complicating the matter, not all of the hitters mentioned above hit at the top of the lineup. This is a risk the Orioles would have to take if they decide to use an opener, especially considering that managers looking to exploit the opening pitcher may stack the top of the lineup with opposite handed hitters. But is it worth it for Yankees manager Aaron Boone to move Judge and Stanton to the bottom of the Yankees lineup simply to avoid the opening pitcher, even if it means they would get fewer at-bats overall? I don’t think so.

Which pitchers, then, could the Orioles use as right-handed openers? Two traits could indicate that a pitcher might be a good fit: the ability to limit offensive output from right-handed batters and/or a tendency to struggle after facing hitters for the second or third time in a game.

Three Orioles pitchers jump off of the page as fitting this profile.

Mychal Givens, RHP

Givens has been an integral part of the Orioles’ relief corps since 2015, posting a career ERA of 2.79 out of the bullpen. He’s also been consistently good against hitters from both sides of the plate. However, his three-quarters arm slot and devastating slider make him especially tough on righties. Givens’ combination of arm slot, pitch repertoire, and comfort level in retiring hitters from both sides of the plate makes him the Orioles pitcher I would most trust getting through the difficult top halves of the Yankees and Red Sox lineups – especially considering that Stanton, Sanchez, Judge, and Betts are hitting a combined .200 (5 for 25) against him.

Darren O’Day, RHP

Much like Givens, O’Day’s uncommon arm slot and good slider as a reliever make him a natural fit to get tough right-handed hitters out. Unlike Givens, however, O’Day has a more difficult time retiring lefties than righties: over the past three years, left-handers have combined OPS of .691 against him (compared to .553 when he faces right-handers). This could make it a difficult assignment for O’Day to retire lefty hitters like Andrew Benintendi or Didi Gregorius on a consistent basis.

Yefry Ramirez, RHP

Ramirez is a member of the Triple-A Norfolk Tides’ starting rotation. So far in 2018, he’s limited hitters to a .203 batting average while striking out 10.1 batters per 9 innings, both of which indicate strong performance. A closer analysis of his pitching splits reveals that lefties are hitting .245 with an astounding .732 OPS off of Ramirez, whereas he’s limited righties to a .141 average and an OPS of .394. Unlike Givens or O’Day, he also has recent starting experience and would be comfortable pitching multiple innings if need be.

While I would still prefer to see the Orioles give Givens a shot as an opening pitcher, I would be more than comfortable handing the ball to O’Day or Ramirez as an opener against right-heavy lineups. The Orioles, much like the Rays, aren’t expected to do much of anything this year in an AL East division dominated by Boston and New York. There’s no better time than now to experiment with this idea, even if it sounds odd and sacrilegious on the surface. In the worst case scenario, the Orioles are marginally worse than expected.

In the best case, they find a pitching strategy that allows them a leg up on their American League competition for several years to come.

Mike Elias on his laptop.
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