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Ryne Stanek is the best 2018 breakout story no one is talking about

The reliever-turned-opener showed that he belongs in the big leagues and in important roles

Toronto Blue Jays v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Ryne Stanek pitched his way to a strong 2018 campaign, thanks large-in-part to the role he played in the Rays’ pitching revolution.

In a season that had a bumpy start, a newfound role would be the key to Stanek’s success throughout the year, and would even have him break an MLB record.

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A different take on the "opener" strategy.

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Stanek’s 2018 started off in Durham, where he was fantastic in ten appearances and 9.2 innings of work. A 1.86 ERA and .147 opposing batting average earned Stanek a call-up at the beginning of May — but those first few appearances at the beginning of May would not be forgiving to Stanek, with the long haired reliever allowing a .359 wOBA against him with a FIP of 6.96. When things weren't looking bright, it was a transition to something new that was route the Rays took to unlock what he had to offer

The Rays tabbed Stanek for the newly created opener role, and little did we know how big that would be for both the second-year reliever and the Rays. His first opening against the Orioles lasted 1.2 innings, with Stanek striking out three batters and leading the way for Anthony Banda to work the bulk of the innings and shut down the Orioles.

In his very first start as an opener, Stanek threw what I considered to be his best pitch on the season, hurling 100 mph heat right past outfielder Adam Jones.

The story of Ryne Stanek’s 2018 campaign changed completely after this transition, and his performance as a reliever was the facet of his game that experienced the biggest improvement. A .339 wOBA as a reliever in May dropped to .113 in June, with his K/BB% seeing similar improvement, jumping from 10% in May to 25% in June.

Between the months of June and July, Stanek actually earned his way into the history books, going nine consecutive starts without allowing a run. Of course, the caveat to this is that most of those starts did not see an inning past the second, but a record is a record, and this was a pretty big accomplishment by Stanek.

Stanek posted 21 strikeouts in July after 16.1 innings of work, with both of those numbers being season-highs for one month. 11 of those innings as an opener, Stanek’s wOBA as a starter rose to .305 from his .193 in June, but he’d bring that number down again in August to .295.

The improvement as an opener saw Stanek’s relieving numbers take a dip, where he posted both his worst wOBA (.352) and K-BB% (5.6%) as a reliever in a month. Stanek rebounded strongly in September, however, being one of only two relievers in the MLB (the other being Chih-Wei Hu) to allow zero hits in the month.

Stanek’s improvement as a reliever in September was not reflected in his performance as an opener, where he posted his worst month in a season. Stanek’s wOBA rose to .411, with his K-BB% dropping, albeit to a still respectable 18.2%.

On his season as a whole, Stanek’s expected wOBA (xwOBA) was .280, and he just slightly over-performed that expectation, posting an actual wOBA of .273, a difference of .007, proving that his strong numbers were no fluke. Stanek’s LOB% of 80.9% was also a point of emphasis in his ability to get outs when they were needed the most.

Ryne Stanek seemed to look the most comfortable in high-leverage situations. In a small sample size, Stanek looked to be the best Rays reliever in these moments. With a wOBA against of only .191, Stanek only allowed one run in 5.2 innings of high-leverage baseball.

Ryne Stanek’s 2018 season was seemingly a story of two contrasting seasons, which overall combine into one good season. After a new role brought stabilization and consistency to his pitching, his two roles always seemed to oppose each other as the season continued on. Stanek’s season is visualized here (opener above, reliever below):

Conclusions on this Opener

Stanek led Rays relievers in K% while maintaining a sub-three ERA (2.98), a WHIP of only 1.09 and an fWAR of 1.2, finding himself in second among Rays relievers among fWAR. Stanek did this while also allowing an OPS against of only .618!

Looking ahead at 2019, the assumption is that Ryne Stanek will have the same multi-role responsibility as both an opener and a reliever.

The results for Stanek have been mixed, but there has been more good than there has been bad. Stanek’s ability to bounce-back from outings, where he never once allowed an earned run in consecutive games in 2018, was a facet of his pitching that indicated that Stanek is more than capable of pitching at a high level in many important situations.

Looking deeper into Stanek’s pitches, QOP Baseball ranks Stanek’s fastball in the 99th percentile in terms of velocity, with his heater also landing in the 85th percentile in pitch quality, and Stanek compliments that fastball with an average splitter and slider.

Steamer projections have Stanek slightly regressing in 2019. Steamer projects that Stanek will be a 0.6 fWAR pitcher, with his ERA rising from 2.98 in 2018 to 3.28, however they do have his FIP dropping down to 3.41 in 2019 from 3.55 last season.

It’d be hard for me to imagine Stanek regressing this much, or even at all, especially if Stanek strings together more consistently good outings in 2019, utilizing the high quality pitches available to him (a good read on Stanek’s spin behind that link).

Ryne Stanek should be a staple in both the bullpen and opener role in 2019, and he is more than capable of shutting down the opposition on a nightly basis.

With high quality velocity pitches and a full Major League season under his belt, Stanek has an opportunity to cement himself as a reliable arm the Rays can turn to in virtually any situation.

Ryne Stanek is good.