Long before Aaron Civale was the last man standing from the Opening Day rotation, it was obvious Cleveland would need to employ creativity to get by. After some bullpen games and a few piggy-backed starters, it seemed Cleveland was at least open to experimentation, but we’ve yet to see much else from the team. We’ve reached the point where starters are coming back, with Zach Plesac having already rejoined and Shane Bieber starting to play catch and ramp up toward game action, but the gang ain’t back together yet and there’s no reason to stop trying new things.
To me, there’s one obvious tactic Cleveland hasn’t tried yet: the opener. And there’s one obvious candidate to have an opener in J.C. Mejia.
In eight starts, Mejia has thrown 34.2 innings and compiled 0.2 fWAR. For a guy who skipped Double-A entirely and only logged 11.2 Triple-A innings before making the leap to Cleveland, that’s a hell of a feat. Yet, his numbers leave a bit to be desired, none more than his 7.53 ERA. The inflated ERA is bit of a misnomer, as his xERA is just 5.22 and FIP/xFIP are just 4.70/3.94, which makes his gaudy traditional ERA likely a product of bad luck from a .326 BABIP.
Yet, some of Mejia’s struggle is just down to his adjustment to the majors as well. A 20.7% HR/FB rate is eighth-worst among MLB starters with at least 30 innings pitched and six percentage points above average for starters. Likewise, his strand rate of 52.8% is 20 percentage points lower than league average, which exemplifies his lack of maturity (consider Bryan Shaw, the grizzled veteran with an 82.65 LOB% the opposite).
How much better could Mejia be if he started the game in the second inning rather than the first, though?
Small sample sizes exist here, but in the first inning (44 batters faced) opposing hitters are crushing Mejia like they’re 1958 Willie Mays, with a .368/.455/.579 slash with 10 strikeouts and five walks (2.0 K/BB) and 14 runs scored—all earned (though only one home run, surprisingly). In all other innings (107 batters faced) opponents are more like 2008 Willie Harris, hitting .237/.302/.433 with 25 strikeouts to just eight walks (3.1 K/BB) and 15 runs scored.
The issue isn’t as simple as just throwing a reliever in the first inning and bringing Mejia in after, as Mejia has other splits that could be issues. For instance, left-handed hitters have a wOBA of .409 against Mejia, whereas right-handed hitters have a wOBA of just .281; this has led to a FIP split between left and right of 6.23 and 3.33. Perhaps opposing managers have been front-loading lefties against Mejia to capitalize, but it seems more likely the issue is more of a psychological one. In high-leverage situations, for example, Mejia’s FIP is 11.57, and with men in scoring position, his FIP is 7.35.
Perhaps Cleveland could unlock what makes Mejia so promising as a rotation piece by simply not letting him start games and avoiding the pressure of the first inning. It would be very interesting to see a guy like Nick Sandlin, who throws from two different sidearm slots, open for Mejia; or perhaps Phil Maton’s 11.2 K/9 would play up as an opener; or maybe a soft-throwing guy like Blake Parker would set Mejia’s better velocity up well in the later innings.
The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but they’re numerous. And if Cleveland wants to walk the fine line between contending and selling off, they need to find the best way forward. For J.C. Mejia, that seems to be an opener. At the very least, an opener is something the team should try with Mejia to see if it pays off.