How to use “the Opener”

The practice of teams using an “opener” has been pretty thoroughly discussed over the past few months since the Rays have been having success with it.  Heck, Michael Kay has had a great few days – he was all chatty on Saturday about how the defensive shift is an effective strategy and yesterday he couldn’t resist the opportunity to turn a baseball game into a 3 hour talk show, main topic: The Opener works!

Can’t wait until tonight when he tells us how smart phones are actually better than wall mounted rotary dial phones.

The concept of the opener is not new of course, nothing in baseball is.  My first exposure to the concept was when Tom Tango wrote about it in the early 2000s, although I’d be willing to bet the idea was posited prior to that.

It’s pretty tough logic with which to argue:  Unless your regular starter is very good (think most teams number one or number two guys) using a “bullpenning” approach gives you many competitive advantages.  Game long platoon matchup advantages, only once through the order leverage, pitchers not having to bat (in the NL).  And generally speaking, your number 3, 4 and 5 starters aren’t any better than the guys in the bullpen anyway so why would you want them out there for 5, 6 or 7 innnings?

But the one thing I haven’t heard discussed is this:

If it’s a day in which your best relief pitcher – what most people would call a closer, but I hate that insinuative crap term – needs work, why not have him start the game?

Scenario:  We hear this quite often.  Your best reliever hasn’t pitched in a while, he needs to get some work in.  This generally happens along with the short sighted explanation as to why Aroldis Chapman is in a blowout game in the 9th inning.

OK, so let’s think this through, using Aroldis Chapman as an example:  Chapman hasn’t thrown in a while and you know – you’ve decided before the game – that you’re going to put him in the game to pitch an inning no matter what.  And you wait until the 9th inning, regardless of game score or situation and then you put him in.  For no other reason than the closer (inserts finger in throat) pitches the 9th.

But very often, the game has already been decided at this point and you’re using your $86 million Cuban missile for mop up duty.  Talk about wasting bullets.  If Giancarlo Stanton was sent up to pinch hit in the 9th inning of a seven run game with nobody on base “to get some swings” people would think that’s bat shit crazy.  But use Chapman in a meaningless situation?  The higher order thinkers over at Simpleton Summer Camp wouldn’t bat an eye.

Instead, why don’t we do this:  Since we know, again, before the game, that we’re going to get Chapman an inning no matter what, let’s start him.  Why?  Because I don’t know what the situation will be in the 9th inning, but I do know what it’ll be in the first inning:

A tie game with the other team’s best hitters coming up.  Is it possible the 9th inning will be a more difficult situation?  Possible, but unlikely.  Tie game, other team’s best coming up is about as important as it gets.

This way I’m using my best relief pitcher in an important part of the game instead of potentially wasting his talents in a blowout.  I’m getting him “his work” and I’m getting all the benefits of using “an opener” as previously discussed.

That’s a winning strategy folks.  I understand it’d be a tough sell to veteran players, which is a different discussion, but there’s no denying it’s a winning strategy.

I would love to hear what Michael Kay would have to say about it (said no one ever).


*As I said, nothing in baseball is new.  I heard Brian Kenny throw this idea out there a while back, but I’m not sure who the originator of the thought is.

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