PITTSBURGH — On Friday, Rays manager Kevin Cash announced that his club would do something not often tried in Major League Baseball: Deploy a relief pitcher as his starter.
Cash told reporters that Sergio Romo, who had never started a game in his 11-year big-league career, would the mound for the first inning Saturday night against the Angels, with the expressed purpose of pitching to a few batters before handing the ball to rookie starter Ryan Yarbrough.
As it turned out, the best-laid plans worked perfectly. Romo struck out the side and Yarbrough subsequently pitched into the eighth in the Rays’ 5-3 win.
Cash’s reasoning sounded an awful lot like when former Pirates manager Jim Leyland turned to reliever Ted Power to start Game 6 of the 1990 National League Championship Series against the Reds.
“The way that (the Angels’) lineup stacks generally speaking is very heavy right-handed at the top,” Cash said to the Tampa Bay Times and several other outlets. “It allows us in theory to let Sergio to come in there and play the matchup game in the first. … Then (Yarbrough) can, in theory, have the availability to get deeper in the game.”
Twenty-eight years ago, Leyland’s Pirates were also seeking to exploit matchups against the righty-heavy Reds, so lefty starter Zane Smith entered in the third after Power got through the first two innings unscathed.
“As long as he pitches well and gets them out,” Leyland said of his plan for Power before the Pirates were eliminated with a Game 6 loss. “It’s like Game 7 for us.”
This is more than a history lesson. While Leyland’s move ended up being a historical fluke more than anything, Cash’s Saturday strategy seems more indicative of the changing times than a desperate innovation.
In a world where facing a given lineup for the third time is best done with caution, why not work the first inning like the seventh, eighth or ninth and take advantage of matchups? Once the top of the order is navigated, the man who would normally start could have an easier introduction to the game and hopefully achieve greater efficiency.
Even if the pitcher tabbed to start goes three or four innings, followed by another pitcher waiting for the first sign of trouble, that seems to be a better use of resources than forcing a pitcher into the old mold for starting pitchers.
Thursday’s win over the Padres at PNC Park delivered a perfect example of how Clint Hurdle’s Pirates could be uniquely positioned to do something revolutionary with their pitching staff.
In the opener of a four-game set against the Padres, Chad Kuhl blew through the first two innings, striking out four and retiring the first six hitters in order. Using his two best pitches, a high-90s fastball and a high-80s slider, Kuhl aired it out and kept up the quick rhythm he prefers.
Then, of course, things got messy from there, with eight of the next 14 Padres reaching base before Kuhl was pulled for Steven Brault in the fifth.
“I would say (I was) just inconsistent out of the stretch,” Kuhl said. “Obviously I’m a rhythm guy, so I want to be moving quick. The stretch slows that down a bit.”
That’s one way to explain it, but Kuhl’s splits this season tell a typical story. This year, opponents are hitting .222 with a .717 OPS the first time they face Kuhl in a game, .282/.816 the second time and .341/1.036 the third time.
Those splits are extreme compared to his career numbers in the majors — batters actually have done a little worse the second time through compared to the first, but the third time is still at .296/.879. On Thursday, Eric Hosmer cracked a go-ahead two-run double off the top of the wall on his third look at Kuhl, an opportunity I’d argue the former Royals star should’ve never gotten.
“I think Chad threw some challenges at Chad, once some guys got on,” Hurdle said. “Once the bottom of the lineup dinged him, he started to go harder and faster.”
Maybe the Pirates don’t have to change too much in practical terms. Kuhl can still start, but perhaps he could be ‘paired’ with Brault, with the idea that the lefty will be ready at the first sign of real trouble. Knowing how Kuhl can react to things going south could also inform that decision-making process.
It doesn’t hurt that Brault appears to be taking to his relief role in a limited sample. As a starter this season, opponents hit .237 with a .740 OPS, but those numbers have dropped to .220/.606 when he comes out of the bullpen.
Brault not only cleaned up Kuhl’s mess Thursday night, he chipped in two scoreless innings, although not without some traffic. Brault executed in key spots, though, enough to make one wonder if he’s found his niche.
“I think his stuff is playing up out of the bullpen,” Kuhl assessed. “I think he’s doing an awesome job. It’s definitely a routine switch. Baseball players, we like our routines, we like the way we do things. There’s a lot to be said for what he’s doing out there. Really good.”
For his part, Brault said it’s been “really fun” pitching in relief, with the adrenaline of the role allowing him to access his natural athleticism and competitiveness a little easier. (Alan Saunders had more on Brault earlier this week.)
“Basically it comes down to the fact that I’m going to just let it go however it wants to go,” Brault said. “It works better for me. I’m not the guy who needs the perfect delivery. I’m not going to release the ball from the same place every time. That’s not the way it works for me, so I’m going to stop trying to be a guy that I’m not.”
Sounds a little like Tyler Glasnow when he discusses the changes he tried to make for this season. In Glasnow’s MLB career, opponents hit .311 with a .974 OPS when he starts and a meager .231/.685 when he relieves.
By now, you probably can see where this is going. The Pirates have a few pitchers we might call ‘tweeners,’ guys with good enough stuff, but who don’t consistently have the command or variety to get through the opposing batting order more than a couple of times. Regardless of whether they start games on the mound or the ‘pen, pitchers like Kuhl, Glasnow, Brault and maybe Joe Musgrove could be better served focusing on being as effective as possible for three or four innings, tops. (Looking at Iván Nova’s splits this season — .333/.966 against on third time through — perhaps he should be a candidate for this treatment, too.)
Furthermore, the Pirates have already been operating with a four-man bench and an eight-man bullpen for much of this season, so it’s not as if Hurdle would be hamstrung in pinch-hit situations more than he is right now.
It’s not necessary for this team to go full Romo (or Power), but considering its personnel, its best chance to win could lie in blurring the line between starter and reliever, or at least changing the expectations for certain starting pitchers.
That doesn’t mean if Nova gets it rolling like he is sometimes apt to do, you go get him after four or five innings. It does mean having more flexibility on where to find length in a pitching staff.
“I though (Brault) was excellent,” Hurdle said Thursday. “I thought (he) was so good I left him in the game to let him hit. He gave us length when we needed it.”
As an added bonus, this approach could also present an opportunity to work Nick Kingham back into the mix. If he could be effective as a multi-inning reliever, what does it matter if he’s not out there for the first inning? If that means George Kontos or Kyle Crick gets shipped out, so be it.
The regular season is different from the postseason, but there’s something to be learned from Leyland’s comments 28 years ago.
“I’ve got 11 pitchers,” the old Bucco skipper said. “And if I have to, I’ll use all 11.”