Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 2: The Rays give baseball the “Opener”

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

We’ve seen quite an evolution in pitching strategy over the past few decades.

  • Beginning in the 1970s, we saw the once-ubiquitous four-man rotation turn into the five-man rotation;
  • Beginning in the 1980s or thereabouts, relievers began taking a larger and larger percentage of overall innings pitched;
  • Beginning in the mid-to-late 80s, we began to see increased specialization with one-inning closers, setup men and lefty specialists;
  • In the 1990s and 2000s pitch counts became the order of the day, with starters’ workloads increasingly being dictated by how close to 100 pitches they were;
  • Over the past few years — particularly in the playoffs — we have seen managers utilize quicker and quicker hooks on their starters, with pitchers rarely if ever being allowed to face the opposition a third time through the order, as analytics departments concluded that once a hurler has gone that far, he’s about to get shelled.

All of that change came relatively gradually, with each innovation rationally following the previous one and building upon it. Physical anthropologists will tell you, however, that evolution doesn’t always work that way. Rather than gradual change over time, real change actually happens quite rapidly and unexpectedly, thanks to unprecedented and/or extreme environmental pressures. A small population of a species is isolated and faced with huge changes and — bammo — something new emerges.

This process — explained by the theory of punctuated equilibrium — happened in Tampa Bay this year as relief pitchers suddenly morphed into starters. Except we didn’t call them starters. We called them “openers.”

The unprecedented and/or extreme environmental pressure that led to the cladogenesis-created opener wasn’t random, the way it is in the natural world. It was born of the Tampa Bay Rays’ front office deciding that they weren’t going to break camp with the usual complement of starting pitchers. Of course, that decision, tied up in analytical, strategic and economic considerations, had no doubt already anticipated the opener strategy, making this more of an intelligent design theory than the stuff of physical anthropology, but I suppose all analogies break down eventually. Just know that nature found a way with the Rays and it worked out pretty well for them.

Last offseason the Rays said they might use a four-man rotation all year, but that’s not exactly what happened. In April there are a lot of off-days, so they didn’t need five starters. And then there were instances in which they did what lots of teams have done for years when they were shorthanded and/or fatigued: used a “bullpen day” in which relievers teamed up to handle all nine innings. Nothing new happening here, really. Just a team on a budget trying to get by.

On May 19-20, however, the strategy shifted, as the Rays used Sergio Romo — who had made his first 588 career appearances as a reliever — to start on back-to-back days against the Angels. The purpose was clear: Romo would clear the top of the Angels’ lineup before making way for others who would give Tampa Bay more innings. On May 25 and 27 he did it again, with Romo handling the first inning in both games against the Orioles. Romo was technically starting but, really, he was just opening. The era of the opener was born.

The Rays stuck with the opener strategy — not just with Romo, but with other pitchers too — and it worked extraordinarily well for them. Ryne Stanek was used in this capacity for 29 games over the course of the season and he excelled, pitching far better as an opener than he did in a more traditional relief role. Meanwhile, a putative starter — Ryan Yarbrough — served as the follow-on to Romo, Stanek and the other Rays’ openers and notched 16 wins in 147.1 innings of work, ending the season fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. The guys who pitched in that follow-on role, usually called middle relievers, began to refer to themselves as “bulk guys.” It’s too soon to say if that term will stick, but I sorta like it.

By the end of the season the Rays used the opener 50 times, putting eight different relievers in the role. They combined for 93 innings and posted a 3.97 ERA (league average ERA was 4.15). The Rays finished second in the American League in overall ERA and, despite being picked by most analysts to have a losing season, they won 90 games. As the season wore on, other teams adopted the strategy as well, including the Oakland A’s, whose rotation had been decimated by injuries. The A’s acquired numerous relievers at the deadline and, by the end of the season, were the Tampa Bay Rays West. They even used the opener in the Wild Card game against the Yankees (though that didn’t work out too well for them).

While the opener worked quite well for the Rays, and while it’s inevitable that more teams will adopt the strategy going forward, it is not without its critics.

For one thing, the opener strategy depends on guys willing to buy in to unconventional roles. A veteran pitcher who has been a starter for several years — whose habits, routines and ego are tied up in starting games — is unlikely to take well to suddenly being called upon to come out in the second inning rather than the first. This is especially true if he’s approaching free agency and would prefer to position himself as a potential ace as opposed to just some middle relief arm. As such, having a pitching staff of young, flexible pitchers with relatively little established work as starters and, thus, very little major league service time, is pretty key to the strategy. Which, in turn, means that the use of the opener strategy will likely select for (another evolutionary term!) cheaper pitchers with less star power and, as such, depressed salaries. At a time when front offices are becoming stingier and stingier, the opener may come to be viewed as yet another excuse for teams not to spend money on players.

There is also an aesthetic problem to the opener. While, obviously, a front office and a manager are tasked with winning games first and foremost, baseball as a whole is an entertainment product. Fans are generally cool to constant pitching changes as it is and, for that matter, change in general, and thus bullpen specialization has had a bit of an alienating effect. As I wrote late in the season, a lot of people prefer to view baseball games as battles between starting pitchers and don’t view players as fungible as a lot of baseball operations departments do. I have no doubt that if a team using an opener makes a deep playoff run that fans will not care a bit — winning excuses almost everything — but obviously not everyone who uses an opener will win. When teams lose with a parade of semi-anonymous relievers as opposed to some lovable old tomato cans, fans may care less than usual. There’s at least some value in having a Zane Smith or a Rick Mahler taking the hill for your 90-loss team every fifth day. “Science may win on the field but aesthetics win hearts and minds.”

