Let’s get something out of the way first: The strategy of using an opener works…when a very good starting pitcher is not available to pitch for you.
If you have a choice between a) alternating 4 or 5 relievers over 9 innings, or b) trying to get 5 to 7 good innings from your 4th or 5th starter and then see what happens after that, you go with choice “a” every time.
But if you have a proven, plus starting pitcher, then you forget the opener strategy and go with the plus starter every time. Why? Because, with very few exceptions, starting pitchers are better than relief pitchers. If relief pitchers were better than starters, they’d (…wait for it…) be starters.
I’m not on an island here. Just look at the paychecks of starting pitchers compared to relievers.
And if recent history has taught us anything, it’s taught us that if you want to win a World Series, your starting pitching needs to be great. Not good – great.
Consider the past four World Series winners:
All of them had at least three starting pitchers with the following criteria: A minimum of 166 innings pitched and an ERA+ of 123 or better. (ERA+ is set to a league average of 100 – so 123 is 23% better than league average. So unlike traditional ERA, higher is better.)
The 2016 Cubs had Hendricks, Lester, Arrieta, and Lackey. The 2017 Astros had Verlander, Cole, and Morton. The 2018 Red Sox had Sale, Price, and Eovaldi*. The 2019 Nationals had Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin.
That’s when the ERA+ is cut off at 123. Jason Hammel, Dallas Kuechel, Eduardo Rodriguez, Rick Porcello, and Anibal Sanchez were 4th to 5th starters on those teams and all were above league average ERA+ as well.
And recent history has also taught us that the strength of starting pitching carries over into the postseason. If you recall my point about starters being better than relievers (even very good relievers – we’re talking about World Series winners, so they had good bullpens), the last four World Series winners also had something else in common:
They all used a starting pitcher in relief to close out a lead in the series-clinching win.
Jon Lester, game seven in ’16. Charlie Morton, game seven in ’17. Chris Sale, game five in ’18. Patrick Corbin, game seven in ’19.
Combined they threw 11 innings and allowed only two earned runs in relief, in World Series-clinching games. That’s a 1.64 ERA in roles they aren’t accustomed to. (Remember that the next time a relief pitcher doesn’t pitch in a big spot because “it’s not his role”.)
If you’re someone who follows the Yankees, you know where I’m going with this…
So each of the four past World Series champs had at least three pitchers on their staff who threw 166 or more innings with a 123 ERA+ or better?
The Yankees have had a pitcher hit those criteria three times – over the past four seasons combined. Tanaka in 2016 and Severino in 2017 and 2018. No Yankee pitcher hit those criteria in 2019.
So Mr. Cashman, if you’re listening…
When it comes to roster construction, loading up on 2nd and 3rd starters and cornering the market on middle relievers is very unlikely to work.
You blew your first chance at Gerrit Cole, now is your chance to fix the mistake.
Stephen Strasburg is out there. Please, no more embarrassing excuse-making press conferences with the shoulder-shrugging “Well, I made an offer to a lot of good players but they took better offers elsewhere, what do you want me to do?” shirking of responsibility.
Solve the issue with your training staff. Getting over 30 healthy starts from Paxton, Severino and Tanaka sure would help.
Get it done, and if you get beat by a better team anyway, so what – it happens.
But if you keep doing the same things and expect the same result…
Well, you know what they say about that.
*Nathan Eovaldi only pitched 2 months with Boston. He would have hit the minimum innings pitched with them over a full season.
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