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.

Texas Rangers ink free-agent ace Jacob deGrom to 5-year deal

Jacob deGrom
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Jacob deGrom is headed to the free-spending Texas Rangers, who believe the health risk is worth the potential reward in trying to end a six-year run of losing.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner agreed to a $185 million, five-year contract Friday, leaving the New York Mets after nine seasons – the past two shortened substantially by injuries.

“We acknowledge the risk, but we also acknowledge that in order to get great players, there is a risk and a cost associated with that,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “And one we feel like is worth taking with a player of Jacob’s caliber.”

Texas announced the signing after the 34-year-old deGrom passed his physical. A person with direct knowledge of the deal disclosed the financial terms to The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club did not announce those details.

The Rangers were also big spenders in free agency last offseason, signing shortstop Corey Seager ($325 million, 10 years) and second baseman Marcus Semien ($175 million, seven years).

The team said deGrom will be introduced in a news conference at Globe Life Field next week following the winter meetings in San Diego.

“It fits in so many ways in terms of what we need,” Young said. “He’s a tremendous person. I have a number of close friends and teammates who played with Jacob and love him. I think he’s going to be just a perfect fit for our clubhouse and our fans.”

Texas had modest expectations after adding Seager, Semien and starter Jon Gray ($56 million, four years) last offseason but still fell short of them.

The Rangers went 68-94, firing manager Chris Woodward during the season, and then hired Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco. Texas’ six straight losing seasons are its worst skid since the franchise moved from Washington in 1972.

Rangers owner Ray Davis said the club wouldn’t hesitate to keep adding payroll. Including the $19.65 million qualifying offer accepted by Martin Perez, the team’s best pitcher last season, the Rangers have spent nearly $761 million in free agency over the past year.

“I hate losing, but I think there’s one person in our organization who hates losing worse than me, and I think it’s Ray Davis,” Young said. “He’s tired of losing. I’m tired of losing. Our organization is tired of losing.”

After making his first start in early August last season, deGrom went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings. He helped the Mets reach the playoffs, then passed up a $30.5 million salary for 2023 and opted out of his contract to become a free agent for the first time.

That ended his deal with the Mets at $107 million over four years, and deGrom rejected their $19.65 million qualifying offer in November. New York will receive draft-pick compensation for losing him.

The fan favorite becomes the latest in a long line of ace pitchers to leave the Mets for one reason or another, including Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and David Cone.

The Rangers visit Citi Field from Aug. 28-30.

When healthy, deGrom is perhaps baseball’s most dominant pitcher. His 2.52 career ERA ranks third in the expansion era (since 1961) behind Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw (2.48) and Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax (2.19) among those with at least 200 starts.

The right-hander is 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA in five career postseason starts, including a win over San Diego in the wild-card round this year that extended the Mets’ season. New York was eliminated the next night.

A four-time All-Star and the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom was a ninth-round draft pick by the Mets in 2010 out of Stetson, where he played shortstop before moving to the mound. He was slowed by Tommy John surgery early in his career and didn’t reach the majors until age 26.

Once he arrived, though, he blossomed. He helped the Mets reach the 2015 World Series and earn a 2016 playoff berth before winning consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019.

But injuries to his elbow, forearm and shoulder blade have limited him to 26 starts over the past two seasons. He compiled a career-low 1.08 ERA over 92 innings in 2021, but did not pitch after July 7 that year because of arm trouble.

DeGrom is 82-57 with 1,607 strikeouts in 1,326 innings over nine big league seasons. He gets $30 million next year, $40 million in 2024 and 2025, $38 million in 2026 and $37 million in 2027. The deal includes a conditional option for 2028 with no guaranteed money.

The addition of deGrom gives the Rangers three proven starters along with Gray and Perez, who went 12-8 with a career-best 2.89 ERA in his return to the team that signed him as a teenager out of Venezuela. Young didn’t rule out the addition of another starter.

With several holes on their starting staff, the Mets have shown interest in free agents Justin Verlander and Carlos Rodon to pair with 38-year-old Max Scherzer atop the rotation.

Now, with deGrom gone, signing one of those two could become a much bigger priority.