Baseball is a game that has forever been filled with tradition. It’s what so many people love about the game – over the past 100+ years, the core of a baseball game has stayed the same. However, slowly but surely, the game has begun to change – defensive shifts through a new appreciation of analytics, a true “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” approach with a subsequent lack of our beloved “Ozzie Ball”, and a new focus on building up young talent instead of always trying to “win now”. In my opinion, despite a lot of push-back from the more traditional fans, baseball has changed for the better without fundamentally changing the game.
Allow me to spend some time tweaking this tradition a little bit more…
Fact: the inning that has seen the most runs scored this year is the first inning. – 722 runs. The next closest inning to that is the 6th inning, which is 74 runs away with 648 runs scored. Teams tend to jump on the ball early and often, getting out to early leads. Major League starters have struggled to the tune of a 4.96 first-inning ERA this season. The White Sox are no exception to these trends, with an atrocious 9.44 ERA in the first inning. For the White Sox and for most other teams, the most important outs have been in the first inning. So, don’t you want your best pitchers to be getting these outs to limit the damage?
What exactly am I getting at here? Well, what if Giolito, Shields, Lopez, and the rest of the starters didn’t start pitching until the 3rd inning? What if we entrusted our bullpen guys to handle the first 2 innings of games? It would go, in order, as follows:
Game 1: Joakim Soria 2, James Shields 6, Nate Jones 1
Game 2: Jace Fry 2, Lucas Giolito 6, Bruce Rondon 1
Game 3: Joakim Soria 2, Reynaldo Lopez 6, Nate Jones 1
Game 4: Chris Beck 3, Dylan Covey 5, Bruce Rondon 1
Game 5: Jace Fry 2, Hector Santiago 5, Joakim Soria 1, Nate Jones 1
… and so on and so forth throughout the season.
The first pitcher would be considered the “Opener”, and his job is exactly as it sounds – open the game, and get some important outs in the early innings. He gives way to your “Conventional Starting pitcher”, who will most likely face the bottom of the order – instead of some of the best hitters – as he gets settled into the game. He can then throw his usual 6-7 innings, and turn it over to another “Closer” to finish the game. If the “Opener” or “Conventional Starting Pitcher” doesn’t go as long as planned, then you fill the innings with the rest of your bullpen – Aaron Bummer, Luis Avilan, Chris Volstad, Chris Beck, and the like. All you’re really doing in this case is switching the order in which the pitchers pitch. The real goal is to keep the “Conventional Starting Pitcher” from seeing some of the best hitters in the lineup while he is still settling into the game; the added benefit is throwing the hitters off by switching pitchers so early in the game.
Now, obviously, you can always switch out the “Opener” however you please – my current setup is just a suggestion. This is where a guy like Carson Fulmer becomes so important – he can serve as the “Opener” or an end of the game guy. He’s flexible enough to pitch anywhere and any amount of innings. That’s the value in continuing to treat him as a starter – it keeps his arm stretched out.
Additionally, this is not an all-or-nothing type formula. There would be starters – Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, you get the point – for which this formula does not apply, because they are simply the best at what they do from the very first pitch of the game. But when you have young, talented prospects struggling to really settle into games, it’s worth switching things up to see if they can finally find a rhythm earlier in the game. If you find that rhythm, it becomes repeatable, meaning you have gotten one step closer to returning back to the idea of how a starter should be pitching.
This is a very unconventional thought, I realize this. It goes against how the game has been played for 100+ years. But, I’m not the creator of this idea – Brian Kenny introduced it in his book Ahead of the Curve. In addition, the Tampa Bay Rays are doing it right now – Sergio Romo started Saturday’s game and threw 1 inning (and struck out the side). He is the “starter” in today’s game as well. They aren’t doing it for the entire rotation, obviously, because a guy like Chris Archer is a shutdown guy from the first pitch. It can’t hurt to mention that the Rays won Saturday’s ballgame.
I’d like to point out that I’m not calling for a complete overhaul in how we think about baseball. However, in the absence of proven talent (HINT: 2018 White Sox), teams should be more willing to experiment with the developing talent they have. Maybe start slow with just one of the young guys – let’s say Giolito, who has the highest first inning ERA on the team. Regardless, there is clearly an issue for the White Sox with getting outs in the first inning; the sample size is 42 games, so something has to change. Why can’t this be it? It can’t hurt to try.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. After this, White Sox fans, you might change it to just putting my profile picture next to the word “Insanity” in the dictionary. But, just like shifting, launch angles, and rebuilding, maybe it’s not as crazy as it seems.
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