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The Royals have a first inning problem - should they use an opener?

The Rays have used it, should the Royals?

Detroit Tigers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Royals have had some tough stretches this year, but each game provides a new start. However, it takes getting off to a good start to put your team in a position to win. Too often this year, the Royals find themselves losing before fans have even settled into their seats. Royals pitchers have been the worst in baseball in the first inning this year, putting the team in a deficit to start many games.

Worst pitching staffs, first inning

2022 G PA R/G ERA BA OBA SLG
2022 G PA R/G ERA BA OBA SLG
Royals 23 101 1.09 9.78 .296 .376 .682
Rangers 24 113 1.04 9.00 .316 .407 .633
Reds 24 116 0.83 7.50 .386 .457 .555
MLB average 0.51 4.21 .241 .320 .401

The veterans have been fine - Zack Greinke has given up just one first inning run, and Brad Keller has only pitched goose eggs in the first. But the young pitchers - Daniel Lynch, Carlos Hernández, and Kris Bubic - have been rocked in the first, giving up a combined 18 runs in 13 innings.

Pitchers have to make pitches, but this has to raise questions as to whether the young pitchers are prepared when they take the mound. This isn’t a new problem either - Royals pitchers gave up the second-most first inning runs last year, behind only the Diamondbacks. Brad Keller (7.96 ERA), Kris Bubic (6.75), and Brady Singer (5.40) all had first inning struggles in 2021.

Back in 2017, the Tampa Bay Rays began using a one-inning “opener” to begin ballgames. They would have a reliever come in and pitch the first inning, then exit the game to yield to a starter capable of giving more pitches. The idea was to have a hard-throwing reliever come out to face the top of the order - usually an opponent’s best hitters. It could also mitigate matchup advantages, by having a right-hander reliever start the first inning against a right-handed heavy lineup, before turning it over to the left-handed “starter.”

This could have been very helpful in Wednesday’s game against the Cardinals. With Kris Bubic, a left-handed change up pitcher, on the mound, the Cardinals stacked the lineup with right-handers. Bubic struggled to throw strikes, and when he did the Cardinals jumped on him for four runs. Having a Dylan Coleman on the mound in the first inning might have allowed the Royals to get past the most dangerous Cardinals hitters and allow Bubic to face hitters lower in the order.

The Rays gained some notoriety for using the “opener’ strategy, and have won a lot of games the last few years, but it is hard to determine if they are successful because of the opener, or they are successful because they just have really good pitchers. As Mike Petriello of MLB.com put it:

The opener should have never been expected to wildly change outcomes, anyway. It’s a gambit to put your weaker pitchers in a slightly better position to succeed. It’s a potentially small edge in a sport that thrives on finding those edges.

In other words, Kris Bubic struggling in the second inning isn’t a better outcome than if he struggles in the first inning.

There is also the question of whether the opener is good for the game, as it anonymizes pitchers and makes the more interchangable, reducing the star power of starting pitchers. A few years ago, Zack Greinke, then with the Diamondbacks, conceded it was a good strategy, but lamented its downsides.

“[The opener is] really smart, but it’s also really bad for baseball,” Arizona starter Zack Greinke says. “It’s just a sideshow. There’s always ways to get a little advantage, but the main problem I have with it is you do it that way, then you’ll end up never paying any player what he’s worth because you’re not going to have guys starting, you’re not going to have guys throwing innings.

But if we’re talking about just winning games for the Royals, any edge, no matter how small, may be worth trying. Ultimately the young pitchers need to pitch better, but putting them in a better position to succeed could do wonders for their development. With teams still allowed to carry 14 pitchers until the end of the month, the Royals may be wise to experiment with roles and try an opener, at least for the games the young starters pitch.