by Matthew de Marte – May 21st, 2018
Something happened this past weekend in the series between the Astros and the Rays. Something groundbreaking. Something we may look back upon as the official beginning of a revolution. On Saturday and Sunday, Kevin Cash deployed a unique strategy in deploying the Rays’ arsenal of pitchers. Before the season, the Rays announced they would only use three traditional starting pitchers, and a fourth day would be a bullpen day. The idea was received with some pushback, but the ever-so-creative Rays are looking for any way to gain a competitive edge while playing against AL East clubs that have far greater financial resources. When you can only afford a payroll about 40% of your competitors, it is imperative that you have an advantage in another area, such as a cutting edge analytics department. This weekend, the Ray’s analytics team may have discovered something new: The Opener. Sergio Romo, a traditional reliever, was used as the Rays’ starting pitcher on Saturday and Sunday. Romo had never started a game in his career. He has only recorded more than 6 outs twice in his career and both occured in his Rookie campaign in 2008. Romo was not intended to work deep in the game, his job was to get through the first inning.
For those of you not aware of the concept of ‘The Opener,’ I suggest purchasing a copy of Brian Kenny’s Ahead of the Curve. A proponent for bullpenning, Kenny goes into great detail on the subject, and can do a far greater job of explaining it than I can. My goal of this article is to explore how useful and effective this strategy can be for teams.
Before looking into how to analyze and deploy The Opener, let’s take a look at Romo’s performance this past weekend.
A sparkling debut for The Opener. The strategy worked out well for Kevin Cash. Romo was able to retire all three batters on Saturday and picked up four outs without allowing a run on Sunday. After his outing Saturday, Romo handed the ball off to Ryan Yarbrough who then threw 6.1 innings of excellent baseball and the Rays picked up the win. On Sunday, after another successful outing he handed the ball to Matt Andriese for their regularly scheduled bullpen day. So the strategy worked, but the question most of you are wondering in the first place is, why employ it in the first place? Well the answer is simple. The table below shows the average number of runs scored in the first and second innings across the MLB including all games through May 19th:
|Inning||Average Runs Scored|
It does not take a mathematician to analyze the difference. Teams on average score 41.8% more in the first inning than the second. To look beyond 2018, and at more of baseball history, this graphic taken from an article by Beyond the Box scores (1) showcases how much above or below average teams generally score in an inning over the expected number of runs scored in an average inning:
This data accounts for ten seasons, and it tells the same story that the table above told; teams score a ton more runs in the first inning than the second inning. There could be many causes to this, among them; a team’s best hitters generally all hit in the first inning, and the theory that starting pitchers need time to settle in. Whatever the case is, hitters feast off starting pitchers in their opening frame at-bats..
There is more incentive for teams to go with The Opener. The trend in recent years is that starting pitchers’ outings are being shortened. As bullpens become increasingly harder to hit, teams are doing whatever it takes to shorten games as much possible to get to their back end relievers. The following graphic shows the average length of starts in innings since 2010:
In the past four seasons, average start length has shrunk from 6.0 innings in 2014 to 5.5 innings in 2018. While it may not seem very significant, it surely is. While teams have been shortening the game to get their relievers in the game as soon as possible, have they been looking to shorten the game through the wrong lens? The chart from Baseball Reference showed that teams generally scored much more than expected in the first inning, and much less than expected in the eighth and ninth inning. This makes sense because teams’ best relievers generally have always thrown in the eighth and ninth innings as set-up men and closers. In 2018, most teams have multiple relievers capable of serving as the set-up man on any given day. Knowing that, instead of shortening the game, and having your starting pitcher throw innings 1-5, it makes sense to employ a reliever to record the first three outs. Then bring in the pitcher who gets stretched out longer and allow him to work deeper into the game and shorten the time it takes to use your relief ace.
Another argument for using The Opener is simply that relievers are better at preventing runs than traditional starting pitchers. Entering play on May 20th in 2018, starting pitchers are allowing an average of 0.503 runs per innings pitched. We know they are allowing 0.583 runs on average in the first inning alone as well. In 2018, relievers are allowing 0.479 runs per inning. Therefore, relievers on average allow 4.77% less runs per inning which could save teams precious runs in the first inning that ultimately will help win them ball games.
Scoring first has always been advantageous in baseball. In 2010, Bleacher Report ironically titled To the Sabermetric Know-It-Alls: The One Stat You Don’t Know That Matters Most, Darrell Horwitz had the statistic I was looking for. He analyzed teams’ chances of winning based off who scored first. Horwitz found that from 2000-2009 the team that scored first won on average in every season between 64%-67% of the time, which is a pretty overwhelming advantage considering a team that wins 64% of its games win 104 games in a 162 game season. Following this statistic, scoring first is crucial. However, what may be even more important is preventing the other team from scoring first. Knowing all of this information, it makes sense to start a relief pitcher with the goal of having him throw one inning and then handing the ball off to a pitcher who can throw 5+ innings.
One last thing to take into consideration is this quote from Angels 3B Zack Cozart:
You can think it is bad for baseball, or that it is weird, but that is not going to stop the Rays from using The Opener. Maybe these things are true. There is no concrete way to utilize a pitching rotation. No rulebook to it. If a team finds something that makes an opposing team feel uncomfortable, that alone is reason to prove it is a viable and useful strategy. Cozart’s quote supports this, and if he thinks its bad for baseball and it throws him off for one at bat, then The Opener did its job.
This past weekend, the Rays may have changed baseball history. If there is an impending revolution, it will be long and slow. I am not convinced every starting pitcher needs The Opener. I certainly would not employ The Opener on nights where pitchers such as Corey Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer pitch to name a few. With that being said, any starting pitcher who struggles to get through a lineup more than twice, you bet that their employers should be utilizing The Opener on nights these pitchers take the mound.
The Opener may not be utilized by every team in 2018. The Rays may not use it again in 2018. The groundwork has been laid though. The Opener can work, and it is not hard to imagine a world where every organization uses this. In a world where every team is looking for a competitive edge, the Rays just showcased to the rest of the league what baseball’s next competitive edge may be.