The Value of Openers in a Shortened Season

The Value of Openers in a Shortened Season

Written by: Justin Choi
Follow him on Twitter: @justinochoi
Follow Prospects Worldwide on Twitter: @ProspectsWorldW

On May 19th, 2018, during a game against Los Angeles Angels, the Tampa Bay Rays sent out veteran reliever Sergio Romo to face the top of the order. He struck out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, and Justin Upton trotted off the mound – and was replaced by Ryan Yarbrough. 

This puzzling decision immediately garnered the attention of fans and media alike. The Rays had just inverted the traditional starter-reliever hierarchy of baseball! And as teams realized that this simple idea could maximize bullpen usage, what was once a Rays trademark spread, with the Dodgers, Brewers, and Yankees adapting it quickly. 

For those of you still skeptical of this ‘opener,’ it is not the desperate act of a cash-strapped organization. The Rays could have had a $200 million payroll and still arrive at the conclusion that 1st-inning Diego Castillo fireballs equals success. Its basis is statistical evidence that starting pitchers deteriorate when facing a second time and beyond: 

X times through orderwOBA
Based on 2019 stats

There’s a bit of selection bias here – pitchers rarely see the order three times unless they are pitching well, which I assume is suppressing the wOBA value. Otherwise, the logic of a short leash is clear. 

The opener, however, isn’t for every team. The Washington Nationals, for example, are better off using their trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin than their bullpen, which put up an ERA of 5.88 (!) last year. Same for the Mets. In general, durable starters are still much more valuable than even the best relievers. 

In addition, utilizing the opener strategy comes at the risk of bullpen mismanagement. Use your best relievers too early, and you may end up not having the right pitcher for high-leverage situations. The Rays got away with using openers frequently because, well, they employ smart people. But for lesser teams, the possibility of backfire is real. 

But this is 2020, and baseball is… weird. You may have noticed that instead of the normal 162 games, we only have 60 games. That’s enough to make the season legitimate, but nevertheless leaves many aspects of the game open to randomness. Just look at the NL Central projections – we are in for a ride. 

And with weird baseball comes unconventional strategies. The Atlanta Braves recently announced that they would limit their starters’ inning totals and fill in the subsequent gaps with relievers. But I’d be surprised if the Braves were the only team to deviate from traditional pitcher management. In fact, due to the shortened season, I expect teams to experiment with the opener – more than ever before. 

Earlier, I mentioned the pitfalls of the opener strategy. With a shorter season, however, some of them become less relevant. You still do run the risk of relievers not being available, but teams can afford to use them more frequently and aggressively. The typical 50 or 60 inning workload from a reliever no longer has to be spread out over 162 games! 

Think of this season as an extended playoff race, where every incremental win matters, where starters and relievers alike will be tossed into the fire and, hopefully, extinguish it. As far as I’m concerned, the distinction between a starter and reliever is less meaningful than ever before.

That’s why the workload of starting pitchers can be concentrated, too. Based on what we know about the negative effects of seeing the order too many times, it’s better for a starter to have brief appearances after 3 or 4 days while the bullpen ties up any loose ends. In a 60-game season, eating up innings isn’t necessary. 

Even if your favorite team doesn’t have an ‘opener’ type, who says the traits of an opener are defined? Ross Stripling fits the traditional starter mold, yet he’s been highly effective as an opener for the Dodgers after being simply sent out as one. Another pitcher that could transform into an opener this season is Padres pitcher Matt Strahm – his poor ERA (4.71) and inning totals (114.2), yet fantastic walk-to-strikeout ratio (22:118) is an indicator of his potential success in the bullpen, similar to how Drew Pomeranz went from mediocre starter to lights-out reliever for the Brewers. 

The possibilities are endless. Some teams might use a 2-5-1-1 format (2 innings from opener, 5 from starter, 1 from reliever and 1 from traditional closer); others might go even lighter on starting pitching with 2-4-1-1-1, or whichever arrangement suits them best. Overall, what’s clear is that (1) the value of the opener will go up, (2) bullpen usage will increase, (3) starting pitchers won’t go the distance. 

A few people on Twitter have surmised that the 2020 season will accelerate the death of the traditional starting pitcher. If this hyper-modern bullpen management proves to be consistent, then yes – 200-inning starters will probably go extinct. It’s too early to tell what ripple effects this season will create, but there’s no doubt it’ll be unorthodox, fragile, and above all exciting.

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