The Rays have been handling pitching just a bit differently in 2018. During spring training they announced that they were eschewing the traditional (at least back to the 1920s) five-man starting pitching rotation to go with four starters, with “bullpen day” filling in for the fifth starter as needed. When Nate Eovaldi required elbow surgery, they were left with just a three man rotation, although the many off days in the first six weeks of their season meant that they seldom, in fact, needed two “bullpens days” in any given five game period.
In recent weeks the “bullpen day” arrangement has seen further tweaks. Rather than simply piggybacking multi-inning relievers, in a few instances the Rays have started with a short reliever and replaced him early with the game with a pitcher capable of pitching multiple innings.
On May 2, Andrew Kittredge “started” a game against the Toronto Blue Jays, going two innings and yielding to Ryan Yarbrough who pitched the next five. This weekend the Rays employed this tactic against the Angels. Sergio Romo opened Saturdays’ game, striking out the side in his one inning; Ryan Yarbrough once more was the...reliever? starter number 2? taking over in the second. Apparently the Rays were so happy with that outcome they decided to double down and will open with Sergio Romo today (Sunday) as well.
The “opener” concept has been discussed in theory. Bryan Grosnick, writing for Beyond the Box Score, suggested using a reliever to start the game back in 2013, and most likely coined the “opener” label. Steve Kinsella referenced Grosnick in suggesting that the Blue Jays consider this approach in 2016. Probably the most vocal proponent of this approach to pitching is Brian “kill the win” Kenny.
#TheOpener pg 172— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) May 20, 2018
It’s easy work. pic.twitter.com/n1sr0pT9vG
So the “opener” idea has been out there, but no one has put it into practice, at least not on purpose (to be sure there are those times a starter doesn’t make it past the second inning).
There was considerable excitement about this novel approach. Kenny in particular has been ecstatic:
#TheOpener is the next, logical step in finding a competitive advantage.— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) May 19, 2018
& the @RaysBaseball are out in front. #DiggingIn #MLBNow pic.twitter.com/MTLYyHuRCk
And in case we missed the historic significance of this move:
Sergio Romo takes the hill Saturday for the @RaysBaseball.. pic.twitter.com/rySVPLSWsO— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) May 19, 2018
And, important to note for all those who think messing with pitching roles will be bad for the players, Sergio Romo was perhaps most excited of all:
Sergio Romo on his first career MLB start. @RaysBaseball take on the Angels in Game 3. #RaysUp #MLB pic.twitter.com/FdRy4xTY26— FOX Sports Florida (@FOXSportsFL) May 20, 2018
So what does the rest of the baseball world think of this approach? Are we looking at an affront to all that is great about baseball, or a clever tweak that will, like the defensive shift, be all the rage in two years? Here are some of the reactions we have found; if you’ve seen others add them to the comments.
First, there has been coverage, of course in the Tampa Bay Times, but also in other national outlets describing the Rays thought process.
Some of the national media attention simply acknowledged the historic nature of this decision, both starting Romo on Saturday (making him one of several pitchers to have several hundred appearances under his belt before his first start),
The Rays may give reliever Sergio Romo his first career start on Saturday. The plan would be for him to pitch an inning or two.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 18, 2018
According to @EliasSports, only three players in MLB history have had more career appearances than Romo's 588 at the time of their first career start. pic.twitter.com/1ib05CPjl3
and then, prior to the Sunday start, looking for other examples of pitchers who started games on consecutive days (apparently the last was Zach Greinke, who was ejected early in a 2012 start and came back to start again the next day)
There weren’t a ton of national media people condemning the move, although no doubt had Saturday’s game turned out differently the “I told you so” responses would have been loud (and could still be depending on the outcome of Sunday’s game).
This MLB round table had Brian Kenny involved in a debate on the topic, but anti-Kenny forces didn’t seem to have a clear argument:
I love the #Rays going w/#TheOpener..— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) May 19, 2018
So does @jaysonst, @CDickerson_PFTP & Joe Girardi, right?
Of course not!
It’s On. It’s So On. #MLBNow pic.twitter.com/psmkb1nZiz
Joe Girardi seemed to say that it’s acceptable for the Rays to do this now, given the fluidity of their pitcher usage. But you wouldn’t want to start doing this, say, in the post-season where players have no time to adjust. In reality, however, it seems to me that post-season play is exactly where we have seen the most experimentation with pitching roles, as managers are willing to try anything that gains an advantage.
And apparently some radio person named Casey Stern thinks it’s a bad idea but this is all I can find about what exactly is wrong with the Rays approach:
Other than everything? Nothing. https://t.co/QHTFTdWAUH— Casey Stern (@CaseyStern) May 18, 2018
Broadcasters for both teams weighed in on this experiment. Watching Romo strike out the side and Yarbrough pitch six plus effective innings on Saturday, Brian Anderson took note of the analytics underlying the decision-making process and said “the computers must be high-fiving eachother.” (It was not clear to this listener whether he was celebrating this development). However, Angel’s broadcasters were clearly unenthusiastic:
Baseball conventionalist must be screaming at what the Rays just did with their rotation. Angels radio announcers say they “still don’t understand it. It didn’t need to happen” lol. Love utilizing new strategies.— Hunter Graff (@HunterGraff13) May 20, 2018
Of course, if we go to Twitter to find reactions of random fans, we learn that the Rays are single handedly destroying pitcher salaries, killing baseball, and by the way did you know the Rays have no fans? (Any Rays topic is likely to get one of these attendance-related non sequiturs) There are many laughable fan tweets, but we’ll close with this self-described Yankee season ticket holder who is apparently under the impression that runs scored during the first inning don’t count:
With 8 more innings to play, there’s a good chance he winds up pitching in what turns out to be a meaningless inning. If your starter isn’t good enough to pitch to the 1-2-3 hitters, who are you going to pitch in their second ABs? #YankeesCamryHybrid— Charlie Bowman (@charliebowman) May 20, 2018