Baseball is undergoing a revolution of sorts. With teams turning more and more to analytics, the opener has gone from a thing of the future to a thing of the present.
The “opener” was used for the first time ever by the Tampa Bay Rays on 5/19/2018 in a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Sergio Romo, the first ever “opener,” struck out the side on 18 pitches and was replaced by the originally scheduled starter Ryan Yarbrough. Eventually, Tampa won the game 5-3 before doing it all over again the following day.
At first, the baseball world was left surprised. Since then, the A’s and the Twins have joined in on the party in a sign that the “opener” strategy is here to stay.
So, what is the “opener?”
Put simply, it’s a relief pitcher who opens the game before what we would call a starter enters for a presumably longer stretch.
Why use this strategy?
The simplest answer is to combat high scoring in the first inning.
According to a study conducted by Retrosheet’s David W. Smith called “Effect of Batting Order (not Lineup) on Scoring,” teams – especially the home team – score more runs in the first inning than any other inning.
In a more recent piece called “Why Do Home Teams Score So Much in the First Inning?” Smith provides more up-to-date data and it seems that the pattern of teams scoring more runs in the first inning hasn’t changed much.
So, teams are increasingly deploying the “opener” strategy in order to neutralize hitting in the games toughest inning, the first inning. You know, the only inning in a game you are guaranteed to see the opposing teams best hitters.
They then turn to, what we used to call, the starter to face the opposing team when they typically score fewer runs for an extended period of time.
How has this impacted the Rays organization?
Well, for one, prior to debuting the “opener,” as stated before, the Rays had a 21-22 record (.488 W-L%). Since then, the Rays are 54-41 (.568 W-L%), an 80 point jump.
Also, they went from allowing 4.6 runs per game, to 3.6 runs per game. This translates to essentially one of the worst pitching staffs to one of the best. To put it in perspective for you, since deploying the “opener” the Rays, Astros, and Dodgers have allowed the fewest runs of any team in baseball.
What teams might benefit from the “opener?”
At this point in the season, any team with a questionable starting rotation. The first team that comes to mind? The New York Yankees.
Even-though the Yankees own the second best record in MLB, Yankee starters rank 16 in ERA and 14 in WHIP in all of baseball. However, their bullpen ranks 3rd and 2nd respectively. Deploying the “opener” strategy might be the answer this team needs to solve their starting pitching problem.
The question is: will they?
I put my money on “no,” but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t.
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Sergio Romo Photo by John Hefti, USA TODAY Sports