Blue Jays and the 2019 Starting Reliever Paradigm
The idea of having a reliever pitch the first 1+ innings was introduced by the Rays in 2018. Could this idea help the Jays in 2019 and beyond?
The Rays are at it again.
After pioneering the modern shift (true, they did not invent it – but Edison did not invent the light bulb) the Rays innovated again in 2019. Faced with a depleted starting rotation, they introduced the idea of having a reliever pitch the first inning or two and then bringing in the starter.
It may initially sound crazy, but there is a method to their madness.
- On average, hitters do significantly better against a pitcher the third time they see him in a game – the TTT (third time through) penalty.
- On average, starting pitchers have faced 23 batters per game in 2018.
- Many of the better teams have a predominantly right-handed top of the order.
Let me illustrate with a hypothetical scenario.
Toronto Blue Jays
The 2019 Jays are playing the Red Sox, with Marcus Stroman starting. As in 2018, the power of the BoSox batting order is at the top – players batting 1-4 have an average wRC+ of 146 but 5-9 average 83. And of the top four, the three big boppers all bat right-handed. Jays manager DeMarlo Hale realizes that if Stroman pitches to the average 23 batters then those top four hitters would see him a third time – and at a point where he was potentially tiring. Hale also realizes that Stroman has a particularly high TTT penalty – on his career, batters hit Marcus at an ISO of 99 the first time through the order, 133 the second time and 176 the third time. Finally, Hale knows that Sam Gaviglio, the Jays’ long man out of the bullpen (while not as good a pitcher as Stroman) had a 10.4 K/9 and a 3.23 xFIP against righties in 2018.
So Hale has Gaviglio pitch to the first four batters. Sam has three advantages – he is facing right-handers, his natural strength, he starts with the bases empty, and because he knows he is only facing four batters he can afford to hold nothing back. Then Hale brings in Stroman. Stro’ pitches to batters 5-9, then 1-9, then 1-9 again, coming out after 23 batters faced … but without facing the top of the order a third time. So his TTT penalty is against Leon and Nunez rather than Betts and Martinez. By then it is (hopefully!) getting near the end of the game, so Hale can use a convention set-up + closer to finish the game.
This strategy is not without its critics. It seems counter-intuitive to not have your best pitcher face the top of the opponents’ order. And of course, there are the “it will throw pitchers off” and “pitchers want the chance to pitch a complete game” naysayers. And it is easy to find examples where this strategy backfired – like when the Mets replaced Matt Harvey with Hansel Robles in 2015, and Robles gave up five runs and lost the game.
The bottom line
It is not enough to have good players on your team. The manager needs to use them intelligently, creatively, and efficiently. In particular, teams need to understand and work around their players’ limitations. Pitchers who can get 3-4 right-handed batters out are available and far cheaper than starters – could this paradigm become the newest efficiency?