The Opener: Does it Sell?

I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I’ve loved the opener from day 1. In fact, I’ll let you know that this is the exact opposite of what happened. I remember sitting in my living room watching the Rays play the Angels, and it’s not like I don’t watch the Angels whenever I get the chance. However, this weekend series was particularly different. Sergio Romo was starting the game. And Sergio Romo was going to start on Sunday as well. And I was very opposed to the whole idea. In total, Sergio Romo got 7 outs across 2 starts, 6 via strikeout. With every passing strikeout recorded by Romo, the more frustrated I became. This was the stupidest idea I’ve ever seen, how could the Rays possibly think of doing this? Don’t they know that this isn’t real baseball?

April 5, 1973, aka the last day without a designated hitter in the American League. I can promise you that I don’t remember a time without a DH, mostly because it was implemented 25 years before I was born. For me, the DH is just a half normal part of baseball (get with the times National League). That view is shared by a lot of people my age. DH baseball is all we really know, and when you only know one thing you usually don’t have a reason to oppose it.

However, there is a large population that believes in DH free baseball. The “baseball purists” who enjoy watching pitchers humiliate themselves 88% of the time and then get lucky once every 3 weeks.

Seeing as this isn’t an article regarding the universal DH, I’ll get on with my point. There will always be pushback when a radical idea is conceived. The concept of the starting pitcher has been around as long as baseball has, and the definition of starting pitcher hasn’t changed too much. The Rays did something bold. They pissed off the traditionalists by using the opener. They risked trying something that had never been done with the frequency they were planning on. Truthfully, they had nothing to lose, but Kevin Cash still deserves a lot of credit for doing something with nothing and turning the Rays into a 90 win team.

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Ryne Stanek was one of the primary openers for the Rays in 2018 | photo via Keith Allison on Flickr

Lately, a few high caliber starting pitchers have spoken out against the opener, one even refusing to come to the ballpark if it was used during his start. Madison Bumgarner reportedly texted his manager Bruce Bochy and said that if Bochy used an opener during one of his starts, he was “walking right out of the ballpark“. He has since come out and said he was joking about the exchange, but would the opener help him? The whole point of the opener is to make the 3rd time through the top of the order come later. Statistics show that when a pitcher goes through the lineup for the 3rd time, offensive numbers spike. Some pitchers are immune to that effect, for the most part, but MadBum is not one of them.

In 2018, Bumgarner allowed a .566 OPS during the first time through the lineup and a .683 OPS during the second time through. Elite numbers right? When you get to the third time through, that number leaps to .868, a not so elite number. 2017 saw the same effect, with a .160 point rise in OPS from the second time through the lineup to the third. Pitchers understandably have a lot of pride, they need to. But some of this pride could afford to be put to the side for the benefit of the team, as well as their individual stats.

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Bumgarner recently stated that he would “walk out of the park” if an opener was used for his starts | photo via SD Dirk on Flickr

Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander are two more players who have been outspoken in their beliefs against the opener. Cole came out and said that he “wouldn’t pay for a ticket to watch a math equation“. Well, unfortunately for Gerrit, that’s all baseball is. From choosing pitches, to aligning fielders, to calling signs, almost everything in baseball is based on a probability of success given the statistics of the batter hitting as well as the statistics of the pitcher pitching. The opener is just a new addition to the equation that, if used properly, creates a higher probability for success.

Justin Verlander has had strong thoughts against the opener | photo via Wikimedia Commons

Cole’s argument doesn’t make particular sense, especially given that math is the reason why he was so effective this past season in the first place. The Astros are among the most analytical teams in baseball, effectively maximizing the spin rate and overall effectiveness of all of their pitchers. They revitalized the likes of Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Ryan Pressly, and now Gerrit Cole. Cole has seen his spin rate jump by almost 300 RPM since joining the Astros, a spike that doesn’t happen without a good amount of research. Math and analytics are becoming more important than ever for both hitting and pitching, and fans are going to want to watch the best product available on the field. The opener allows that.

Verlander’s argument is at least somewhat feasible. He argues that the constant use of an opener and bullpen games causes the bullpen to get taxed far more than it should be, which creates burnout and ineffectiveness towards the end of the season when it’s needed. A perfect example of this would be the Brewers, who rode their bullpen until its last legs in the NLCS. Not that their bullpen was ineffective in the NLCS, but it wasn’t its previously dominant self that it had been the entire season prior.

Although Verlander can have his opinion regarding the bullpen, it’s likely that he only applies that logic to his own team. With a rotation consisting of Verlander, Cole, Morton, Keuchel, and McCullers, the Astros hardly had use for the opener this season. However, for a team like the Brewers, whose rotation consisted of Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, and, who else? Zach Davies? Freddy Peralta? Gio Gonzalez and Wade Miley were late additions to the rotation, but all of the latter options mentioned averaged only about 5 innings per start. Even without an opener, that’s still a good 4 innings left for the bullpen to eat up. In comparison, Verlander, Cole, and Keuchel all averaged more than 6 innings per start this season. None of the Brewers primary starters had such a number.

The Astros were afforded a luxury that few teams ever have a chance at. They had a staff full of legitimate aces. Even their number 5 starter, McCullers, has potential to be a #2 or #3 elsewhere. They don’t need the opener with options like that. Teams like the A’s, Rays, or Brewers are teams that will need it.

In terms of selling? The opener helps. September 24th, with the Brewers in a dead heat for the NL Central with the Cubs and Cardinals, Craig Counsell joined the wave. He used reliever Dan Jennings for 3 pitches to retire Matt Carpenter, and 8 subsequent pitchers followed him. The Brewers went on to win that game, as well as the division.

Fast forward to the NLDS vs the Rockies. Game 1, time to throw out your best pitcher and get off to a good start. So, logically, you start… Brandon Woodruff? Prior to his home run off of Clayton Kershaw in the NLCS, you’d be hard pressed to find somebody outside of the state of Wisconsin who had heard of him. But in he came, dominating a potent Rockies offense for 3 innings. The opener works. Whether you think it sells or not, you know what does sell? Playoffs.

Admittedly, it’s hard to tell whether the opener helped or hurt attendance for the Rays because their attendance numbers are notoriously dismal. The other primary user of the opener in 2018, the A’s, suffers a similar problem, ranking no higher than 13th out of 15 American League teams in terms of average attendance in the last 3 years.

What about the Brewers? While not necessarily a primary user of the opener, Milwaukee did finish 10th overall in attendance this season, and game 1 of the NLDS in which an opener was used drew 43,382 fans. Again, really not a good indicator of the opener being sellable or not, but it’s about all we have to go off of. One thing is for sure: winning sells, and the opener helps teams win.

I’m going to remind you that I was one of the biggest advocates against the opener at the time of its conception. In my mind, there was no reason for it. If you didn’t have the resources to compete, why create a gimmick to give the illusion that you’re good? Well, turns out that “gimmick” could end up being one of the most innovative ideas in history. The opener is the new wave. Teams can choose to either get with it or be left behind.

Brian Schlosser

Rockies, Angels, and general baseball fan. I love talking about baseball more than I love writing about it, and I'm always open for discussion on Twitter @brian_slosh.

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