In the place where Mark Kingston coached before coming to South Carolina, a baseball revolution played out this past season.
Kingston advanced to two NCAA regionals in three years while in Tampa, coaching the University of South Florida, but it was the MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays, not USF, who ignited controversy and challenged conventional wisdom by having an “opener” — a relief pitcher who started games only to go one or two innings before yielding to the conventional starter.
That trend has, in a modified form, even made it to the MLB playoffs thanks to the Milwaukee Brewers.
The arguments for the opener, which is essentially the opposite of a closer, are varied and complicated, based off intense statistical analysis of batting order, the number of times a pitcher goes through a lineup and the average number of runs scored per inning, among other factors.
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So what does Kingston, who wasted no time in implementing lots of technological and statistical analysis into USC’s program in his first year, think of the opener, and might the Gamecocks use it in 2019 as they attempt to replace their entire weekend rotation and more than 50 percent of the innings pitched from the 2018 squad?
“I don’t know that we would use the opener, the opener is you kind of use your setup man to hopefully get you two innings and then hand it off to a guy who can go longer,” Kingston said this past Friday.
“I think maybe you’ll see us doing where guys go through the lineup once or twice, and then hand it off to the next guy that’ll be 100 percent that can do the same thing. We maybe don’t have a lot of guys that you know might give you seven, eight, nine innings on a given day, but we have a lot of guys that can get you three innings very effectively. So it’s just going to be a matter of mixing and matching the best recipe.”
The idea of splitting starts into smaller chunks has been floated and experimented with before, as far back as 2009 on the website of the godfather of baseball sabremetrics, Bill James, where writer Dave Fleming proposed three “sub-rotations” of three pitchers who each throw no more than three innings.
What makes the idea intriguing to South Carolina specifically is that, at least so far this fall, Kingston has said his staff features lots of pitchers who could either start or be come out of the bullpen for significant, high-leverage innings.
“A lot of that will have to do with how the ... pieces of the puzzle fit together. We have a lot of guys in that spot, where they could conceivably start for you but they could also be really good in the back of the bullpen,” Kingston said.
Rising sophomore Carmen Mlodzinski seems at the moment to be the only hurler who will almost certainly be a starter, while transfers like Hayden Lehman, Cole Ganopulous and Reid Morgan, returners like TJ Shook, Cam Tringali, John Gilreath, Ridge Chapman and Parker Coyne and freshmen like Wesley Sweatt, Dylan Harley, Brett Kerry, Shane Roberts and Daniel Lloyd are all jockeying for position.
While that makes more than a dozen pitchers who could potentially start in 2019 for USC, there’s still a chance that a few will separate themselves as clear-cut starters. But if no one does, don’t be surprised if things defy convention on the mound at Founders Park come spring.