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Why the Rockies should use The Opener

It might just be the necessary answer to win the NL West.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Colorado Rockies Russell Lansford-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Rockies are in a very interesting position leading up to October.

They’re just two and a half games out of the NL West lead, putting them in striking distance to win the division with 46 games to play. By no means are they the best team in baseball, however, as their -19 run differential is 17th in the Major Leagues. Using this figure, the Rockies have a 55-60 Pythagorean record, suggesting that their 61-55 record is about six wins inflated. That’s not good.

While the Rockies are certainly playing above expectations, this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to win down the stretch. With so much baseball to be played, a two and a half game deficit for any postseason spot can be easily erased. The Rockies should enjoy the luck that they’e had thus far. They should go forward with the strategy of putting themselves in the best position to win as many of the remaining games as possible.

This means they should deploy The Opener.

The term, which was likely coined by MLB Network analyst Brian Kenny, has been one of the buzzwords across baseball this year. The Tampa Bay Rays decided to use this strategy starting for some games in mid-May, and it’s been quite successful. In fact, it has been so successful that the Rays have posted the fourth-lowest ERA in baseball since May 1.

With every game having monumental importance from here on out, the Rockies should take the Rays’ method and put it in action in Colorado. There’s one main reason as to why.

Rockies’ ERA by inning

Inning ERA Rank
Inning ERA Rank
1 7.68 30
2 2.02 1
3 3.18 8
4 3.80 10
5 3.88 8
6 6.13 30
7 6.36 30
8 3.65 12
9 4.71 25
Extras 7.11 27

The Rockies are bad in the first inning. And when I say bad, I mean really bad. The team has the worst first inning ERA in baseball, and it’s not close. The 7.68 mark is nearly an entire run higher than the team in 29th, the Orioles. Batters tee off against Rockies pitching in the first, slashing .304/.369/.564 over 545 plate appearances. That’s pretty much the equivalent of every hitter being Manny Machado when they step to the plate. Every hitter.

The need for The Opener in Colorado is further exemplified by the fact that the team’s ERA drops sharply in innings two through five. The team’s second inning ERA of 2.02 ranks tops in baseball. That’s insanity. What this means is that the starting pitcher, who likely got crushed in the first, has settled down against the bottom of the opposing team’s order and got the necessary outs with little damage. By this point, the Rockies are probably in a hole that the offense needs to climb out of. The Rockies continue to put up top 10 ERA marks in innings three through five.

There’s a lot to like to putting The Opener in Colorado, but there remains one major issue: the Rockies’ bullpen is bad. And when I say bad, I mean really bad. Rockies relievers have a 5.17 ERA, third-highest in the league. This probably means that they only have a few options to be The Opener there.

The Rockies’ bullpen

Player ERA K% BB% FIP- IP / Appearance
Player ERA K% BB% FIP- IP / Appearance
Adam Ottavino 1.60 37.4% 10.5% 53 1.0
Seung Hwan Oh 2.63 27.3% 5.9% 77 1.0
Scott Oberg 3.15 19.6% 7.0% 86 1.0
Wade Davis 5.51 26.6% 12.1% 109 1.0
Jake McGee 6.35 21.6% 6.3% 111 1.0
Harrison Musgrave 4.55 16.8% 12.2% 115 1.1
Bryan Shaw 6.45 21.7% 10.9% 115 1.0
Chris Rusin 6.81 19.0% 11.2% 123 1.0

The Rockies’ relief corps are godawful. Only Adam Ottavino, who has a 1.60 ERA and a 26.9 K-BB%, has been exceptional. They tried to upgrade at the trade deadline with the acquisition of Seunghwan Oh, and he has been solid. Wade Davis, their prized bullpen arm signed in the offseason, leads the NL with 32 saves, but he has allowed almost as many home runs this season (8) as he has in the last four years combined (9).

This leaves them with few arms to serve as The Opener.

But instead of blindly guess which players could be The Opener in Colorado, I decided to try to model candidates after players the Rays have used as their Opener.

The Rays’ main Openers

Player ERA K% BB% FIP- IP / Appearance
Player ERA K% BB% FIP- IP / Appearance
Sergio Romo 3.63 26.9% 7.4% 84 1.0
Hunter Wood 4.07 27.5% 11.0% 92 1.2
Andrew Kittredge 8.03 13.6% 9.3% 132 1.1

The Rays have relied on three main pitchers to serve as a short-appearance Opener: Sergio Romo, Hunter Wood and Andrew Kittredge. Romo clearly has had the most success of the three, but that is also mainly because he’s been their best reliever overall. Kittredge has not served them well on the staff overall, but his numbers in his three starts (3.68 ERA, 4.93 FIP) have been better.

Using these stats, I tried to identify potential candidates for the Rockies’ Opener position.

Rockies Potential Openers

Player ERA K% BB% FIP- IP / Appearance
Player ERA K% BB% FIP- IP / Appearance
Seung Hwan Oh 2.63 27.3% 5.9% 77 1.0
Scott Oberg 3.15 19.6% 7.0% 86 1.0
Jake McGee 6.35 21.6% 6.3% 111 1.0
Harrison Musgrave 4.55 16.8% 12.2% 115 1.1

This gives the team two lefties and two righties as options. Oh and Oberg make the list because they’ve been the Rockies’ best relievers not named Ottavino, Musgrave makes the list because it’s possible that he has more length than the other relievers (and could possibly pitch more than one inning) and McGee makes the list to provide a second lefty option.

I notably left Davis off of this list because I figured that he’d be the least likely to want to make the switch. He was paid to be the closer in Colorado, and I doubt that he would be happy with manager Bud Black if he was thrown into an Opener role. Ottavino was also left off because the Rockies also would likely want to keep him at the back-end of games to shut down opposing lineups, as he’s done all season.

Deploying this strategy would likely force them to move a starter or two to the bullpen to be the second through seventh inning bridge. Rockies’ starters this season have gone almost six innings per game, so this is what a potential Opener game may look like for them:

  • Seung Hwan Oh - 1st inning
  • German Marquez - 2nd inning
  • German Marquez - 3rd inning
  • German Marquez - 4th inning
  • German Marquez - 5th inning
  • German Marquez - 6th inning
  • German Marquez - 7th inning
  • Adam Ottavino - 8th inning
  • Wade Davis - 9th inning

The strategy isn’t foolproof, but Marquez is probably the best middle innings option for The Opener considering he has a 10.17 ERA in the first inning and a 3.49 ERA in all other innings. Oh has allowed 0.29 earned runs per inning this year; Marquez has allowed 1.13 earned runs per first inning this year. The difference here is nearly an entire run, which could be the difference between a Rockies win and a Rockies loss.

Colorado could consider deploying this strategy four times per rotation turn, as only Kyle Freeland (2.35 first inning ERA) has an ERA below 6.00 in the first. It might be something that they wouldn’t want to jump into headfirst quite yet, so at a minimum, just making Marquez’s rotation day their Opener day could make the most sense.

Regardless, in a tight NL West race where every win counts, the Rockies should consider using The Opener as a way to cut down on first inning runs, which could allow them to win more games.

It’s time for the Rockies to get creative to win the division. The Opener is the answer.

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.