I can look at the numbers a dozen times over, comprehend their meaning, and still refuse their conclusion – there’s no way the Mariners have merely allowed runs to score in the first inning in barely 1/3rd of their games. Time after time I’ve flipped the game on to see the team mid-shoveling, excavating their own graves for the night like a bunch of planful corpses. Even if it’s less than a certainty, allowing 56 runs in the first 76 opportunities is plenty dreadful. To combat this premature burial, the Mariners have embraced a strategy that captured the imagination of many last year: The Opener. Last night they turned to South African rookie Tayler Scott for the job. It… did not work.
It’s not the worst inning in the world, and Cuthbert’s bloop single was no laser, but it did not set Tommy Milone up for the softened landing he needs, and a single on the first at-bat of Milone’s night pushed the score to 2-0. The run was charged to Scott, giving him two runs in his 0.2 IP. It put Seattle in a hole that might’ve been unavoidable, but was certainly not aided with Scott’s usage.
The Mariners have now used The Opener six times (not counting Yusei Kikuchi’s load management outing), for a total of 5.1 IP, 11 ER, and an 8|5 K|BB. The strategy behind The Opener is multi-faceted, and while it has understandably drawn the ire of players and observers alike for its possible uses against players in salary arbitration, Seattle’s use has been limited thus far to veterans beyond that pay structure. In a baseball sense, first and foremost, an Opener gives their team a chance to pit a one-inning specialist against an opponent’s best hitters. Often this allows the team to exploit splits in their opponent’s order – most notably RHP Sergio Romo of the 2018 Rays was used to open for LHP Ryan Yarbrough due to Romo’s knack for setting down RHHs specifically. Lastly, by allowing the “starter” to dodge the top of the order, they’re given a better opportunity to avoid the dreaded Third Time Thru the Order penalty against their opponent’s best bats for an extended period.
Unfortunately, the Mariners have hardly satisfied either of the first two stipulations. The pitchers used for Opening this year have been Tayler Scott, Austin Adams (2x), Gerson Bautista (2x), and Cory Gearrin. I like Austin Adams, Gearrin has been better since his early-season yips, Bautista is young and talented, and Scott has a neat story. None of them have a track record of performance that would certify they are above-average relievers in MLB. They’re simply who the Mariners have. Since Seattle is just running out anyone in arm’s reach to open for Milone and Wade LeBlanc, they’re limited in what matchups they can play. The lineup they were shielding their lefty from last night looked like this:
Tracking back, the matchups have been no more lopsided. The A’s had LHH Matt Olson hitting third against Gerson Bautista last week. The Angels went L/R/L with Tommy La Stella, Mike Trout, and Shohei Ohtani against Austin Adams in his clean outing the week before. The Twins went L/S/R/L against Gerson Bautista. The Astros had more success doing the same L/R/L combo a few days earlier with Derek Fisher, Alex Bregman, and Michael Brantley, just as they did in the first game of that same series against Cory Gearrin. Not only are the Mariners not getting a platoon advantage in these early innings, they’ve been fighting uphill against it.
That brings us to the third potential benefit – aiding the starter in going deep. Here’s where things could shine a bit more positively on the strategy. In six outings (3x each for Milone and LeBlanc), they have 34.1 IP, 14 ER, a 24|3 K|BB, and a 4.02 ERA together. That’s not elite, but it’s a marked improvement over both the Mariners (5.32/5.29 ERA/FIP) and the league’s average for starters (4.40/4.41 ERA/FIP). In five of the six outings, the duo has pitched 5+ innings, and in four of the six they’ve made it thru 6+. The holes the Openers have been digging are deep, but their follow-ups are keeping it competitive – potentially as a result of the more beneficial entry point against opposing lineups.
The issue ultimately seems to be the quality of the players in use over the strategy itself. Six outings is too soon to draw a sweeping conclusion on the LeBlone/MilBlanc Effect, but it seems likely they would continue to benefit from dodging the top of the order whenever possible. In a season destined for losing, minimal-consequence experimentation is a consolation prize. I appreciate Seattle doing whatever they can to get the most out of their roster, but it may continue to be ugly. Until the Mariners have bullpen pieces trusty enough to handle an inning cleanly more than 1/3rd of the time, however, they’re liable to continue Opening themselves to early attacks.