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The Royals may have found something in how they use Alec Marsh.
The goal is to get 27 outs and have more runs than your opponent. It’s very simple. The question is what the best way to get 27 outs is for any given team. I would imagine if you ask any manager or general manager or random person on the street that in an ideal world, a team would have five starters who make 32-33 starts each and pitch nine innings every time out. But reality says that’s not likely to happen, so finding a way to get those 27 outs any way possible is so important. We all think of the Rays in 2018, but I didn’t realize the brief history of the opener prior to that.
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The Washington Senators used one in Game Seven of the 1924 World Series! That’s right, Game Seven. Curly Ogden, a righty, pitched to just two batters with the idea the Giants would pack their lineup with lefties and then they’d pivot to George Mogridge, a lefty. The Giants did not pack their lineup with lefties, but the Senators moved forward anyway and Mogridge pitched well enough over 4.2 innings before Firpo Marberry went three, giving up three runs in the sixth and then some guy named Walter Johnson took over to pitch the final four and made it long enough for the Senators to walk off the World Series with a 12th inning double.
The Pirates also tried it in the 1990 NLCS with Ted Power in Game Seven of that series and Zane Smith relieving him. It worked from a production standpoint with the two giving up just two runs over 6.1 innings, but the Pirates lost anyway. The A’s under the once-innovative Tony LaRussa tried something similar with platoons in 1993, but it didn’t last very long. And then it kind of went way until the Rays unveiled their strategy in its mostly current form when Sergio Romo took the mound on May 19 for an inning ahead of Ryan Yarbrough. Romo went one, faced the top of the order and then Yarbrough went 6.1 innings with one run allowed.
At this point, you know the idea behind it probably. Pitchers tend to struggle when they see a lineup a third time. By using an opener, the “bulk” pitcher gets to come in and take over somewhere in the middle of a lineup so when they see a hitter for a third time, it’s not the top of the order, which are typically the opposing team’s best hitters. And even if the manager decides he doesn’t want that bulk pitcher to face anyone a third time, they’re likely into the sixth or seventh by then, so they’ve gotten their team to the late innings. It’s not perfect, but it’s an interesting solution.
It’s also one that JJ Picollo and Matt Quatraro spoke before the season that can help the pitcher starting the game as well. They cited Ryne Stanek a few years ago with the Rays as someone who was able to get his feet under him in that role and turn into a strong late-inning reliever because of it. The Royals have done this with Carlos Hernandez, James McArthur, Dylan Coleman, Collin Snider and, last night, Steven Cruz. I haven’t even gotten to the focal point, Alec Marsh, but I think it’s interesting that Royals openers have generally done quite well with only a couple of hiccups. Cruz, yesterday, was fantastic with four strikeouts over two scoreless innings.
But Marsh is the pitcher who it seems to have helped the most. He came up to pitch at the end of June as a starter and made five starts without much success before getting a random one-inning relief outing and then made another start where he struggled again. But his next three outings were as the bulk pitcher where he posted a 3.45 ERA in 15.2 innings with 18 strikeouts and eight walks. He started two more games, but has had an opener in each of his last two and has been good. In total, he’s now had an opener for five games and his numbers are solid:
29 K (27.1%)
12 BB (11.2%)
You want fewer walks, yes, but he’s walked two or fewer in four of those five outings. If it’s a small enough sample to shoo away one big walk outing, it’s a small enough sample to not be convinced, but this seems to be something that can work for Marsh and the Royals moving forward, and ultimately they need something to work because if you look ahead to 2024, there isn’t much in the way of starter (or bulk) innings that gets you excited.
I had a hunch that Marsh would be able to get the White Sox to swing and miss because Marsh does get a lot of swing and miss. Last night was no different. He threw 74 total pitches, got swings on 38 of them and 12 of them were whiffs. You’ll take a 31.6 percent whiff rate all day long. They also fouled off 15, though eight of them came on his last hitter, Gavin Sheets. That was a heck of a battle. While Marsh had been featuring his curve a lot, his sweeper was the pitch of choice for him in this one, and it was good, but I think the opponent matters.
He threw 27 sweepers, one more sweeper than fastballs, and just nine of them were actually in the zone. Some simple math will tell you that two-thirds were out of the zone, which is normally a bit of a problem, but the White Sox don’t like to take pitches and they swung at a ridiculous 11 of the 18 out of the zone. They actually got a hit on two of them, which, hey, good for them. But it was a pitch that was just eating them up.
That’s a span of three straight batters over two innings. The White Sox simply had no real answer for that pitch. He threw a lot of four-seam fastballs too and they were kind of the same as they’ve always been. Great spin, decent movement but against a better team, I think they’d have been hit. As it was, the two they put in play were hit pretty hard. I do think it was interesting that he had more horizontal break on that pitch yesterday, so that’s something I’d like to keep an eye on over his final few appearances.
But I’m intrigued by his sinker that he broke out a few outings ago as another pitch he can go to in different situations. He’s still figuring it out, clearly, but he threw 10 of them with some big horizontal break and decent spin and the White Sox struggled with them. They put four in play, but only one hard. This is something I really like about Marsh. He’s very smart on the mound and understands both how and why things work or don’t work, which allows him the opportunity to tinker. That can be to his detriment, but I think you all know I have a soft spot for pitchers who get it.
I also have an appreciation for pitchers who have so many pitches at their disposal. Don’t get me wrong. That can be a curse as well, but Marsh has thrown five pitches more than 10 percent of the time on the season and his sinker has been thrown quite a bit since he added it to his arsenal (the percentage is just low because he didn’t throw it for the first two months). Every pitch but that sinker has a whiff rate of 25 percent or higher. That isn’t necessarily a guarantee of future success, but I’d bet on a guy who can get swings and misses with five different pitches and who understands pitching as well as he does to figure something out.
And it seems like the Royals have found the perfect role for him. Maybe they found the perfect opener for him with Cruz, who features that high-90s sinker and hard slider. I tend to like pitchers who are pretty opposite for an opener/bulk combo and Cruz and Marsh have some things in common, but they give very different looks, so I’m good with this duo if that’s how they want to move forward.
Overall, it was a pretty solid game. Marsh had his only hiccup in an inning where he was kind of BABIPed to death. Yoan Moncada hit one of those out of the zone sweepers down the line for a double. Andrew Vaughn hit a 64.4 MPH dribbler that was a hit and then Yasmani Grandal hit a 65.6 MPH grounder of his own that Bobby Witt Jr. rushed for an error that led to their only run. McArthur looked good again in relief and Tucker Davidson closed it out without any sort of fanfare. The offense wasn’t great, but did enough.
Michael Massey homered again. The Royals sort of pieced together three runs in the seventh after Mike Clevinger exited. And they tacked on two more in the ninth. It was one of those games that good offenses have. I’m not saying this is a good offense, but I don’t know how many times you’re watching a team like the Astros or the Braves and you look up and they suddenly have six or seven runs and it doesn’t feel like they’ve had a great game, but they just keep scoring. The Royals did that last night and it made for an easy win that took both this series and the season series from the White Sox.