Much has been made over the past couple of weeks over the theory postulated to us by Brian Kenny in his book Ahead of the Curve. The theory being put into practice that’s causing the uproar in the baseball community is known as “Using The Opener.”
The “Opener” would be just as it sounds, someone to open up the game to give a team the best chance to succeed in that given game. In the book “Ahead of the Curve,” Mr. Kenny displays a chart showing that the”toughest” outs to get come in the first inning not the ninth as many former ballplayers and writers would have you believe.
The Opener would be a reliever that is not your Closer. But the Opener would need to be a reliable reliever. Someone who can be counted on to get important outs and then pass the baton to the long man aka the “Starter”
Using The Opener To Perfection
Tampa Bay used the Opener to perfection against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels are a very right-handed lineup, thus making the matchup for rookie left-hander Ryan Yarbrough a bit more difficult. So Rays manager Kevin Cash decided to employ the strategy of using an “Opener.” Cash called upon reliever Sergio Romo to “Start” the game on Saturday, May 19th in Anaheim. Romo would pitch the first inning and strike out all three batters he would face. Those three batters just so happened to be Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, and Justin Upton. Yarbrough would then come in and pitch the next 6.1 innings of work.
The next day because it worked so well, Kevin Cash employ the “Opener” strategy once again. Again, Cash called on Romo and again Romo delivered. This time Romo went an inning and a third struck out three but did walk two. But just Romo did on Saturday he allowed no runs. And in baseball, the name of the game is run prevention.
Thus the uproar ensued. Zack Cozart of the Angels complains that he didn’t like it, that it felt like Spring Training. The point of using an “Opener” is not the comfort level of the opposing team. It has been and will always be the point of baseball to limit the number of runs that your opponent scores giving your team the best chance to win that day’s ballgame.
Conformity Is Futile
Since that fateful Saturday that the Rays employed Sergio Romo a 35-year-old reliever as the “Opener”, he has “Started” four times. What seems to make this such a controversial topic is that fact that it is different. It is a change from the stagnant status quo that has been the formula of pitching since the game’s inception more than a century ago.
The use of the “Opener” allows a manager to attack the highest run scoring inning in baseball with a viable weapon. A chosen weapon. The first inning of a ballgame is the only time in the game that a team gets to designate the attack. So why wouldn’t the opposing team counter that attack with the best weapon they have? For fear of the resistance to change, for fear of the verbal assault on their chosen process. For fear of the backlash that would ensue from writers and ballplayers, past and present, alike.
Brian Kenny always as the question and has yet to receive an answer when it’s posed. If we were inventing the game of baseball today. Would we not employ the best possible strategy to give our team the best chance of success? And the answer is yes!
Copy Right Infringement
Baseball has been and will always be a copycat sport. One team tries something, they get viciously mocked and berated, then someone else does it and then all teams begin to follow suit. When “Shifting” was first put into practice by none other than the Tampa Bay Rays. They were mocked everytime a ball squeezed through a vacated hole that a fielder would have usually been standing at. However, the tide began to turn when clubs saw their teams best players walking away with hit-less days against the Rays. When their players would smash a ball in the outfield grass and a fielder was waiting there for the ball. Now shifting has become such a staple of today’s game, everyone does it.
Change is never met with open arms. It is constantly met with opposition and derision. It is met with hostility and the unfounded belief that it could never work. Yet every innovation that was introduced into the game has been seen the same way until it becomes the norm. The Designated Hitter, the addition of a Wildcard team, the addition of a second Wildcard team. The shift use of interleague play all season long. At every turn, any change was deemed unnecessary and expected to fail. That is…until it didn’t. Using an “Opener” is the next phase in the evolution that will be bullpenning. Where there will be not starters or relievers just pitchers.
The Other Side of the Coin
Now let’s be clear this method of employing pitchers may not work for every team. For example, the 2018 Houston Astros have the top three starters in ERA as of this writing. Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole. They also have Dallas Keuchel who is no slouch as a starting pitcher. For a pitching staff with the four horses throwing every week for you, it would be unnecessary to employ an opener. However, for a staff like Tampa, that while yes having Chris Archer and Blake Snell are still a team in flux with the rest of their rotation. Inexperienced talent that needs time to mature can be given that using this strategy. Archer, Snell and even Jacob Faria remain unaffected by the use of the “Opener.”
Advancing the Game
Using the “Opener” is a matter of knowing the personnel that is under your employ. It is about placing all pitchers, “starters and relievers” in the best positions to succeed. The “Opener” gives teams another weapon to attack the most difficult inning in which to prevent runs. And while this strategy is being met with scoffing and outrage now, just give it time and like all other changes in the great game of baseball. Everyone will be doing it.