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Tampa Bay’s “Opener” Experiment Could Spark a Baseball Revolution

Sergio Romo’s short starts may have been a one-weekend experiment, but the philosophy behind them, like the one behind the closer when it was introduced, should expand to MLB at large

Sergio Romo Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Rays pitcher Sergio Romo struck out the side against the Angels on Saturday, then struck out three more batters in 1 1/3 innings the following afternoon. It was an unusual pairing of performances for one small reason: Romo had never struck out three batters on consecutive days before. And it was an unusual pairing of performances for one massive, potentially paradigm-shifting reason: Romo served as the modern era’s first designated “opener.”

The new terminology itself indicates the novelty of Romo’s weekend role. He started two games after making his first 588 career appearances as a reliever. But he was doing so on consecutive days, with the express purpose of clearing the top of the Angels’ lineup before making way for pitchers—normally starters—who would give Tampa Bay more innings. Romo was technically starting, but not in the traditional sense of the term. He was opening—the games, and, perhaps, a futuristic path to ordering a pitching staff.

The plan worked on Saturday, as the right-handed Romo pitched one perfect inning, then left-handed rookie Ryan Yarbrough tossed 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball in Tampa Bay’s 5-3 win. It was ultimately less effective on Sunday, as the parade of Rays arms following Romo coughed up five runs and Shohei Ohtani shut down Tampa Bay’s bats, but let not the results impede analysis of the process. From a strategic standpoint, Rays manager Kevin Cash’s ploy was brilliant.

First, the Rays were the right team to conduct this experiment. Tampa Bay’s scheduled “starters” in those two contests were Yarbrough and Anthony Banda, both lefties, both youngsters, and both unlikely to go deep into games. Cash had already been employing a shortened rotation since the start of the season, and if Tampa Bay’s bullpen would need to pitch multiple innings both days anyway, it made sense to reorder those innings to maximize the relief corps’ value and effectiveness.

On days that Ohtani doesn’t hit, the Angels lineup begins with at least five, if not more, right-handed hitters in a row, and Romo is better-equipped than almost any pitcher to deal with them. Among 189 active pitchers who have faced at least 1,000 right-handed batters in their career, Romo ranks second in opposing OBP with a .232 on-base rate, behind only Kenley Jansen. “It allows us in theory to let Sergio to come in there and play the matchup game in the first, which is somewhat unheard of—up until Saturday anyway,” Cash told reporters. “Then Yarbs can, in theory, have the availability to get deeper in the game. There’s no more secret about the third time through the order, everybody knows that. And that’s kind of what this is about.”

The average starter in 2018 faces just 23 batters—the lowest total ever and the latest point in a decades-long decline. That number means a starting pitcher faces a lineup two and a half times, on average. Because teams know that starters tend to perform worse as they progress later into a game, it follows that they’d restrict those third-time-through-the-order matchups to the worse hitters at the bottom of a lineup, rather than the Mike Trouts and Justin Uptons at the top. On Saturday, Yarbrough faced exactly 23 hitters, meaning five Angels hitters saw his stuff a third time—but none of those hitters were Trout or Upton.

Chart showing starting pitcher length trending downward

This narrow implementation of the Rays’ gambit could extend easily to other teams. The Angels aren’t the only lineup that might prove vulnerable to this strategy: A spotty rotation facing the Astros, for instance, could try it as well, with Houston packing the top of its lineup with four fierce right-handed hitters—George Springer, Alex Bregman, José Altuve, and Carlos Correa. And the Rays aren’t the only team that might benefit: The Orioles, who have an unfathomable 10.96 ERA in the first inning this season, could turn to Darren O’Day (career .264 OBP vs. righties, eighth among active pitchers with at least 1,000 righties faced), and the Phillies, with saber-friendly manager Gabe Kapler, could call on Pat Neshek (career .239 OBP vs. righties, third among active pitchers) when those relievers return from injury.

Of course, tactical breakthroughs are far from certain to spread. Not every adjustment goes the way of the infield shift, particularly with pitching; amplified aggressiveness with relievers is one thing, but a broad overhaul of the status quo system for deploying pitchers is another. The 2012 Rockies scrapped their four-man rotation after just a few months; the Astros’ minor league piggybacking efforts haven’t yet manifested in the majors (though with the way Houston’s starters have pitched, there’s no reason for A.J. Hinch to try anything so groundbreaking). It’s possible that we won’t see Tampa Bay use Romo in such a fashion again, let alone see that plan proliferate.

But what makes the strategy so exciting is its potential to expand beyond a one-weekend experiment necessitating the right team, the right manager, the right rotation, and the right opponent. Those circumstances might have been necessary for the inception of this idea, but the concept makes sense even when not specifically designed for an extreme platoon advantage or by a rotation-strapped team. The opener is a logical position to create and utilize across the league.

