Probably an Unpopular Opinion: The Yankees Should Copy the Rays, Use "Openers"

The Rays have it figured out. This season, given a lack of starting pitching depth and a generally bad baseball team, the club has been forced to get creative in attempting to suppress runs. One of their strategies has been to begin the game with a reliever, or an "opener," rather than a traditional starting pitcher. There are two reasons why I think this is a genius decision, and one that should be copied by every team in the league.

  • The first inning is a high leverage inning. The league ERA is higher in the first than in any other inning.
  • Significantly improved matchups for the traditional starter, or in this instance, the pitcher providing the most length.

Consider these statistics for a moment.



OBP against

HRs allowed

BB allowed











The league ERA is a full run higher in the first inning than in the second. OBP falls nearly .030 points. More homers are given up in the first than in any other inning. Walks drop off dramatically. There is no denying that the difference between pitchers’ performances over the two innings is massive.

It stands to reason that the first inning could be difficult for pitchers. They are facing the opposing team’s best hitters, after all. They are also just getting started, so they haven’t exactly found their rhythm or gotten into a groove yet. Coming in cold against the other team’s best hitters doesn’t seem like the optimal matchup opportunity, and it shows.

Also consider stats for starting pitchers as they go through the lineup multiple times:

























The more opportunities a batter has to see a pitcher in a given game, the more likely he is to be successful. When the lineup turns over a third time, the traditional starting pitcher is seeing the top of the lineup for the third time. When using an opener, the pitcher providing length would not have his third time through the order begin against the top of the lineup, but against the bottom.

Consider this example. CC Sabathia has averaged just over 23 batters faced per game this year. That means in most games, he ends his day after the team’s 5th batter in the order has faced him for a third time. If he were to begin his day against the 5th batter, he would only see the top of the lineup twice, and the third time through the order would be against the 5-9 hitters. He would still face the same amount of batters. 15 of his 23 batters faced would come against the bottom 5 batters, rather than 15 of 23 coming from the top 5. This would seem to dramatically flip the matchups in his favor. If the third time through the order gives pitchers problems, then front offices should be attempting to find a way to make that matchup a better one for their pitcher. Let the third time through the order come against the bottom rather than the top. This allows the pitcher who is going to provide the most length in a given game to get the bulk of the premium matchups.

Here's the scenario. Dellin Betances, Chad Green, or whomever you’d like that day begins the game and allows one or two baserunners, on average. Then, CC Sabathia comes in and begins his day against the opponents’ 5th or 6th batter. Over the first 13 or 14 batters he faces, CC would match up against the opponent’s top 4 hitters just once in that span and would not see the other team's best hitters until he has had a chance to find his rhythm.

Ultimately, we want the best pitchers facing the best hitters. The idea of the closer has been devalued in recent years because the 9th inning is not always the highest leverage inning in a given game. If it is the 8th inning and the other team has their three best hitters coming up, is it better to use your best reliever at that moment, or save him for when a lesser part of the order is coming up in the next inning? If we use that logic at the back end of baseball games, why shouldn’t we use it in the beginning, especially during an inning where the run environment is at it's highest? It allows high leverage relievers an extra opportunity to face the best competition.

I do have one caveat with this. If you have one of the best pitchers in the world, guys like Scherzer, Kershaw, Severino, Kluber, or Sale, then just let them do their thing. They are the best, and should be facing the toughest competition. For the non-truly elite starters, teams should have been copying the Rays yesterday.

For those who might argue teams could combat this by moving their better hitters down in the order, well, thanks for potentially giving lesser batters more opportunities than your best.

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