The opener and the shift. Two revolutions in baseball strategy — or fads, depending on who you talk to — one of which burst on the scene last year courtesy of the Tampa Bay Rays, the other of which has been building for several years.
Enter the Orioles, led by new GM Mike Elias. He hired former NASA engineer Sig Mejdal to build a brand new analytics department. Things are changing at the warehouse. We have every reason to believe the team will start doing whatever the data tells them to.
Part of Elias’ and new manager Brandon Hyde’s challenge will be how to best utilize the personnel they have. It’s that time of the year where everyone is projecting potential 2019 rosters and the Orioles have made virtually no significant moves so far this offseason.
But bear in mind, Elias has said that the Orioles will wait out the market. Even still, if the season began today, the Orioles would have three veteran starting pitchers penciled into the rotation and the only significant additions to the infield being a couple of defense-first Rule 5 shortstops.
David Schoenfield has an excellent piece from a few days ago that touches on both of the aforementioned topics. The excerpt below is regarding the opener:
You can make an argument that use of the opener on a regular basis was the most significant development of the 2018 season. Think about it: It was an entirely new strategy to playing the game, a pretty remarkable development given the sport’s long history.
This doesn’t mean the death of the starting pitcher. As Cash pointed out, it was easier for the Rays to try the strategy given the youth of their pitching staff. “Every club kind of values their rotation or their pitching staff differently,” he said.
Looking at the Houston Astros last year, their top four starters were Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton. Enough said. Their fifth starter was Lance McCullers, who only pitched 128 some innings. The lowest ERA among that group was McCullers’ 3.86.
So they were strong one-through-five in the rotation and had little need for the opener. Mike Elias does not have that same luxury in Baltimore.
The Orioles have a lot of young pitchers on the cusp of the major leagues, so it could make sense to fill out the last two spots in the rotation with the opener strategy. They can still rely on Dylan Bundy, Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb to eat up innings as the regular starters, allowing the bullpen to avoid being overworked.
Jimmy Yacabonis was a de facto opener on a few occasions last season, whether on purpose or not. He could get a shot at the job next year. Tanner Scott has an electric arm and he used to start in the minors for two or three inning bursts. Maybe he can fire through the opposing team’s lineup at the beginning of a game and be effective.
The Birds would still have guys like David Hess and Miguel Castro to eat up innings after the opener is spent.
Switching gears to look at the shift, the following is an excerpt from Nick Gerli’s outstanding piece from Pitcher List.
2018 witnessed the largest increase in shifting in recent years, with nearly 30,000 more infield shifts deployed than the previous season, bringing the total shifting share to 17.6% of all pitches. Despite the overall increase, there is a large disparity in shifting among franchises, with the forward-thinking Astros leading the way at a 37.3% shift rate and the Angels trailing the pack at 3.3%. The Rays, Twins, Yankees, Royals and White Sox round out some of the other top shifting teams, while the Cardinals, Cubs, Rangers, and Padres are some of the other laggards.
A key detail in there is the fact that the Astros were the most aggressive team with the shift last year. And we have one of their former executives leading the Orioles now. With the way the game is going, we have every reason to believe the Orioles will be using the shift early and often this upcoming year.
Baltimore’s personnel moves support this idea as well. They drafted Richie Martin from the Oakland Atheltics in the Rule 5 draft and traded for Rule 5 shortstop Drew Jackson (originally from the Philadelphia Phillies).
If the Orioles really wanted to prioritize defense, they could try putting their two new Rule 5 infielders at shortstop and third base. With the shift so prevalent now, infielders are becoming roamers expected to switch positions depending on the batter. If shortstops are truly the best defenders on the field, why not let two of them handle the bulk of the infield work?