Time To Close The Door On The Opener?
The “opener” has opened up a can of worms this week as baseball purists have held their noses and nasaled, “We don’t like that.”
“That” is the latest attempt by managers to do what baseball hasn’t before by intentionally starting pitchers they know won’t make it out of the second inning.
The idea is to put an effective reliever on the mound first to “open” the game and then bring a starter and more relievers in later to finish it.
The positive: The other team’s offense may never see the same guy twice. Unfamiliarity keeps hitters off balance. Also, if you are missing a starting staff due to injury, salary cap, plague, or general-management incompetence, you still have an option better than, say, the White Sox’ Lucas Giolito and his 6.13 ERA.
The Milwaukee Brewers won their Divisional playoff game against the Colorado Rockies using an opener. The Brew Crew used Brandon Woodruff and his 3.61 ERA to take a 2-0 lead through three innings and won the game.
The negative: Hitters will adapt and already rejoice typically once they get into a team’s bullpen. Most teams have eschewed soft-tossing left-handed pitchers for right-handed fireballers which doesn’t give managers a lot of variety. Same guy. Different number. Consider the average fastball thrown this season was 93 mph and the league is now a swing-for-the-fences, we-don’t-care-if-we-strike-out kind of league. A team that employs this every game will sooner or later have to bring in a reliever with an ERA twice pi in a high-stress situation. and often those encounters don’t end well for the pitchers.
Liam Hendricks of the Oakland Athletics entered the game with a 4.13 ERA and gave up a two-run homer to the Yankees’ Aaron Judge in the first inning. The A’s lost the game, which gave them a losing record in games using openers for the season although their ERA in the first eight games was under two.
Those are the negatives. But there’s also the unknown.
If you were to take this to its next logical step, you would have four or five pitchers throwing two innings, taking the next day off and doing it again. That’s 81 appearances for each pitcher. That’s 162 innings each year.
Would that work? Can every pitcher throw that many innings? Pitching coaches have said for decades that there are some guys who can handle 160-200 innings by throwing at 90-percent effort while the rest of the staff throws 50 innings at 100-percent effort.
Is that right? Who knows? We’ve never tried it this way. Maybe the idea that relievers are relievers and starters are starters for a reason doesn’t hold water. Maybe it follows in the footsteps of the defensive shift in which the whole infield is on one side of the diamond. That seems to be working…until the hitter bunts or learns how to pull his hands through first and hit the ball to the opposite field.
Or maybe it follows in the footsteps of the pitcher hitting eighth which really just takes at-bats away from someone who has a better chance of getting a hit.
I love the idea of trying something new, with the exception of shorts, blinking neon lights on the uniforms, signage on the bases, trying to force cities to build unnecessary new stadiums (Ooh wait, that’s not new. Carry on, Texas) intentional walks without throwing pitches and long pants over the bottoms of the cleats.
So, really, my hat is off to the baseball minds who thought this up. I might suggest throwing a soft-tossing lefty in there against fastball-clobbering teams (uhhh everybody) and to keep Aaron Judge from crushing sliders into the right field seats.
I kind of hope it works but I kind of don’t. I love the try for a no-hitter. I love watching starters battle through lineups three and four times and see how they think each time.
In the end, I think it fails as a regular thing for the same reason the pitcher batting eighth hasn’t caught on. You want your very best in the game for the longest period of time. There is also the current roster configurations. There are a lot of ineffective pitchers in the big leagues and putting more bad pitchers in the game isn’t going to help teams win.
But, if teams cut back their staffs to nine or 10 quality guys, none of whom get injured, then maybe, just maybe, it might work.
But then again….