Why the Tigers should adopt the opener in 2019

It’s safe to say that Detroit Tigers starting pitchers didn’t have the most successful 2018 season. 

Never mind that Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Norris and Francisco Liriano all missed time due to injury, the Tigers’ starting rotation—to put it in extreme layman’s terms—struggled. 

And they struggled a fair bit, too.

Detroit’s rotation, which used 13 different starters, finished 24th among Major League rotations in fWAR. Tigers starters also ranked 19th in SIERA (4.48), 20th in WHIP (1.32) and 26th in FIP (4.79). Ron Gardenhire’s starters also finished in a tie for 20th with the Brewers, where swinging strike percentage (9.5%) was concerned. 

The Tigers’ starting pitchers also threw just 845.2 innings, well off the league leaders in Cleveland who tossed 993.2 frames. 

Additionally, when Detroit starters turned the lineup over, the results were similarly not appealing. 

Michael Fulmer and company allowed the second most home-run balls (42) from pitchers facing batters the third-time through the order. They had the fifth-highest FIP (5.75) and sixth-highest hard-hit rate against (42%) in those scenarios, plus the joint ninth lowest ground-ball percentage (41%). 

What’s more, Tigers starters were also among the 10 worst teams in said scenarios in terms of wOBA (.348, 22nd) and slugging percentage against (.499, 24th). 

So yeah, not the prettiest picture. 

Unfortunately, new signings Tyson Ross and Matt Moore might not be of the best help. 

Ross managed a 5.73 FIP, a 1.57 WHIP and a .381 wOBA against versus batters the third time through the order in 2018. Moore was slightly better, with a 4.56 FIP and a 1.26 WHIP versus batters the third time through the order as a starter, but he also walked 6.28 batters per nine frames in the same scenarios.

Which brings us to the opener.

The Tampa Bay Rays used the strategy to aplomb last year, which sees a traditional relief pitcher work the first inning or two before making way for a more traditional starting pitcher, who would then eat up the kind of innings typically associated with a starter. 

The strategy was one of a number of factors that helped the forward-thinking Rays eek out 90 wins. The A’s and Twins were among the other teams to utilize the opener this past season, and Detroit should follow suit in 2019. 

Detroit Tigers starters vs. batters the second time through the order

  • HR allowed: 47, ranked 21st 
  • FIP: 4.49, 25th 
  • Hard-hit rate: 37.5%, 20th 
  • Ground ball%: 39.3, 30th 
  • wOBA: .331, 22nd 
  • Slugging%: .444, 25th 

And while those numbers aren’t miraculously better, there’s enough of an improvement in effectiveness versus the third time around (which, for reference, again is listed below) that it could mean the difference between overtaxing and not overtaxing the bullpen. 

Detroit Tigers starters vs. batters the third time through the order

  • HR allowed: 42, ranked 29st 
  • FIP: 5.75, 26th 
  • Hard-hit rate: 42%, 25th 
  • Ground ball%: 41.1%, tied for 21st 
  • wOBA: .348, 22nd 
  • Slugging%: .499, 24th 

Joe Jimenez soaked up 62.2 innings in his first extended shot at Major League action. And while he earned All-Star honors to go along with a 2.90 FIP, a 1.4 fWAR and 11.2 strikeouts per nine frames, it was the most innings Jimenez had thrown in a season as a professional. 

Moving forward, the Tigers can’t afford to put a similar strain on Jimenez on a consistent basis, especially if he continues to live up to the hype he generated as a prospect. Detroit also can’t afford to put a similar strain on Victor Alcantara and Sandy Baez next year. 

With Alex Wilson non-tendered and Shane Greene and Blaine Hardy conceivable trade candidates, Alcantara and Baez could enter 2019 as the top setup options (alongside Drew VerHagen) in building a bridge to Jimenez at the end of games. 

Bryan Garcia, Zac Houston, Zac Reininger and Paul Voelker are among the relievers who could join them in the Majors on a consistent basis next season—not to mention starters like Matt Hall, Spencer Turnbull, Kyle Funkhouser and Ryan Carpenter, who might find it easier to initially break into the Majors as relief arms. 

With so many other promising pitching prospects following them up through the minors, Detroit can ill afford to over-tax young pitcher’s arms so early in their Major League careers. 

It would also help already established Major Leaguers like Fulmer and Zimmermann avoid the teeth of an opponent’s lineup more often.

Utilizing the opener strategy, where someone like VerHagen (3.10 FIP, 13.0 SwStr%) could face the top of the order would also help the Tigers get through games easier. The team’s lack of consistent setup options has put a similar tax on the relief corps, with leads going up in smoke in the 6th, 7th and 8th innings as Detroit often needed more relievers than was necessary to get the requisite outs. 

So, let’s say it’s sometime during the regular season (pick whichever month tickles your fancy) and it’s a beautiful night for baseball at Comerica Park. Following a clean first inning from Drew VerHagen, Michael Fulmer proceeds to throw six strong innings. 

Not a crazy proposition so far, right? 

And let’s also say that the Tigers have the lead. They only have to utilize the bullpen for two innings. Or rather, just one inning to get to someone like Jimenez or Greene.

It’s immensely easier to lean on a young, largely inexperienced bullpen to get through just one inning on a consistent basis than the three or four innings that Detroit often required of its relievers last season. 

Of course, odds are this strategy won’t be perfect every night. Pitchers struggle. That’s a part of baseball. But, the move to the opener could make both Detroit’s rotation and bullpen more effective. 

Another notable way it would help out the Tigers’ pitchers—the rotation in particular—is that it would cut down on the matchups between the other team’s best hitters. 

It may only be one plate appearance for a hitter or two per start, but that can be key going from game to game. 

Having an opener in Cleveland would mean one less plate appearance versus Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor for any of Detroit’s starters. It would mean less of Jose Abreu (and very soon Eloy Jimenez) when Tigers starters face the White Sox. 

Facing a Ramirez and Lindor, or whoever the other team’s premier hitters are, twice instead of three times could pay significant dividends for the Tigers starters. 

It may not move the needle too much in terms of wins and losses, but it might just make the team incrementally better ahead of 2020. And the better Detroit does this coming season, the better positioned they’ll be to potentially return to something resembling contender status the following season. 

(As an aside, getting the Tigers back to contention is going to take some shrewd trades and free agent signings on top of good old player and prospect development. There’s still work to do, but there’s potential in what looks like a wide open American League Central for the next few years.)

Not only would deploying an opener on a regular basis do that, but it would also help ease the burden on many of the team’s better young pitchers in and around the Major League level. 

And if Detroit is going to return to contending soon, players like Fulmer, Jimenez, Norris and others are going to need to be healthy and on form. If not with the Tigers, then as a member of another organization after being included in one of those shrewd trades. 

Using the opener more often would help achieve either of those ends. 

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