Manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto discuss the concept of using a reliever to start games in front of Hernandez, who has struggled in the first inning of starts this season.
When the Mariners emerge from their dugout at Safeco Field on Tuesday night, trying beat the Rangers and notch their 10th victory in 11 games, starter Felix Hernandez will jog to the pitcher’s mound for the top of the first inning of his start like he’s done his entire career.
No, there won’t be a reliever taking the mound in Hernandez’s place while he waits in the bullpen to come into the game in the second or third inning.
Yes, it’s something that has been discussed, debated and demanded on social media and other outlets following yet another poor first inning from Hernandez in Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the A’s. The sentiment stems from the recent strategy deployed by the Tampa Bay Rays, who decided to start veteran right-handed reliever Sergio Romo in multiple games this season, including back-to-back games vs. the Angels, in an effort to protect their young starting pitchers.
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MLB Network’s Brian Kenny and others have called the practice — using “an opener,” with the obvious hat tip to the established term/role of “the closer.” The Rays have also used the term “bullpenning.”
With Hernandez’s documented struggles in the first inning this season (12.27 ERA) and in recent seasons past, the prevailing thought would be to copy what the Rays are doing and start a reliever for the first inning or two before bringing Hernandez in to the game.
In his starts this season, Hernandez has shown the ability to settle down after the adventuresome first inning and deliver a decent outing after the initial damage.
So why not bring him in the second or third inning against the bottom of opponent’s batting order? That way if he does struggle with his command again, he’s doing so against lesser hitters.
It’s an idea that has merit.
It’s not quite the same logical as to why the Rays are doing that with Romo and now Ryne Stanek to protect young starting pitchers like Ryan Yarbrough (a former Mariners prospect).
Tampa has a reliever start the game, work through the top of the order or a desired number of hitters and then brings in the starter. By doing so, the young starter would optimally only have to face the top of the order two times in trying to get the seventh inning, thus avoiding facing the top of the order for the dreaded third time — which is a difficult task for most established pitchers and can be brutal for young pitchers.
“It’s just about banking leverage, banking third time through,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. “As much as we can put ourselves in a situation to kind of hide a pitcher, avoid him facing too many hitters at one time, we’re going to be benefitted from it.”
But there is more to it. The Rays had been carrying a three- or four-man starting rotation since the start of the season with Chris Archer, Blake Snell and Jake Faria, who is now injured. They were actually planning on a four-man rotation and doing a bullpen start as the No. 5 starter, when needed, going into the season.
“It’s a reflection of who we have available,” Cash told Topkin in March. “We feel like we have a lot of good pitchers and we want to get them all their reps and not limit somebody, not get use out of that guy that gets kind of odd man out by not being in the rotation.”
The four-man plan was pared to down to a three-man rotation when Nathan Eovaldi had elbow issues just before the season started. The three-man rotation lasted for about three weeks. And then Chirinos, who is now injured, was added to the rotation.
The use of the opener and bullpenning was born out of need and trying to win games given the talent available.
The circumstances are a little different for Seattle. The Mariners are dealing with one veteran pitcher who is struggling to locate or command his pitches in the first inning, not a lack of starters on the 25-man or 40-man roster.
But the fact that some of Hernandez’s outings have been marred by first-inning struggles, hurting the win chances for a Mariners’ team that is struggling to score runs of late, makes it an idea that should at least be discussed.
So why not ask Mariners manager Scott Servais if he would consider using an “opener” for Hernandez to offset his first-inning issues.
“It’s all club specific,” Servais said. “Some teams are able to handle that better or what not. It’s not something I think would work for our club. I don’t think it’s a bad strategy in certain senses. It works for Tampa. I don’t know their clubhouse or team as well as I know our team. I don’t think it’s the best thing for our team.”
Servais has followed what Tampa is doing like most people in baseball. He understands the reasoning.
“They have young kids, they were struggling to find starting pitching, they’re trying to go matchups,” he said. “I get all that. It makes a ton of sense as far as the numbers and data and what’s behind it and the lineups you’re facing and all that other stuff. But more important, there is this thing called the human element and I think teams are all built differently.”
That human element is using an opener for a kid in his first year of the big leagues vs. doing that with a 31-year-old starter, who has pitched for 14 years and logged 386 starts with no relief appearances.
“They have a lot of young players, they don’t have kind of the established starters. I don’t think we want to do that with James Paxton,” Servais said. “Maybe if James Paxton was on their team, they might look at their whole pitching staff differently. I don’t know. But we’ve got some guys who have started in this league and done OK for a while, so we’ll stick with the more traditional setup for right now. But it’s something I totally understand. I get the numbers behind it. It makes sense in a lot of scenarios, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for us.”
But you can’t just ask Servais about the situation. General manager Jerry Dipoto, who loves to geek out about this kind of baseball strategy, would ultimately have to approve the scenario to change up the rotation with a reliever starting. He’d also have to make sure there were the necessary players to implement the plan.
“I thought it was fascinating,” he said of the Rays’ use of an opener. “We had thrown the idea around as a what-if type of exercise.”
But it will remain a “what-if type of exercise” and not an implemented change.
“I think you have to have the right set up,” Dipoto said. “I think you have to have the right culture. More than anything you have to have the environment of a group of players who understand why you are doing it. You just can’t just throw it on the field without previous culturing the team to what may or may not happen. The Rays work in a very creative environment where they are very open and sharing in regards to the communication with their players. I think that if any team was able to do this or able to push the envelope on let’s say a three-man rotation, they can do things in a creative way and get the buy-in from their players that other teams might not be able to do.”
Of course, Dipoto had an anecdote about the situation.
“They’ve actually done this before,” he said. “They started Steven Geltz, but he wasn’t Sergio Romo so nobody really noticed.”
A quick glance at Baseball Reference shows that Geltz, a career right-handed reliever in the minor leagues and in parts of four seasons in the big leagues made two starts during the 2015 season. The first was a two-inning start against the Marlins on April 10 with starter/reliever Erasmo Ramirez to follow. And then later in the season, Geltz started for two innings and Matt Andriese followed with two innings pitched.
Dipoto understands why people want to copy the Rays to offset Hernandez’s first-inning inconsistency. But he wasn’t certain that not starting Hernandez fixes the problem. He also isn’t certain that someone like Hernandez can adapt to a scenario that’ so unpredictable.
“And the first inning probably becomes the second inning,” Dipoto said. “And there’s only so much you can do. And it’s the timing. It almost always has to be a veteran reliever who starts the game and then a younger starter who comes in because the timing is not simple. You don’t know if you are going to get 18 pitches in the bullpen warming up or 38. And the starters are wired to a pregame routine that can’t be easily replicated if you aren’t going to get out there and start pitching until the game is an inning old.”
He admitted the Mariners’ bullpen doesn’t really possess a reliever like Romo to do that. Right-hander Nick Vincent, who is now on the disabled list, was deemed as a logical candidate by many. But even when healthy, Vincent doesn’t quite have the bounceback durability that Romo possesses to be available the day after pitching a multi-inning outing. Romo started back-to-back teams vs. the Angels and two out of three games vs. the Orioles.
“You have to have the personnel,” Dipoto said.
So what’s next for Hernandez? Well, he went to Mel Stottlemyre to discuss possibly changing up his pregame routine in hope of having better command in the first inning.
“Hopefully it helps,” Servais said.
And if it doesn’t? Then the Mariners and Hernandez will have to readjust again. But “an opener” or “bullpenning” don’t seem to be a possibility for now.