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.