Frequent readers know I’m a staunch advocate of the opener. I loved when the Rays did it, felt it made sense for the Athletics when needed, and campaigned for the Yankees to adopt the strategy in the playoffs. Now, with CC Sabathia all but guaranteed to enter the 2019 season as the Yankees’ fifth starter, it’s time the Yankees entertained the idea of pinning CC with a personal opener.
Mostly, I’m on board with a Sabathia’s retention, one that comes with pretty low risk at just $8 million. He posted a 3.67 ERA last year while being one of the best in baseball at suppressing hard contact. That gives him a little more latitude for pure run suppression than you’d think based on his strikeout and walk totals. Of course, the most pressing concerns about CC are his durability and length in a start.
Sabathia is no longer a workhorse, averaging just over five innings a start now. That’s not the end of the world for your fifth starter, but what’s most concerning is what often happens in that fifth inning. He gets absolutely shellacked the third time he faces a hitter, more than just about anyone in baseball.
No starter does particularly well the third time through, yielding a .784 OPS against, turning every hitter into roughly Starling Marte. Sabathia doesn’t turn every hitter into Marte, though. With a .923 OPS against the third time through, hitters look more like Alex Bregman or Paul Goldschmidt.
The Yankees can mitigate some of that woeful performance by putting Sabathia in as good a position as possible. He’s not all of a sudden going to go back to pitching seven innings, but the five he works would be better if he was matched up with the lower half of the batting order, which is what pairing him with an opener would do.
A reliever, let’s say Jonathan Holder, would pitch the first inning and face the first three hitters in the order. If he’s perfect or close to it, Sabathia would then take over the second inning and deal with either the fourth or fifth batter in the order. Then he would get almost two full innings facing the weaker half. If he stuck to his five-and-fly production of the past couple of years, he’d theoretically only face the top third of the lineup once.
Obviously this assumes perfection, which isn’t going to happen, but it does highlight the basics of this proposal. Astute readers will notice that CC doesn’t face any part of the lineup more than twice, and would have to pitch incredibly well to see even the back half three times. This goes a long way in keeping him as close to the more-optimal parts of the above chart as possible.
Sabathia is what he is at this point — a moderately effective, backend starter who will struggle to pitch much more than 150 innings. The Yankees should lean into that and design the best possible process, which involves him facing the weaker hitters in a lineup more and hopefully lessening that third-time-through penalty a little bit.