The 2019 Houston Astros or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the “Opener”

After a sluggish start to the regular season, the Houston Astros evened their regular season record at 5-5 after a weekend sweep of the division-rival Oakland Athletics. The rotation has been reliable, ranking 5th in MLB in IP (57.1), 10th in ERA (3.30), 6th in WHIP (1.03), and 7th in Opp BA (.206). The bats have also begun to heat up: after hitting .095 (4 for 42) with RISP through April 5th (last in MLB) and failing to score more than 5 runs in each of the season’s first eight games, the Astros now rank 8th in MLB in Team BA (.264) and 11th in Team OPS (.760)

The weekend sweep of Oakland may be the springboard for an epic 2019 campaign, but it also highlighted a weakness on the current roster: the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation. Brad Peacock‘s struggles out of the fifth rotation spot during the final game of the Oakland series (5 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 3K, 1 BB, 1 HR) kicked off a lengthy 9-8 offensive battle that spent many of the Astros’ key bullpen arms ahead of an important 3-game series with the red-hot New York Yankees. Peacock was one of several candidates for the final rotation spot entering the season, along with Framber Valdez and, to a lesser extent, Josh James. Peacock has been effective in long-relief, but he lacks the stamina of a traditional starting pitcher so he seems unlikely to remain in the rotation long-term. Valdez’s pitch command is a work in progress and James is regaining stamina after recovering from a minor groin injury from spring training, so neither is ready to assume the Astros’ final rotation spot.

With the fifth rotation spot seemingly up for grabs, it’s time for the Astros to embrace the “opener” strategy every fifth day; that is, instead of opening with a traditional starting pitcher every fifth game, start with an “opener” for three to four innings and follow with a few relievers thereafter (for one to two innings each). The Tampa Bay Rays pioneered the approach last season and have used it successfully thus far in 2019. The strategy seems like a great fit for the Astros. Briefly, here are a few reasons why:

First, Brad Peacock has shown amazing “swing-and-miss” potential (led MLB in strikeout rate in 2017) but his limited stamina and underlying statistics suggest he could be most effective as an “opener,” relied upon to pitch two or three innings every fifth day rather than a full six-plus innings as a traditional starting pitcher. Peacock has a 3.10 ERA, 3.96 xFIP, and 10.4 K/9 in 249.1 IP when facing opposing hitters the first time through a batting order. In his second trip through the order, his numbers are less impressive: 156 IP, 3.58 ERA, 3.91 xFIP, and 8.8 K/9. In his third time through the order, worse still: 66 IP, 8.32 ERA, 5.42 xFIP, 7.1 K/9. The gradual increase in ERA and decrease in strikeout percentage suggest that Peacock throws most effectively and capitalizes on his “swing-and-miss” stuff during his first time through the opposition’s batting order. Most pitchers likely become less effective after successive trips through an opposing batting order. Peacock, however, relies on deception, pitch command and location, and is less able to “overpower” hitters who are no longer deceived late in games. Let him dominate once through the opposition’s batting order, then substitute another relief pitcher with a fresh arm and an unfamiliar pitch repertoire.

Second, the Astros opened the 2019 season carrying seven relief pitchers, rather than the traditional six. With an extra arm in the bullpen, relying on three or four relief pitchers for two or three innings every fifth game should be much more feasible for the Astros than for other teams. Cionel Perez, Reymin Guduan, and a bevy of other relief pitchers are available in the minor leagues to be called-up as needed.

Third, Josh James, Framber Valdez, and Brad Peacock are all “stretched out” and capable of pitching for multiple innings every fifth day. A.J. Hinch appears devoted early this season to pitching James two-to-three times per week for multiple innings during each appearance, perhaps as preparation for a mid-season entry into the starting rotation. The “opener” strategy will allow James to continue pitching for extended periods, while also familiarizing him with the 5-day schedule that he’ll need to embrace as a traditional starting pitcher. In this sense, the opener approach provides an added benefit: not only will the strategy help capitalize on the resources available in the Astros bullpen, but it will also help further James’s development as a future centerpiece for the Astros’ starting rotation.

Lastly, the opener approach offers a perfect opportunity to introduce the Astros’ top pitching prospects (Forrest Whitley, J.B. Bukauskas, Corbin Martin, and Brandon Bielak) to the majors in low-stress, low-leverage situations (for instance during the 4th, 5th, and 6th innings as a substitute for Peacock, James, or Valdez). Imagine, every fifth day could be used not only as an “opener” day, but also as a “developmental day” to begin brining talented young pitchers to the majors in a manner that will limit their innings pitched and their exposure to high-stress, physically taxing situations.

The Astros have earned a reputation in recent years as MLB’s most innovative, data-driven, and experimental organization. The team has already embraced the defensive shift more than most other clubs in MLB. Why not embrace the “opener” strategy every fifth game? At minimum, it could simply be a temporary adjustment until James, Whitley, or Valdez are ready to enter the rotation. At best, the opener strategy could prove to be the move that launches the Astros to new heights in 2019 and beyond.

Featured Photo: Getty Images

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