Baseball purists were horrified last year when the Tampa Bay Rays implemented an innovative workaround for lack of starting rotation depth, piggybacking a long reliever on a short start by a higher-leverage “opener.” The opener’s job is to work through the top of the order without allowing damage and then turn the ball over to the long man, who will be in line to earn the win by working four innings or so. Although this strategy was derided by traditionalists, it was successful for the Rays, who finished the 2018 season with the second-ranked team ERA in the American League.
Of course, the Cubs do not have a rotation depth problem. And while it’s reasonable to have doubts about Tyler Chatwood’s effectiveness, he is available to sub in for an injured starter without firing up the Iowa shuttle for a spot start or going to Johnny Wholestaff every fifth day. Nonetheless, I believe it would be worthwhile for the Cubs to entertain using an opener for Kyle Hendricks, who has battled frequent first inning woes.
Coming into Friday’s start, Hendricks has a 1st-inning ERA of 4.73 compared to an overall ERA of 3.11. Hitters leading off a game against him have a slash line of .248/.287/.450 (.736 OPS) with seven home runs and leadoff hitters in general — including subsequent at-bats — have slashed .263/.313/.433 (.745 OPS) with 16 home runs against him. Hendricks has also allowed more hits (102) to opponents batting first than in any other position in the order.
While hitters batting second and third have not fared as well against him, he runs into difficulty again with the fourth man in the order. Cleanup men have slashed .258/.313/.456 (.769 OPS) with 18 home runs. This is a concern because if the leadoff man gets on in the opening inning, Hendricks will have to face the cleanup batter.
Using an opener to get past the Professor’s danger zone at the top of the order might help the Cubs avoid early deficits and could allow Hendricks to better settle in and be effective from the very beginning of his outing. Mitigating his early-inning issues by letting him start against less potent hitters could also promote efficiency that would allow him to go deeper into games.
This discussion would not be complete without suggesting potential candidates from the Cubs’ bullpen to serve as his opener. OPS splits and home runs allowed against top-of-the-order hitters are through April 18, with innings pitched included to add context to the home run numbers.
OPS Rankings – Batting 1st
Randy Rosario comes in first, but his low number of innings pitched makes me want to rule his performance out as an outlier. Not surprisingly, Steve Cishek and Pedro Strop are next in line.
OPS Rankings – Batting 2nd
Our top three candidates are the same, followed by Brad Brach and Brandon Kintzler.
OPS Rankings – Batting 3rd
Cishek finishes first, followed by Kyle Ryan, Pedro Strop and Tim Collins.
Given that Strop has been serving as the de facto closer while Brandon Morrow is on the IL, we can rule him out as a potential opener. Rosario’s results can be considered as an outlier given his small sample size in terms of innings pitched compared to the others.
Cishek comes out as the best candidate based on his overall good performance against hitters in all three spots at the top of the order, including a limited number of home runs allowed. I had originally thought Brach would be a good candidate for this role but was surprised to see that Collins has better overall numbers.
Based on this analysis, the top three candidates in order of best fit would be Cishek, Collins, and Brach. To take things a step further, let’s take a look at BB/9 and WHIP, since the goal of using an opener is to keep top-of-the-order hitters off base and prevent them from scoring runs.
Cishek: 3.4 BB9; 1.146 WHIP
Collins: 5.1 BB9; 1.420 WHIP
Brach: 4.1 BB9; 1.283 WHIP
As we can see, command has been an issue for Collins throughout his career, which has been limited by two Tommy John surgeries. This leads us to swap the bottom second and third but leaves Cishek as the preferred option for opener. However, Collins might be an option for a lefty-heavy lineup like the Dodgers.
In the end, the Cubs are unlikely to go with such a radical solution to Hendricks’ early-inning struggles. He’s shown the ability in the past to work through these things and Jed Hoyer recently expressed faith in the former Cy Young candidate’s ability to do so again.
“[W]hen he gets off of his mechanics, sometimes it takes him a little bit of time to figure out exactly what’s going on and to correct it,” Hoyer told 670 The Score. “And usually once he corrects it, he keeps that correction for months and months and can have these dominant stretches that we’ve seen from him.”