Felix Pena, Ryan Yarbrough show pitching in bulk can be a winner
Felix Pena typically leaves the game in the middle innings when he pitches, but Friday was not a typical night.
First, the memory of Pena’s late Angels teammate Tyler Skaggs was pushing him to succeed; second, he was pitching hitless ball, and the pitcher who preceded him, Taylor Cole, had done the same.
After Pena’s fourth inning of work – the top of the sixth – a no-hitter watch was on. Would LA manager Brad Ausmus decide that Pena had done enough and then turn the game over to his late-inning relief crew?
Ausums decided to go old-school – as old-school as a combined no-no can be, anyway. He kept sending Pena to the mound, and Pena kept working hitless frames. Ausmus gave Pena the ninth.
On his 81st pitch of the game, Pena retired the Mariners’ Mallex Smith on a grounder to second. The combined no-hitter was complete. So was the greatest opener game in the year-plus history of the strategy.
Cole and Pena’s reign almost ended two days later.
Sunday in Baltimore, Rays left-hander Ryan Yarbrough was three outs away from finishing the first combined perfect game in baseball history. His regular tag-team partner, Ryne Stanek, set the stage by retiring the first six Orioles batters.
Like Pena, Yarbrough was in his seventh inning of work. Unlike Pena, he could not finish. He allowed hits to the first two hitters in the ninth and left one batter later. Tampa Bay couldn’t preserve the shutout, either, as the O’s pushed across a run.
The Rays will take the eventual 4-1 victory just the same, and though they failed to make history, they did draw more attention to the strategy they introduced last year and that other teams are adopting – slowly – this year.
The opener attracts heat from players, pundits and fans who believe that giving the ball to a horse who can work into the late innings is still a better plan. Those critics probably dismiss the idea that the pitcher who follows the opener can also get the game to the setup man and closer, or, in Pena’s case last weekend, finish the job.
Pena had several factors working in his favor Friday night: He was given a big lead early and he was throwing too well, in Ausmus’ estimation, to be lifted. His seven innings pitched tied a season high. Still, Pena has worked into the seventh or later five times in 13 bulk outings.
Yarbrough definitely knows how to pitch in bulk. He threw 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball in the first opener game, May 19, 2018, in Anaheim, and he has combined with Rays openers to go seven or more innings in eight of his 25 career bulk appearances. He had not worked into the ninth until Sunday, but with a perfecto on the line and with his pitch count modest (76 through six), Rays skipper Kevin Cash stuck with him.
Those performances are on the extreme high end for opener games, though. On average, opener-bulk tandems max out around the sixth inning, just as today’s regular starters do. SN has indentified 99 opener-bulk games, or 3.5 percent of all MLB game starts, this season through July 15. The chart below shows just how closely the tandems’ stats track with the average results of the other 96.5 percent of game starts.
League average begins to look really good when a team – the Angels, say – doesn’t have enough quality starting pitching. LA used an opener-bulk tandem 18 times through July 14, about the same number of turns as a mid-rotation starter. The comparison to the team’s non-opener starters is striking:
The Rays, on the other hand, have been excellent in both settings this year. Their tandems put together a 2.42 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in an MLB-most 29 games (5.51 innings per game) through July 15, while the traditional starters had a 3.09 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP in 67 games (5.79 innings per game)
The Angels moved Pena into a bulk role in April after he made four starts to begin the season. Even though Friday was unusual for many reasons, it was also a typical night, for these reasons:
– He began with a clean inning after replacing Cole. Pena has not entered a game mid-inning as a bulk reliever.
– His first batter was the Mariners’ No. 7 hitter, Tom Murphy, rather than the leadoff man, Smith. Pena has faced the No. 5 hitter or lower first in 10 of his 13 bulk outings; the other three appearances began with the No. 4 hitter.
– He faced 22 batters in all, just two over his season average as a bulk reliever. The only batting order spots he faced a third time were seventh, eighth, ninth and first.
Those last two points go to the heart of what teams try to do with bulk relievers: keep them away from the top of the order in the first inning, when the most runs historically are scored, and the third time through, when slash-line averages spike.
It seems clear from the numbers that the Angels are most interested in giving Pena an easier “start” by having him follow an opener. He has a career 6.00 first-inning ERA and .815 first-inning opponents’ OPS; only his ninth innings (7.41 ERA, .936 OPS) have been worse. His third-time-through numbers as a starter are excellent (.580 OPS in 81 plate appearances).
The Rays, as originators of the opener strategy, are more nuanced in using Yarbrough and their other primary bulk relievers, Jalen Beeks and Yonny Chirinos.
– They set up Yarbrough, a left-hander who doesn’t throw hard, to follow the flamethrowing right-hander Stanek.
– Yarbrough can enter the game anywhere from the first to the third, depending on matchups, and Cash will hook him quickly if necessary. As evidence, Yarbrough’s bulk innings this year range from two to 6 1/3.
– Yarbrough has faced batters a third time in just two outings, and for only eight batters total. He faced 21 hitters Sunday, well above his 14.6 season average for bulk games. In contrast, he’s averaging seven innings and 27.75 hitters in his four starts.
There is one other similarity between Pena and Yarbrough, and they share it with the bulk of this year’s bulk relievers: They don’t have a lot of major league service time. Pena was at one year, 79 days coming into the season, while Yarbrough accrued a full season as a rookie last year.
Of the 36 bulk relievers who pitched in games through July 15, 30 had less than three years’ service time prior to 2019. The exceptions: Edwin Jackson, Wade LeBlanc, Tommy Milone, Drew Smyly and Angels hurlers Trevor Cahill and Nick Tropeano.
Using less-experienced (and mostly less-hyped) pitchers increases the likelihood of buy-in into this innovative plan. Stanek (one year, 38 days prior to 2019) told reporters last year that he’d rather be opening in the majors than pitching in Triple-A.
There’s also a monetary benefit to teams that go that route. Pitchers working in these roles don’t get to accumulate large counting numbers other than wins (Yarbrough had 16 last year as a swingman), and wins are supposedly passe among the fancy-stats folks who are running clubs. Those pitchers won’t, in theory, be able to make strong cases when they reach salary arbitration.
Sixteen MLB teams, more than half the 30 clubs, used an opener through July 15, per SN’s research. They’ve treated opener games mostly as tandem starts rather than as advancements in bullpenning. Four teams – the Rays, Angels, Mariners and Yankees – accounted for more than two-thirds of all opener games (67 total).
That’s why it was said at the beginning of this article that the strategy is catching on slowly, but maybe teams should speed things up. Those four clubs are a combined 42-25 (.627 winning percentage) when an opener goes – and when a bulk reliever follows.
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