For the sake of brevity, I don’t want to get into a detailed analysis and discussion of using an “opener”. We know that it works in theory and we know Tampa Bay had a lot of success with it last season. But we also know that it takes a certain amount of “buy-in” from the pitchers and that if the pitchers aren’t on board with the idea then the likely decrease in performance isn’t worth the advantage gained from using an opener.
But for the sake of today’s discussion, I want to focus on two particular strengths of using an opener.
One: You get a platoon advantage when you change pitchers early in the game when the relief pitcher throws with the opposite arm of the starting pitcher. This is something I don’t think Joe Girardi ever understood.
Two: The pitcher who will throw the bulk of pitches and innings in the game will face the other team’s weaker hitters more often and their best hitters less often. This, of course, should reduce the damage normally incurred when batters see the same pitcher more often in the same game. Think of it this way: If you’re playing the Red Sox, it’s more likely that Sandy Leon will see the same pitcher for a third time than Mookie Betts will. That is not an insignificant distinction.
Put a pin in that, we’ll come back to it.
Here’s what you need to know about Gio Gonzalez beyond the mundane observations you’re likely to hear from sports radio and the Simpleton Summer Camp network:
Is he regressing? Maybe, maybe not. One can certainly point to his career lows in K%-BB% and xFIP last season as evidence of such. But one could also point to his ridiculously low (read: fortuitous) batting average on balls in play against him in 2017. That was the lowest BABIP against him in any full season of his career and was at least 43 points lower than in any season since 2015. He may be regressing, but it’s not as much as his ’17 to ’18 numbers would suggest. 2018 was generally speaking, closer to his career norm than his fantastic (coughs, lucky, coughs) 2017 was.
Furthermore, despite the decline in effectiveness of his curveball in from 2017 to 2018, his fastball velocity was actually a tick higher – it’s safe to say his arm is A-OK.
He’s a five-inning pitcher. This was first brought to my attention by my friend Mike Iovino, and it turns out he was correct. Last season, opponents’ OBP and SLG were .326/.389 versus Gio’s first 75 pitches. After, it went to .385/.474 from pitches 76-100.
He’s affected pretty severely by platoon splits. Versus right-handed batters last season, batters had an OBP/SLG of .352/.414 and an adjusted OPS of 114. Lefties went .219/.261 and 62 against him.
Openers create platoon advantages and minimize the multiple time through the order damage.
Gio Gonzalez is a pitcher whose performance is greatly affected by platoon splits and pitch count.
Say it with me, folks: If you use an opener, then go to Gonzalez for up to 75 pitches, you’re going to give yourself a better chance to win a ballgame than if you start Gio Gonzalez.
To return to the Red Sox example from above: You start Chad Green and have him go through the first 5-7 batters depending on the pitch count and the other team’s lineup. You then bring in Gonzalez to throw 75 pitches or fewer. You then give the ball to Adam Ottavino, presumably around the 7th inning at that point.
Result: You have a game long platoon advantage. Either Green and Ottavino will face predominantly right-handed batters or Gonzalez predominantly left-handed batters and you get all pitchers pitching at their most effective pitch count levels. Plus, it also must be noted that when it’s a crucial point of the game – tie score, no one out and the other team’s best hitters due up – Chad Green will be pitching as opposed to your 5th starter. You want to talk high leverage? The first inning is high leverage. Act accordingly.
In my scenario, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez would get 2 plate appearances versus Gio sandwiched between one each against Green and Ottavino. Sandy Leon gets 3 appearances versus Gio and one against Ottavino.
If you go the traditional route, Betts and Martinez get three shots at your lefty 5th starter while Ottavino and Green get saved for Sandy Leon – if it’s still a game at that point.
Again, I know it’s a big ask to get professional athletes on board with something they aren’t used to. But at the risk of overplaying a hand, if I were Brian Cashman, I’d think Gio doesn’t have too many other options to pitch in MLB. If he isn’t OK with it, the Yankees can go with Stephen Tarpley, as an opener before going to Luis Cessa for 75 pitches then to Zack Britton. Same mission accomplished.
It’s 2019, Yankees. Get it done.
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