We’re probably getting ahead of ourselves with that, though. Indeed, at the moment it’s hard to say how far the opener experiment will go and how many teams will go with it. Heck, it’s even hard to say if the Rays themselves will use it as much in 2019 as they did in 2018. They just signed veteran starter Charlie Morton, and it’s pretty unlikely that Kevin Cash is going to ask a 35-year-old starter with a pretty significant injury history to suddenly change his approach to the game. They also, obviously, employ the reigning American League Cy Young winner in Blake Snell, and he’s not gonna be a “bulk guy” any time soon. The opener, we may find, is less a hot new strategy than it is the best option available when you simply don’t have enough good starting pitchers to otherwise be competitive.

But it certainly was a story in 2018. By my reckoning, the second biggest story of the year.

Rutschman has five hits in opener, Orioles outlast Red Sox 10-9

Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON – The last time Adley Rutschman recalls feeling this level of emotion on a baseball field was playing in front of intimate, 5,000-seat crowds in college at Oregon State.

He trumped that experience at Fenway Park on Thursday in his first career opening day start.

“This blows that out of the water,” Rutschman said.

Rutschman became the first catcher in major league history with five hits in an opener, and the Baltimore Orioles survived a wild ninth inning to beat the Boston Red Sox 10-9.

“To have that close game in the ninth inning and the crowd get so loud. You kind of sit there and say, ‘This is pretty cool,’” said Rutschman, the top overall pick in the 2019 draft.

Rutschman – who debuted for the Orioles last May and quickly became indispensable to the young, resurgent club – homered in his first at-bat and finished 5-for-5 with a career-best four RBIs and a walk on a chilly day at Fenway Park, with a temperature of 38 degrees at first pitch.

Ramon Urias hit a two-run homer for Baltimore, which finished with 15 hits, nine walks and five stolen bases.

Kyle Gibson (1-0) allowed four runs and six hits over five-plus innings to earn his first opening-day victory since his 2021 All-Star season with Texas. Gibson gave up an RBI groundout in the first inning before retiring nine straight Red Sox hitters.

The Orioles nearly gave the game away in the ninth.

With Baltimore leading 10-7, closer Félix Bautista walked pinch-hitter Raimel Tapia. Alex Verdugo followed with a single and advanced to second on an error by center fielder Cedric Mullins.

Rafael Devers struck out. Justin Turner then reached on an infield single to third when Urias’ throw was wide, scoring Tapia. Masataka Yoshida grounded to shortstop Jorge Mateo, who stepped on second for the force but threw wildly to first, allowing Verdugo to score.

Bautista struck out Adam Duvall on three pitches to end it and earn the save.

The Orioles scored four runs in the fourth and three in the fifth to take an 8-2 lead. Baltimore led 10-4 before Bryan Baker allowed three runs in the eighth to give the Red Sox some hope.

The eighth could have been even better for the Red Sox had Devers, who led off the inning, not become the first player in major league history to strike out on a pitch clock violation. Devers was looking down and kicking debris off his cleats when umpire Lance Barksdale signaled a violation that resulted in strike three.

“There’s no excuse,” said Alex Cora, who dropped to 0-5 in opening-day games as Boston’s manager. “They know the rules.”

Boston offseason addition and two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber (0-1) struggled in his Fenway debut, surrendering five runs on six hits and four walks in 3 1/3 innings.

“Less than ideal,” Kluber said. “Didn’t turn out the way I would have hoped for.”


Red Sox: Christian Arroyo stayed in the game after taking an inadvertent cleat to the side of his head in the second inning. Arroyo was applying a tag to Rutschman at second base as he attempted to stretch out a single. Rutschman’s leg flipped over as he slid awkwardly. … LHP James Paxton was placed on the 15-day inured list (retroactive to March 27) with a strained right hamstring.


Rutschman, one of six Baltimore players making his first opening-day appearance, became the youngest Oriole to homer in his first opening-day at-bat since Cal Ripken Jr. in 1984.


The Orioles took advantage of MLB’s bigger bases – going from 15- to 18-inch squares – that are being used for the first time this season. Baltimore hadn’t stolen five bases in a game since last June 24 against the White Sox. Mullins and Jorge Mateo swiped two bags apiece, and Adam Frazier got a huge jump on his steal against reliever Ryan Brasier. There was nothing Boston catcher Reese McGuire could do to stop them and on the majority of Baltimore’s steals, he didn’t bother to throw.


Right-hander Kaleb Ort and Tapia earned Boston’s final two roster spots to open the season. Tapia got the nod over Jarren Duran, who was sent down to Triple-A Worcester. Ort pitched a scoreless sixth with one strikeout Thursday.


Orioles: RHP Dean Kremer will make is sixth career start against Boston when the three-game series resumes on Saturday. In 11 road starts last season, he went 5-3 with a 3.63 ERA.

Red Sox: LHP Chris Sale, who has pitched in only 11 games over the past three years due to injuries, is set to begin his seventh season in Boston.