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Is now the time for the Indians to experiment with openers?

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With Kluber and Clevinger out, the Indians might need to get creative with their pitching staff

Cleveland Indians v Miami Marlins Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Corey Kluber’s arm is broken, but the Indians’ dreams of winning the AL Central are not.

This isn’t the first time that the Indians have lost a key starting pitcher due to a line drive — in 2016, Carlos Carrasco missed the second half of September and the entirety of the playoffs after Ian Kinsler mashed a ball off of his hand. Danny Salazar was also out due to injury, and Trevor Bauer would later cut his finger fixing a drone.

At the time, I suggested that the Indians more or less abandon a standard starting rotation and instead rely on a series of openers.

Since that time, use of the opener actually started to happen in baseball, most notably on the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays, it is worth noting, started using the strategy because a slew of injuries to its starting rotation left them without any other good choices. They didn’t completely get rid of standard starters — Blake Snell pitched his way to a Cy Young — but the strategy led the team to one of the best overall pitching lines in all of baseball.

The last time I suggested this I felt the need to go a little bit more in-depth about what the use of openers would entail, how to convince players to buy in, etc. Now that we’ve seen it used in the majors with success I don’t think there is quite as much of a need to do that.

Are things a little bit different for the Indians in 2019 as compared to the Rays in 2018? Sure. For one, the Indians are burdened with the expectation of winning the division. The 2018 Rays were a fun surprise for many. Two, the Indians are scrambling to plug gaps in the best starting rotation in all of baseball. The 2018 Rays entered the year with Chris Archer as their presumed ace.

I don’t think that the difference in situations means that the Rays success isn’t translatable. If anything, the current makeup of the Indians’ roster is more suitable for a successful deployment of the opener strategy.

How the Indians could construct a staff around the concept of openers

The Indians would likely need to use openers for about two months given the respective return timelines of Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger. For that reason I think it is probably best to go for a hybrid strategy, in which about half of the games are pitched by a traditional starter and the other half use an opener or piggyback system. Once Kluber and Clevinger return they would both be ready to resume full-time starting duties.

There are two ways the Indians can approach this, I think, and it all depends on how they want to use Trevor Bauer. He’s been the best pitcher on the staff so far this season and continues to pitch deep into games. I can understand wanting to leave him in a traditional starting role.

At the same time, he’s the most adaptable of any of the Indians’ starters and the most likely to take to a middle-innings “follower” role. His incredible durability, absorption of pitch counts, and eagerness to pitch on short rest at times means the entire experiment could use him as a fulcrum.

I present, then, two possible setups: one where Bauer remains a true starter, and one where he becomes a features follower.

Setup one

Opener Follower
Opener Follower
Traditional Start Trevor Bauer none
Opener Start 1 Nick Wittgren Jefry Rodriguez
Traditional Start Carlos Carrasco none
Traditional Start Shane Bieber none
Opener Start 2 Adam Cimber Cody Anderson

On the face of it, this doesn’t look too different from what we’re used to. The key here is the spacing between the “opener” starts. By staggering them as such it is possible to use Nick Wittgren out of the bullpen on, say, the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, while Adam Cimber would be available for the second and third spots out of the bullpen.

Criticially, neither Jefry Rodriguez nor Cody Anderson would face another team’s hitter for a third time, making them as effective as possible.

That’s the key to the opener positions: they are flexible. Let’s say that Cimber really is the best guy to come up in a big spot against a right-handed hitter to get Bieber out of a jam. Use him. He’s not “starting” the next day. Get the outs that are most important right now. The way that this is structured Wittgren wouldn’t have pitched the previous night, and so he can step in and open another game the same time through the rotation and be good for 1-2 innings.

Approaching it like this also minimizes the impact on the rest of the bullpen, but I don’t think it gives the Indians the best overall chance to win games every day.

Setup two

Opener Follower
Opener Follower
Traditional Start Carlos Carrasco none
Opener Start Brad Hand Trevor Bauer - 60-pitch limit
Traditional Start Shane Bieber none
Opener Start Brad Hand Trevor Bauer - 60-pitch limit
Opener Start Nick Wittgren Jefry Rodriguez

Is it nuts? You’re god damned right it’s nuts, but it gives the Indians the best chance to win every single day. Bauer’s been vocal in the past about how he thinks he could pitch every fourth day; it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that he could also cut his typical weekly workload into two smaller middle-innings adventures. Furthermore, I think he’d be on-board because it would highlight his ability to take on such an unusual workload to teams that might want to take him up on his one-year contract strategy.

Brad Hand would be paired with him because he’s probably the Indians best reliever, and it forces opposing teams to decide how they want to handle the handedness change. It would be unfortunate to lose Hand for late-inning high-leverage situations, but using him at the start of the game guarantees that he will pitch against the other team’s best hitters while the score is still close.

Again, Wittgren has flexibility in this system to pitch throughout the week out of the pen, and Rodriguez’s stuff will play best when he doesn’t have to face the order a third time.

Would the Indians actually do this?

If this was the beginning of September and the Indians were within five games of the division lead, I think it’s possible. What we’re looking at now is a situation where it’s May 2nd, the season is long, and the rotation will be back to full strength after the All-Star break at the latest.

It is also worth considering that Bauer’s arm might not be able to handle the usage suggested in our second, more aggressive opener scenario. Losing a third ace-level pitcher would probably put the Indians in an unsalvageable mess.

I think the Indians likely believe that the team is strong enough—and the division relatively weak enough—that they can stay within striking distance despite the injuries without having to do anything drastic. Here’s a sample of what the rotation might look like until the usual suspects return:

  1. Bauer
  2. Carrasco
  3. Bieber
  4. Rodriguez
  5. Michael Peoples / Cody Anderson / Asher Wojciechowski

This assumes that the Indians don’t try to sign Dallas Keuchel. I feel safe in that assumption, though not necessarily pleased by making it.

That’s really not that bad, all things considered. Bauer and Carrasco are aces on most other rotations. Bieber is solid. Rodriguez appears ready to contribute in some form and showed signs of promise as a starter already. The fifth spot will be...fun. Still, that’s the type of rotation that gives the Indians the advantage in the majority of the games that they will play.

Is that an exciting strategy? Not at all. Do I hope that the Indians do something bold and try to win as many games as possible? Absolutely, and I think for I speak for most fans when I say it would be a lot of fun to see the team try something like this.

However, given the “strategies” we’ve seen from ownership and the front office this season it’s probable that they’re going to hope business as usual keeps the team afloat.