Inside a nearly empty ballpark in St. Petersburg, Florida, the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays quietly had one of the more impressive seasons in baseball history that failed to result in a playoff berth. Despite the lowest payroll in baseball, the lowest attendance in the American League, and trading away franchise cornerstones Evan Longoria and Chris Archer for prospects, the Rays won 90 times. Combined, no fewer than 18 Yankees and Red Sox players made more money than the highest-paid Ray, Kevin Kiermaier, who hit just .217 on the year. And yet, had the Rays instead played in the National League, their record would have tied the Braves for first place in the NL East.
A complete nonstarter
At a time when virtually every team in sports uses analytics in some capacity, the Rays’ secret sauce involved turning deeply ingrained pitching orthodoxy on its head with the “opener” strategy, which entails a reliever starting the game and throwing just one or two innings. The opener flies in the face of baseball history and lessens the importance of the sport’s highest-paid position, the starting pitcher, who was once counted upon to not only start but also finish each game.
In today’s MLB, however, where seemingly every reliever throws 97 mph and where 8-man bullpens are the new normal, it hardly makes sense for a starter to wear himself out by hurling nine innings, or even six or seven innings, in a row. And it especially doesn’t make sense for that same starter — who needs to conserve his energy — to pitch the only inning guaranteed to feature the other team’s best hitters: the first inning.
Indeed, the first inning unsurprisingly involves far more scoring than any other at roughly 10% above average, as it features the best hitters who are also arranged in the best possible order to score on the opposing starter. That second point is the real killer: in this era of endless strategizing based on matchups, the starting pitcher looks more and more anachronistic, giving the opponent an advantage the longer he’s left in and the more looks the opposing lineup gets at him.
Removing the “starter” after just a few hitters can flip the advantage in favor of the pitching team, with the lineup suddenly fixed in a sub-optimal arrangement. Moreover, starters almost universally fall off a cliff during their third time through the order, as hitters have had a chance by then to time up their offerings. But with an opener strategy, the same pitcher is rarely called upon to face the top of the order three times.
Put in this fantastic position to succeed, two of the Rays’ three primary “bulk guys” — the quasi-starters asked to get through the middle innings after the opener — finished 2018 with an ERA+ higher than the mark posted by traditional starter Chris Archer from 2016 to 2018, when he was considered the team’s ace. Their names? Ryan Yarbrough, a low-profile rookie, and Yonny Chirinos, another rookie. The Rays, in essence, figured out how to turn unheralded pieces into cogs of their well-oiled machine.
Moneyball, with lots of money
Tactics like the opener are often considered the desperate recourse of MLB’s lower class, suitable for teams like the Rays that don’t pay for a normal rotation. Yet the deep-pocketed Yankees would actually benefit more than most teams from an opener strategy, thanks to their historically elite bullpen. In fact, I could argue that the Yankees should use an opener every single game, a contention which looks significantly less absurd with a glance at the 2018 ERAs of their 2019 staff:
Not including Tommy Kahnle, no Yankees starter had an ERA as low as any one of their relievers. Of course, Kahnle is a special case; he struggled with an arm injury in 2018 after posting an exceptional 2.60 ERA across 2016-2017. Taking a step back, the difference between, say, Domingo German’s 5.57 ERA and Adam Ottavino’s 2.43 ERA is enormous. That’s a third of a run less that Ottavino allows per inning, a discrepancy which would clearly add up over a 162-game season. Facing the top of a potent lineup — one featuring Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, for instance — that difference could well decide the final outcome.
Those who criticize the opener point out that human beings are playing the game, not algorithms, and argue that it’s a mistake to interfere with starters’ routines. This is a valid critique; the human element is both unquantifiable and vital, and breaking the hardened habits of starting pitchers could have unknowable unintended consequences. On the other hand, it’s also possible this human element is further reason to embrace the opener, since finding one’s groove is much harder when facing elite hitters right away. Indeed, the Yankees’ rotation struggled in the first inning even more than their surface stats alone would predict, demonstrated by this heat map of their 2018 ERA by inning (minimum 10 starts). Notice also the rapid rise during the fifth inning — often the dreaded third time through the order:
The Bombers will undoubtedly be a force to be reckoned with in 2019. Still, the takeaway here runs deeper than just the opener strategy. To finally reclaim their place atop the baseball world, the Yankees need to dispense with tradition and act a bit more like the overachieving Rays — a team with little choice but to pull out all the stops.