There are some who see use of the opener in baseball as at least intriguing and maybe even innovative. Others push back against such a pitching plan and don’t like it or don’t see it working well for teams much moving forward.
An opener is a pitcher who starts a game but faces only a few batters or stays in for only an inning or two. The tactic allows a team to bring in the scheduled starter in the second or third inning and potentially begin his outing versus the bottom of the order. If that pitcher can go six innings, he will get his team to the late innings and skip over middle relief. It also allows a manager to match up with certain hitters at the top of the lineup early in the game.
As it relates to the 2019 Orioles, I would not expect to see much use for an opener this year. They need to see what some of their young pitchers can do as starters and they are not trying to extract every win they can out of the 2019 season.
Having said that, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias doesn’t rule it out for his team this year.
“We’ll bandy that around,” Elias said. “I think it’s very personnel-based. If you look at the opener strategy, it does not make sense for every team or every rotation or every bullpen. I can see a scenario or two where we might use it this year, and it’s something that we’ll talk about with Brandon (Hyde) and Sig (Mejdal) and everyone, but it’s not a decision that needs to be made at the beginning of spring training. We’ll wait until the season starts.”
We certainly need more data on use of the opener, but the team that started this in the major leagues, the Tampa Bay Rays, got solid results.
Tampa Bay finished second in the American League in team ERA with a 3.74, compared to the Astros’ 3.11. The Rays debuted the opener on May 19. From that point on, their pitchers worked to an ERA of 3.50 - second-best in the AL and third-best in the majors in that span. The Rays used an opener 55 times and went with a so-called bullpen game 23 times.
Tampa Bay’s first inning ERA of 3.61 led the AL. From June 12-July 12, the Rays went 28 straight games without allowing a first-inning run. By contrast, the Orioles’ first-inning ERA of 6.44 ranked last in the AL. And while Baltimore pitchers gave up 33 homers in the opening inning, second-worst in the AL, Tampa Bay allowed the fewest with 12.
And by the way, the Rays went from 80 to 90 wins from 2017 to 2018.
But one downside is the amount of bullpen innings we saw from Tampa Bay pitchers. It was a staggering 824 1/3, a big league record. The Rays ‘pen accounted for 56.2 percent of all Rays innings in 2018. The previous high was 657 innings by the 2012 Colorado Rockies. The Orioles bullpen was at 597 1/3 last year, the fifth-most in the AL and over the AL team average of 590.
So the Rays were good in the first inning and their team pitching ERA got even lower when they began using the opener. Those skeptical of this strategy should at least note that it worked for the Rays.
Having said that, this doesn’t prove all teams should use an opener, or that we should see more of this in 2019. This doesn’t suggest that it would be right for the Orioles this year. But maybe there will be times when the team considers it, and the success the Rays had using the strategy in 2018 could be one reason to consider it.
More prospect rankings: FanGraphs.com is the latest national outlet to release a top prospects list. Here it is. The O’s have two in the top 81 and three in a top 130 of a list that goes 132 players deep. Here is a review of where Orioles prospects were rated on five different lists.
Yusniel Díaz: Baseball America (No. 37), Baseball Prospectus (No. 44), MLBPipeline.com (No. 64), FanGraphs.com (No. 81).
DL Hall: Baseball America (No. 54), ESPN (No. 63), FanGraphs.com (No. 69), MLBPipeline.com (No. 90), Baseball Prospectus (No. 92).
Ryan Mountcastle: Baseball Prospectus (No. 51), MLBPipeline.com (No. 71), Baseball America (No. 90), FanGraphs.com (No. 130).
Three of the five outlets listed three Orioles in the top 100, while FanGraphs.com had three in the top 130 and ESPN just Hall among its top 100.