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Ryne Stanek is a multi-inning opener

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The Rays reliever is defining a role.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This season, Rays have taken a different approach to starting pitching. They’ve often sent out relievers Ryne Stanek, Hunter Wood, and Sergio Romo, among others, to “open” a game. The idea is that a team can get an advantage by selecting the matchup of a quality reliever to face the opposing team’s best hitters at the top of th lineup. Once the reliever spends himself at high effort to retire those dangerous hitters, he can hand the game over to a “headliner” (the pitcher who would normally be the starter), whose job it is to give length.

Ryne Stanek has borne the largest load of this opener experiment.

Now, separate from the idea of using a reliever in the first inning, is the idea of the multi-inning relief ace, and the Rays are working that as well, sometimes running their opener into the second inning.

Has that worked? Is there a drop-off in production when the opener sits down and then comes out again? Or are the Rays benefiting from the extended usage?

Ryne Stanek, Opener Prototype

Both Wood and Romo have worked multi-inning stints, but with 19 “starts” under his belt, Stanek has been the weapon of choice for the Rays to open a game, so we’re going to focus on him and his slightly-more-workable sample size. He features a fastball that sits in the high 90’s, a slider, and a splitter that has really come on this year.

Those 19 starts bring 19 innings pitched for Stanek in the first inning and he’s been damn near untouchable in a small sample. He has a 0.95 ERA in the first, with a 37.8% strikeout rate and a 10.8% walk rate, and has held the opposition to a .151/.243/.258 slash line.

That type of dominance is unimaginable from a starter, but is possible for Stanek has he’s still used as a reliever. It allows him to go all-out right from the get go, with no need to conserve any energy, the way a starter would over the course of a game.

The second inning has presented Stanek with a 5.59 ERA with 9.2 innings pitched. That seems rough on the surface, but the sample size is very small, and the results actually aren’t as bad as they look.

He’s struck out slightly fewer batters, at a 30% rate, and has walked the same amount (10%). Stanek has held opposing hitters to a .194 batting average, but there is one main differnce altering everything about how the second inning looks: two home runs. In that nine inning span, a couple of long balls leaving the yard dramatically alters the ERA.

Perhaps more importantly, there is no significant velocity drop from Stanek as he progresses deeper into his outing. He’s proven to the Rays that he is able to hold the ticks on his fastball, which of course is very important for anyone that should be considered a multi-inning weapon.

Velocity by Inning

Inning Fastball (mph) Splitter (mph) Slider (mph)
Inning Fastball (mph) Splitter (mph) Slider (mph)
First 97.8 87.8 88.6
Second 97.6 87.4 88.6

Velocity And the Splitter

One interesting note about Stanek is that he’s able to throw a splitter with more movement by throwing it harder. Generally, a splitter should be looked at similarly to a traditional changeup, and for those there’s a rule of thumb that a 10 mph difference between the fastball and change is desirable. However, Stanek is proving to be an exception.

Ryne Stanek Splitter

Velocity (mph) Spin Rate (rpm) wOBA
Velocity (mph) Spin Rate (rpm) wOBA
86 - 88 1028 0.284
88 - 90 1082 0.046

A simple Statcast search that allows you to break down the opposition’s performance on splitters thrown at different speeds gives you an idea as to how the extra velocity helps. On splitters clocked between 86.2 mph and 87.7 mph Stanek has allowed a .284 wOBA—which isn’t bad at all.

Shift that search a bit to so that you capture his splitters that came in between 88.4 mph and 89.6 MPH and Stanek has held hitters to a .046 wOBA. While throwing the pitch slightly harder, Stanek has managed to add around 60 rpm to the pitch.

The split above clocked in at 88.4 mph, and it’s actually one of the better ones he’s thrown all year. The tighter spin on that ball creates a drop on it that it makes it look more like a changeup than a split, and at that point, you have to rely on the grip to truly know what he threw.

Conclusion

The above look at the splitter is about Stanek as a whole, and not merely his first and second inning performances with that pitch. The splitter works whenever he throws it, regardless of the inning, as long as it has that nasty, splitting action.

These are very, very small samples, and everything should be taken with a grain of salt, but the way to approach a sample like this is to analyze the process. Is Stanek still able to throw his good splitter in inning number two? The fact that his velocity remains virtually the same suggests that he is.

Going forward, as the sample size grows, it will be imporant to understand how a small gain of velocity like this can create an uptick in production, since that will be the leading indicator of whether Stanek (and other openers like him, in their own way, with their own indicators), are being used effectively when asked to shoulder multiple innings.

A couple home runs aside, the Rays seem to have succeeded in turning Stanek into a multi-inning reliever. In fact, it’s quite easy to see that this move has probably been a shot in the arm for Stanek’s career, thrusting him into a high profile position where he’s thrived. A lot of this improvement has to do with the further development of his split, as well as the slider. He’s found a role with the Rays that he should handle well for the time being, and with a continued emphasis on throwing the split harder, Stanek might very well find himself taking the next step, one-to-two innings at a time.