The open(er) question of the Red Sox’s fifth starter

Spring training is underway but, as is the wont for the early stages, there’s a veritable pick’n’mix of pitchers being employed with no-one pitching more than a couple of innings at a time.

While this approach gives everyone the chance to throw some pitches, test the arm, potentially catch the eye and be earmarked for further opportunities in, it doesn’t really give us an insight (at least at this stage) as to what Ron Roenicke has in mind with regards to the Red Sox rotation. Specifically, who will fill the hole in that rotation left by the departure of David Price?

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Assuming they’re all fit then you’re probably on pretty safe ground to assume that, come Opening Day, the first three rotation spots will be filled by Chris Sale, E-Rod (Eduardo Rodriguez) and Nathan Eovaldi (who looked good in his start against the Twins on Monday).  The fourth spot will, in my mind, likely go to Martin Perez, signed in free agency over the offseason (I’m basing that on the fact he’s projected to post 2.0 WAR this coming season from the Fangraphs Depth Charts – which is the highest projected WAR of any of the Red Sox starters outside Sale, E-Rod and Eovaldi).

After this, the picture gets somewhat cloudy, however.  Amongst the remaining starting pitchers on the Red Sox roster, none are projected to have a WAR above 0.8.

The Red Sox have a number of pitchers who have been given opportunities as starters in the past – Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez and Ryan Weber for example. None of the aforementioned have really laid down a marker to suggest that they are a long-term starting rotation option. None of the three mentioned have ever posted a FIP below 4.15 in the big leagues in a season in which they reached double-digit starts.

But, what if the Sox don’t look for a fifth starter, what if they look for an opener instead?  Chaim Bloom was in the Rays front office when they famously used openers, and so has experience with the approach (something Roenicke himself has alluded to when talking to the press down in Fort Myers).

So who could the Red Sox employ as an opener? Step forward, Mr Darwinzon Hernandez!

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For those of you not familiar with the role of the opener, it is a pitcher who, unsurprisingly, opens the game but isn’t intended to pitch deep into said game. The role was borne out of analytics which showed that a starter is at a disadvantage from a personal performance level when going through the order for the third time in a game. This makes sense when you think about it – fatigue is potentially starting to set in for the starter, the hitters have had plenty of time to look at his stuff and judge the pace and break of it etc.

The job of the opener, therefore, is to get through the top of the order quickly and then be replaced by either a long reliever or a starter who is then beginning their days work against the middle of the order (in theory inferior hitters) and will likely only face the top of the order twice before being pulled. It’s almost an inverse closer if you will. You want a guy that will bring the heat from the off, blow away the first three-to-six guys who step into the batter’s box without giving up a run and then go and put his feet up for the next seven innings with a sense of a job well done.

Hernandez could potentially do that job for the Red Sox. He certainly brings the heat, with an average fastball velocity a shade above 95 mph and a slider with above league-average movement (as tracked by Baseball Savant). He also has a curve and a sinker in his repertoire but we haven’t really seen them in the majors yet as he only threw them six times combined in his 30 innings pitched at the top level last year.  Across those 30 innings, he struck out 57 hitters and posted a 2.75 FIP.  That sounds like potential opener material to me! He’ll need to work on his control a little as his 16.9 K/9 was offset by a 7.71 BB/9, but if he can get that down then I think he could have a chance to succeed in the role.

While I think Hernandez could well have what it takes to make a go of the opener role, what’s less clear for me is who the follow-on man would be, with no-one in the current bullpen really standing out as a clear long-relief candidate. Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree have both thrown over 200 innings across the past three season combined, but that’s for an average of one inning per game.  The highest innings-to-game ratio is actually held by Brian Johnson at 2 innings per game. Which raises an intriguing possibility – if he didn’t succeed as a starter, could Johnson succeed as the follow-on guy behind a starter? He’d avoid the top of the order the first time through, giving him time to get into his stride against the middle order. If he and Hernandez could combine for five good innings, we could then bring in more traditional relievers for the final four.

I’m not saying it would work, but I certainly wouldn’t object to seeing it tried out!

Rich Hampson is covering the Boston Red Sox during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @Armchairbaseba1

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