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The Mariners have all the ingredients (and the need) for an “Opener”

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Seattle has been decimated in the first inning. Let’s find the right fit for some creativity.

Seattle Mariners Photo Day
Hey girl, can I be your starter for the inning?
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A wonderful thing about baseball is that you can see something new every day. Another wonderful thing about baseball is that the patterns that emerge from all those unique moments deliver us data samples large enough to predict future events more effectively than most other sports. Sometimes, however, events like this past weekend occur, and show us something we haven’t seen in over a century.

The “Opener,” as the Tampa Bay RaysSergio Romo was dubbed after Saturday and Sunday, is the simple strategy of beginning the game with a pitcher only slated to go an inning or two. The theory behind the strategy is straightforward – relievers are trained to throw at around max effort every pitch, meaning higher velocity, more extreme movement, and better results. If a team is stacked with top-notch starters, the need is insignificant, but for many teams, the back of the rotation is not a pretty place to be. In the 1stinning, then, when an opposing team ostensibly has placed its best offensive threats in a line, it makes some sense to match that certain strength with strength of your own. Moreover, depending on what the opponent chooses to do, an “Opener” can help disrupt the opposing platoon plans.

For Seattle, the non-James Paxton part of the rotation has been a suspect place to be, especially in the 1stinning. This year, Seattle has racked up a 6.46/5.34 ERA/FIP in the 1stinning, which rank 24th/23rdin MLB respectively. Their 10 HRs allowed through 46.0 1stinnings is good for the 4thhighest HR/9 in the league, and this isn’t a new issue. Over the past three years, Seattle has led the league in 1stinning homers allowed and sits 25thin ERA (5.24) and 29thin FIP (5.15) respectively.

Most of you could’ve hazarded a guess that Seattle had been bludgeoned in the 1st inning without those numbers, but it’s staggering, and highlights that the Mariners could improve their chances of winning with a bit of “Opening” creativity. Selecting the right “Opener” is only half the battle, but by a quick appraisal of Seattle’s bullpen, the ideal option seems to be Nick Vincent. The goateed spin-rate Gandalf is a quality reliever who is limited by a history of arm trouble to a maximum of one inning per outing. Pairing him with a starter who could most benefit from his boosting is the next task, and there are a few options.

Mike Leake and James Paxton are out. While the former lacks the quality of the latter, his efficiency with pitches makes him Seattle’s only other threat to complete 6-7 innings consistently, thus giving the bullpen a break. Wade LeBlanc already comes pre-packaged with a friendly neighborhood Chasen Bradford, though his swampy stuff has stifled opponents well enough on its own. Marco Gonzales might seem like a good candidate, but in his 23 career starts he’s actually dominated the first inning, falling victim much later. That leaves us with the King, but for the sake of planning ahead I’ll include two other candidates: Félix Hernández, Erasmo Ramirez, and Aríel Miranda.

Mariners in need of “Opening” (2015-2018)

Player Innings Pitched ERA FIP HR/9
Player Innings Pitched ERA FIP HR/9
Félix Hernández (1st inning) 81.1 5.53 5.62 2
Félix Hernández (post-1st inning) 415.2 3.68 4.16 1.1
Erasmo Ramirez (1st inning) 49 5.51 5.65 2.4
Erasmo Ramirez (post-1st inning) 218.1 3.83 4.1 1.2
Aríel Miranda (1st inning) 40 8.32 7.95 3.8
Aríel Miranda (post-1st inning) 178 3.59 4.92 1.5
Data runs from beginning of 2015 thru this morning (5/22/18). Fangraphs

Most pitchers see their numbers improve out of the 1st inning, but these three metamorphose from dinger trolls into legitimate starters once they escape. Miranda goes from having the WORST ERA of any starter in baseball in the 1st over the past three years (min. 40 IP) to 41st-BEST in the innings beyond (min. 170 IP). Félix and Erasmo see similar bumps in quality, rising from among the worst 20% of 1st inning pitchers to be among the best-third of starters in subsequent innings.

Seattle does not have the luxury of being conservative in their approach to pitching - they are a team with a narrow pathway to victory that needs each incremental improvement. It may be a tough sell to convince Félix to go for a plan like this, but for players like Ramirez and Miranda who have struggled to maintain consistent success, this could be a pathway to consistent MLB playing time, and improved results for the team overall. Let’s see the organization of #WhateverItTakes put its creativity where its mouth is.