Baseball purists shudder at the mere mention of the "The Opener," the concept of using a reliever for an inning or two before handing the ball off to the rest of the bullpen. It was pioneered by the Tampa Bay Rays during the tenure of new Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, and to great success.
Of the 14 pitchers to make a start for the Rays last year, 11 of them also pitched in relief. All-Star Charlie Morton, defending Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, and breakout candidate Tyler Glasnow were the only Rays used exclusively as starters.
The results have produced some statistical oddities. Former Red Sox farmhand Jalen Beeks pitched over 100 innings despite making only three starts last year, right-hander Ryan Yarbrough has more wins (27) than starts (20) over the last two seasons, and right-hander Ryan Stanek accounted for only two decisions despite making 27 starts in 2019. But there's no arguing the bottom line, with Tampa cracking 90 wins in each of the last two seasons.
With Bloom taking over in Boston, a natural question is if we should expect to see more openers. He's not going there, yet, though he may not have a choice.
"We said it with the Rays, and I and a number of other people are on record about that," he said. "It was always about just trying to figure out how you could take the strengths of the players on your roster and go win as many baseball games as you could. Nothing more, nothing less. In this game now, the more this game evolves, teams are being open to a larger menu of options of how to do that. But there's not necessarily any one right way. It's really just about going into it with a mindset of using everyone's strengths whichever way is going to give you the best chance to win."
The Red Sox belatedly joined the opener bandwagon last season out of necessity. By September, injuries had shelved David Price and Chris Sale and limited Nathan Eovaldi. The only healthy starters on the roster were Eduardo Rodriguez and Rick Porcello, necessitating September starts from the likes of Jhoulys Chacin, Travis Lakins, and Bobby Poyner.
In a perfect world, Sale, Price, and Eovaldi will each make 30-plus starts in 2020, but that's a big ask, given the various injuries they battled in 2019. Which means we might be looking another season of openers as the Red Sox piece together a rotation.
The concept has merit, especially if your staff is deep enough to pull it off, which Boston's decidedly was not last year. Let a reliever trained to deliver 1-2-3 innings handle the top of the order before yielding to a more traditional starter or long reliever for multiple frames. This increases the likelihood that if the pitcher after the opener turns over the lineup a dreaded third time, he'll be seeing the bottom of the order and not the top.
The approach turned the game on its head — Tampa's Sergio Romo memorably followed 588 straight relief appearances with starts on consecutive days in 2018 — but it also maximized Tampa's chances to win, especially when Snell and Glasnow landed on the IL last season.
The Red Sox could find themselves with more openers in 2020 if the rotation can't stay healthy.
"I don't know yet," Bloom said. "This is something as we talk and work together, we're going to figure out the best way to think about things. Certainly, when we played our last homestand with the Rays, we played the Red Sox and there were a lot of bullpen games and a lot of pitchers being used on both sides. There were a lot of different ways that this team had been doing it. I don't necessarily think it would be anything new to think about that. But it's really just going to come out of our collective discussions."
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