Teams pitch relievers, in general, because they want livelier, fresher, and often more effective—at least in short bursts—arms to combat a team’s toughest hitters in high-leverage situations. But the most challenging inning for any staff isn’t the ninth, or the eighth, or the middle innings when a starter approaches his pitch count limit. It’s the first inning, when teams hit better than any other because it’s the only frame in which a lineup’s top hitters are guaranteed to bat. Batters have hit 10 percent better than league average in the first this season, which is the best mark in any inning.

Chart showing 2018 MLB wRC+ by inning, with it peaking in the first

This pattern follows the history of the league, which has always seen inflated run totals in the first. Offense is also higher in the middle innings when starting pitchers tire and the third-time-through-the-order penalty takes effect. The second inning, conversely, sees the worst offensive production of any frame until the ninth because the second inning usually features the middle-to-bottom of a batting order—and that’s when, with this new strategy, the opener would cede the mound to the would-have-been starter, who would then be able to ease into his appearance rather than begin with the most difficult opposition.

And this tactic makes even more sense for road teams. A wealth of research shows that the first-inning scoring boost particularly helps home teams, who routinely outscore visitors, on aggregate, in the opening frame of a game. Analysis by Retrosheet’s David W. Smith estimates that more than half of teams’ home-field advantage stems just from this first-inning disparity (though a separate attempt at that calculation has the ratio closer to one-quarter than one-half).

The best explanation for this gap is that a home pitcher gets to begin pitching soon after finishing his warm-up routine while the visitor has to wait for his team to bat in the top of the first. As FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron summarized last year, “Road starters generally throw a little harder than home starters in every inning besides the first inning, but that effect is not true in the first inning, which could be consistent with some kind of cool-down effect. … First inning fastball velocity declines even more if the road team builds a big lead in the top of the first inning, which of course would require even more time for the starter sitting on the bench after finishing their warm-up throws.”

If a team reconfigures its pitching structure to use an opener, then a traditional starting pitcher would be able to reconfigure his warm-up schedule to be ready for the second inning and thereby hope to mitigate any visiting disadvantage. Or, at the very least, he’d be at a disadvantage while facing the bottom of the order rather than the top, which is a friendlier proposition entirely.

Eventually, this philosophy is ripe for even more outside-the-box possibilities: One presentation at the 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference proposed that road teams use a relief pitcher to open for just the first home batter of the game. And teams that adopt this tactic in National League parks could reap the additional benefit of an early pinch hitter, as the Rays did by starting Steve Geltz in interleague play in 2015.

There are, of course, obvious complications with any vibrant reimagining of a rotation. It wouldn’t be necessary for ace-level pitchers, and not employing the strategy consistently could throw staffs off balance and strain pitcher schedules; it could lead to issues wherein an opener allows several runs, necessitating either multiple relievers to pitch the first inning or a traditional starter to enter midway through an inning; and it would require extraordinary buy-in from all levels of an organization. In a world in which the “starter” label applies to only one or two pitchers per team, what happens to the hundred-plus pitchers who have grown up attaching themselves to that term?

It’s easy for someone like me to advocate for these changes; I’ve been experimenting with their like for years. On baseball simulation games like Out of the Park Baseball, I’ve lived outside of the box with my pitching setups: I’ve used openers, I’ve tried various versions of Bill James’s three-man rotation idea, I’ve unleashed the Curly Ogden/George Mogridge gambit and Waxahachie swapped with abandon. When I was younger, I even bullpenned occasional games of Backyard Baseball because the “juice” bar denoting pitcher stamina scared me into an early realization of the third-time-through-the-order penalty.

But unlike those efforts, Kevin Cash is not merely twisting pixels into positional pretzels and forcing lines of codes to accommodate new commands. The human element matters if MLB is to adopt unorthodox practices, and in Tampa Bay’s case, both Romo’s enthusiasm—Cash said Romo was “the most excited of anybody” about the idea—and the malleability of the Rays’ young starters certainly helped.

Even if baseball’s pitching structure isn’t yet ready for a total overhaul, though, it’s not hard to imagine the Rays making the opening inroads for an eventual shift. The sport is full of copycats and eager fad followers. A natural comparison exists with the opener’s inverse: the closer, a concept that, according to The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, wasn’t invented until 1977 with Bruce Sutter. The two concepts aren’t all that different, either: They’re about placing the most effective pitchers in the most challenging situations to best limit opposing runs. Maybe the opener concept will take another decade to take true hold of the majors, like how a decade elapsed between Sutter’s assumption of the first closer role and Tony La Russa’s league-altering implementation of a stricter closer schedule with Dennis Eckersley. But Eckersley was already pitching in the majors by 1977, just in a different role for which he was worse suited. Maybe the next generation of openers is already here, just waiting to be used to optimal value.

Now that possibility is at least that—a possibility. There’s a reasonable chance that future baseball fans could look back upon Sergio Romo striking out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, and Justin Upton as the first spark in a grand baseball revolution. The most famous play of Romo’s career thus far came with him as a closer, when the former Giant froze Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera to end the 2012 World Series. But now, future generations might remember Romo more as the opening opener than anything he did at the close.

All statistics through Sunday.