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Jordan Hicks should start 2-3 games per week

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I’m in love with the idea of using an “Opener,” and Jordan Hicks is the perfect candidate.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

As you probably heard, over the weekend the Tampa Bay Rays started Sergio Romo on both Saturday and Sunday, utilizing the long-theorized role of an “Opener.” The Opener is a dominant reliever who comes in to pitch the first inning, facing the top of the opposing team’s order, then (generally) gives way to a more traditional starting pitcher who begins the 2nd inning.

I’m in love with this strategy, and I’d love to see the Cardinals use it with Jordan Hicks.

Why it works (in theory)

The advantages of an Opener should be pretty obvious, but I’ll spell them out in brief. We now live in a world where the complete game is almost extinct, so it’s not really a question of if the bullpen will enter the game but when. If you accept the premise that your bullpen will be pitching at least some of the innings, why not make one of those innings the first, when you know you will be facing the top of the opposing lineup?

Here’s a chart borrowed from this great piece at The Ringer on Openers, which highlights how important that first inning is:

The gradual spike in the 5th and 6th innings clearly comes from managers leaving tiring relievers in too long, accruing that 3rd time through the order penalty, etc. Managers of 29 of MLB’s 30 teams have tried to combat that by going to the bullpen sooner.

That first inning spike is simply the result of every team sending their best hitters to the plate in that inning. An Opener seems like a great way to combat that spike. If you’ve got a reliever who can consistently dominate over one inning, why not make that the first inning of the game, against the top of the opposing order? This is especially true if it tilts righty/lefty matchups in your favor.

The only real mental obstacle here is that managers have to come to grips with the idea that the 1st inning is as important as the 7th, 8th or 9th inning.

It reminds me of the move Tony La Russa pulled late in the 2000 season: Starting an injured Mark McGwire ostensibly at 2nd base in road games, getting him an at-bat in the first inning, then swapping him out before the Cardinals took the field. He knew he had this great asset that would only be usable for one at-bat. Rather than wait for the late innings, when the game could already be in-hand or out-of-hand, Saint La Russa made sure he got that valuable at-bat in the first inning.

Why the Cardinals should do it with Hicks

The idea of an Opener could work with any strong reliever, but given the current makeup of the Cardinals, I think Hicks is clearly the best candidate.

Jordan Hicks has faced 812 total batters in his professional career. He has allowed 4 home runs. So while yes, it’s true that he doesn’t get as many strikeouts as you’d like from a guy who can hit 105, it’s nearly impossible to hit his power sinker out of the park. If I’m facing the Cubs, and I can guarantee that Bryant and Rizzo will be facing that in one of their at-bats, I absolutely do it.

It’s also worth remembering that, prior to this season, Hicks has worked as a starter. In five of his appearances this year, he’s worked more than one inning. So if Hicks cruises through the first... why not leave him out there for the 2nd? Depending on his workload and your upcoming schedule, perhaps the 3rd?

It’s easy to imagine playing this out in a way where you can actually stretch Hicks out into a traditional starting role all at the major league level. You could see in real time how he handles multiple innings, even a 2nd time through an order, etc. I’m not saying the Cardinals necessarily should do this, at least this year, but it’s a path that they could take if they utilize Hicks in that Opener role.

So if you accept Premise #1 that Hicks is a great candidate to serve as an Opener, the other half of the equation is which Cardinals starters do you pair Hicks with? Admittedly, this is where the Cardinals - who have very strong rotation options - are less ideal for this than the Rays - who have garbage. But I still think this would be a viable move.

In just a week or so, the Cardinals could add Alex Reyes to a rotation of Martinez, Mikolas, Weaver, Flaherty and Wacha. So they already have more starters than they need for a five-man rotation, and honestly I’m not sure how they’re going to sort that out. (If I had to guess, I’d expect the 10-day DL to be used to shuffle those guys around and provide rest, if not in response to actual injury).

Wacha is the one obvious candidate to pair with an Opener. He’s been generally the weakest of the starters, and is a notorious victim of the 3rd time through the order penalty. So it makes a lot of sense to get him past the top of the opposing order BEFORE you get the maybe five solid innings you’re going to get out of him.

Beyond Wacha though, you could argue that these are all strong enough starters than you don’t need to pair an Opener with them. But I think there’s a few reasons why you could and perhaps should.

The biggest reason is to limit innings. Weaver, Flaherty and Reyes are all younger guys for whom the club likely has an innings cap in mind. While they let Flaherty throw 120 pitches over 7 23 the other day, we have to expect (and hope) that will not be the norm. They will be especially careful with Reyes, coming back from injury. And if they plan to limit Reyes to something like five innings, why not start with one or two from Hicks and then five from Reyes?

Martinez and Mikolas are probably the two pitchers who you would never use this strategy with, as they are so dominant and both capable of going deep into games, even notching complete games on occasion. But even then, in their 17 combined starts, they’ve only gone past the 7th inning three times. In this era, you are almost always going to use your bullpen at some point.

It’s also worth noting that it would be possible to just use this strategy sometimes. Maybe Hicks just serves as a kind of Opener/Piggyback starter with Wacha, then pitches in more traditional late-inning situations the other times he’s available during the week. Matchups, rest days, the health of your rotation... all of these things could factor into when you deploy an Opener.

It’s not a strategy you need to use every game, or even on a regular basis, but it would be a nice tool to add to the pitcher usage toolbox, and Jordan Hicks would be a great candidate for the role.