After a busy week of the annual Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, I did my best Professor Trelawny impression from Harry Potter to read the message the Phillies have left in tea leaves regarding their pitching staff. So far this offseason the Phillies have positioned themselves to be at the forefront of the free agent landscape. They have been rumored to be in on practically every possible high-end free agent, as well as kicked the tires on trades for upgrades along the pitching staff. However, the club balked at giving Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ the desired years they were looking for, did not appear to be as interested in a reunion with Charlie Morton, and could not agree to a desired role for Nathan Eovaldi. In addition, the Phillies have not been able to come up with an agreeable trade for premium talents like Corey Kluber and Madison Bumgarner.
The possibility of the Phillies moving toward the "opener" strategy seems to be more apparent. This could easily change if the Phillies put some of their assets into a major piece, but, for now, there does not appear to be a definitive upgrade available over the current, rotation back-end starters in Zack Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez. With all that being said, a recent report of the team being interested in trading for Texas Rangers starter Mike Minor signals a potential change of direction with the pitching staff. Minor was an effective, long-inning reliever with the Kansas City Royals in 2017, and has also logged 138 starts over his seven-year career, including 28 with the Rangers in 2018. The Phillies could benefit from the opener strategy, as could their other starters, excluding Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.
Toward the end of last season, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler stated they “kicked around” the idea of the opener. In September, NBC Sports Philadelphia shared Kapler's thoughts of the new strategy in baseball:
“Given a lineup that looks pretty much the same every day and one that features the same four or five hitters in the top five spots, I think there’s some really good tactical advantages that you can get from bringing a guy in specifically to match up with those guys.”
The Tampa Bay Rays were the first team to embrace the opener strategy last year, as they were thought to be "dead in the water" after a number of injuries to their starting rotation. But, the Rays finished with 90 wins. Given their success, a number of teams followed with the strategy, with varying degrees of success.
For the Phillies, their rumored pursuit of Minor would push the narrative that surrounds the opener. Looking at their splits from last season, Minor, Pivetta, Velasquez, and Eflin all struggled at varying levels when facing batters for the second and third time in their starts.
Typically, Minor, Pivetta, Velasquez, and Eflin do very well while facing an opposing batter for the first time in a start. Minor has a fairly normal regression you would see a pitcher have going through a batting order multiple times; his strikeouts go down, walks go up, and opponents begin to hit better overall. Velasquez, somewhat odd, has normal pitching regression until the third time through the order, where he really begins to struggle and batters begin to "tee off." Pivetta and Eflin, meanwhile, have a tough time with batters in the second plate appearance, as their numbers spike up. However, in limited innings and total batters faced appear to settle back in as batters end up hitting as well or worse than they did their first time facing them.
These numbers tell an interesting story on these starters, and why they would make viable candidates for the Phillies to use the "opener." In a hypothetical opener scenario, if these pitchers came in clean for the second inning of a game, they would be set to face the No. 4, 5 and 6 hitters. In the third inning, they would face No. 7, 8, 9 hitters, and in the fourth inning, for the first time, they would face the No. 1, 2 and 3 hitters. The opener strategy tries to limit the amount of times the starter faces the opponent’s best batters, who historically are lined up toward the top of the batting order to maximize plate appearances. By utilizing an "opener" strategy, Minor, Pivetta, Velasquez, and Eflin would start to regress towards the fifth inning, rather than the fourth inning or earlier. This would allow them to pitch closer to seventh and eighth innings, where the Phillies could then bring in a reliever based on a matchup or leverage situation.
Despite the benefits of the "opener," not all things work perfectly, especially in baseball. It is still hard to say whether the Phillies would actually consider using an "opener." There are still a number of moving parts that need to be addressed with the team’s rotation and bullpen. As of now, there are not a great number of available free agents that seem to be significantly better than the trio of Pivetta, Velasquez, and Eflin. The best options are on the trade market, but those situations are fluid. At the moment, other teams do not seem to be willing to part with such talented players.
If the Phillies are unable to upgrade their rotation, they will need to be creative in how to maximize the staff they currently have. The "opener" might be the strategy some games, while other days they could mirror the Oakland Athletics and stock up on strong bullpen arms and rely more heavily on them. The pitching situation will be an interesting one to watch as the team progresses through the offseason.