The Opener has become a polarizing topic over the course of this season, even more so than the shift was a couple of years ago, and we all know how that ended. As Yankee fans we’ve had a front row seat to the opener as the Rays have been employing the strategy for some time.
Like it or not, it works. Since May 19th, the first time the Rays sent out relief pitcher Sergio Romo to start against the Angels, the Rays own a team ERA of 3.16, the best in the major leagues. That would be impressive on its own, but what’s important to remember is that they achieved the best ERA in the majors with essentially a bucket of spare parts.
With the recent acquisition of Zach Britton from the Orioles, the Yankees’ bullpen has ascended past last season’s as perhaps the greatest collection of relief talent ever assembled. Now what good is a super bullpen if you don’t use it correctly?
That’s where the opener comes into play. For those who are unaware, the opener is a strategy involving having a reliever start the game, tossing an inning or two, and having a traditional starter follow them. The rest of the game plays out basically as it has for the past 20 years or so.
Why would a team do this? What’s the point? There’s a common misconception that the most difficult three outs to get as a pitcher are the last three, when in reality it’s the first three. More runs are scored in the first inning than any other inning since the beginning of the DH era in 1973.
This could be because it is the one time during a game a manager can set his lineup for maximum effect, or it could be because a typical starting pitcher knows he has a long night ahead of him and is saving some of his bullets. Either way this can be solved by throwing a reliever in the first inning. Relievers generally are the best pitchers on the team on a per-inning basis. They don’t hold anything back because they know they are only pitching for a short stint.
So who are the lucky relievers who would hypothetically be tasked with starting games if the Yankees were to adapt this strategy? One name I’ll take the liberty of crossing off the list is Aroldis Chapman. He’s been one of the best relievers in baseball this season and showed some flexibility during his stint with the Cubs in 2016, but if the past two years have proven anything it’s that he performs best in his current role as a late inning fireman-type reliever.
There are three different hypothetical opener scenarios: versus a predominantly left-handed top of the lineup, a right-handed top of the lineup, and mixed top of the lineup, each requiring their own opener. The newly-acquired Zach Britton would be an easy choice against lefties. Since Britton was converted to a reliever in 2014 he has held lefties to a .217 wOBA thanks to his devastating sinker.
Against righties the man is Chad Green. While his slider is not as effective as it once was, his fastball is still one of the best in the game against right-handed hitters. The optimal opener against a mixed lineup might surprise you: Jonathan Holder. Holder has been perhaps the most underrated pitcher in the Yankees’ bullpen this season, pitching to a 1.94 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .214 wOBA.
Even after earmarking one of those three pitchers to start a given game, Aaron Boone would still be left with Adam Warren, Chasen Shreve, Dellin Betances, David Robertson, and Chapman for late-inning situations if they were to arise.
I’m not saying there wouldn’t be growing pains, as pitchers are notoriously creatures of habit. This would likely need to be an organization-wide change. However, this is the direction the game is going. Maybe not next next year, or in the next ten years, but one day the opener just might be the norm.