PITTSBURGH — The Pirates’ starters have had a problem, well, starting. In seemingly every game, Pittsburgh has been behind the eight ball. That formula wasn’t sustainable. Something needed to change. So, a change was made.
For the first time this season, manager Derek Shelton employed an opener. Left-hander Dillon Peters was called on for the task. Bryse Wilson was originally scheduled to start, but the right-hander would follow Peters out of the bullpen instead. Although the Pirates lost to the Brewers, 3-1, on Wednesday at PNC Park, it’s hard to deny that the formula worked as desired.
“Dillon threw the ball well, Bryse threw the ball well,” Shelton said. “We got all the situations we wanted. We just didn’t win the game.”
Shelton couldn’t have asked for more out of his first two pitchers. Peters efficiently retired the first six batters he faced. After Peters walked the first batter of the third inning, Wilson came in and provided four scoreless innings with four strikeouts in what was easily his best outing of the season. The Brewers didn’t have a hit until the sixth inning. Collectively, Peters and Wilson set the tone.
“I think we both just attacked their hitters with all of our pitches,” Wilson said. “Just went right after them.”
Added Peters, who still hasn’t allowed a run in 12 1/3 innings: “I’m here to throw the ball and get outs for this team. I’m not worried about personal stats or what I can put up. I want to catch dubs and get this team rolling and put ourselves in great positions.”
The Pirates were certainly in a great position to catch a dub Wednesday night after Peters didn’t allow a run in the first two innings — frames that have been a source of consternation this season.
Through 18 games, the Pirates have allowed a league-worst 43 runs (35 earned) in the first two innings. The Royals, for reference, have allowed 26 runs in those two innings, the second most. The gap between the Pirates and Royals is almost the same as the gap between the Royals and Dodgers, who have allowed the fewest runs in those two innings. That couldn’t hold.
The most egregious example came when the Pirates allowed nine runs (four earned) in the first two innings of a 21-0 loss to the Cubs, the worst margin of defeat in franchise history. That inning (and entire game) was a complete outlier, but emblematic of a larger issue at hand.
Those runs weren’t the product of bad break after bad break. Entering Wednesday, Pittsburgh was last in opponent batting average (.338), on-base percentage (.436), FIP (6.22) and wOBA (.426). In the first two innings, Pirates starting pitchers (not including Peters) have an ERA of 9.26. The rest of the game, they have a far more manageable 3.93 ERA. Pittsburgh won’t use an opener every time out, but it will likely be a valuable tool going forward.
The strategy might not just be valuable for the team as a whole, but for the pitchers themselves. In his first three starts, Wilson allowed eight runs in 11 1/3 innings. Wilson’s performance wasn’t entirely due to his role, but the different look provided a mental reset of sorts.
“It’s a huge confidence builder,” Wilson said. “First two outings were definitely a battle. Last outing wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, especially controlling the zone. So, for me, it’s a good step going forward in the confidence area and being able to [think], ‘Hey, I can fill up the zone and I can go at my hitters with my stuff.’”
The unconventional nature of the opener is right in line with the unconventional nature of the Pirates’ hybrid pitchers, starters-turned-relievers used in multi-inning roles. The traditional starter-reliever binary isn’t completely gone, but the Pirates understand the limitations of strict adherence to that formula.
Above all, Pittsburgh is on a quest to get outs. The maintenance of clearly defined roles is an afterthought. The opener worked on Wednesday. Don’t expect that job to fade out any time soon.
“I don’t look at the starter as a starter. I don’t look at the guys who pitch in the middle as non-starters,” Shelton said. “I think we’re trying to deploy them in a way that we’re going to put them in the best situations to get outs. Tonight, I think we did that.”