clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

“It’s Weird:” Critical takes on the Rays “Opener” experiment

(and why they are wrong)

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Los Angeles Angels Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend the baseball commentariat was abuzz with the Rays unorthodox use of Sergio Romo to pitch the first inning of the Saturday and Sunday games (he also started the second inning on Sunday). And there have been a lot of opinions about this approach to pitching management, some quite similar to those expressed early in the season when the Rays made clear that they would deploy their bullpen strategically in lieu of a tradition five man starting rotation.

Yesterday we shared some reactions to Romo’s first start, and we’ll have some more analysis coming later. In this column we review some of the recurring criticisms of Rays pitching management and show why we think they are misdirected.

Let’s start by getting our assumptions out on the table. I think I can speak for many on the DRB masthead when I say the following:

  1. I don’t know whether bullpen day, “opening” pitchers or any other pitching usage innovations will produce more wins;
  2. But there is logic behind these moves, and until someone is willing to try implementing them we will never know whether or when they work. All innovations start somewhere. You’re welcome, baseball.
  3. Many, fans and pundits alike, have put forward arguments suggesting that both bullpen days and opening pitchers are terrible ideas. Most of these arguments have been pretty unconvincing. That doesn’t mean there are no good arguments against these arrangements, it just means we haven’t seen them.

1. It’s weird and I don’t like it

Zach Cozart, who struck out against Romo on Saturday and drew a walk on Sunday, was quoted extensively in this very good Fabian Ardaya Athletic article:

“It’s weird,” Cozart said. “I hope baseball doesn’t go in that direction to where it’s going to be more like spring training, having a pitcher go an inning or two and then change it out.

“I don’t think that’s good for baseball, in my opinion. It’s definitely weird, not knowing who you’re going to face in your first couple of at-bats. … Usually, you have a starter and you think you’re going to have three at-bats probably. So, you’re going to use the first at-bat and you want to have success, see what he has if you haven’t faced him before, stuff like that. When you’re going spring-training style, it’s definitely a different ballgame. It’s spring training; that’s the best way I could describe it. I hope it doesn’t go in that direction.”

Poor Zach got some pretty harsh push back so I’m loath to pile on, but I’m always bemused by players who use “playing the game the right way” arguments to criticize other teams who are, shockingly, simply looking to win games. That category would include pull hitters who rail against the shift and pitchers (and their teammates) who think the other team should stop trying to put balls in play once a no-hitter gets into the sixth inning.

For the record, new isn’t bad (although it may prove to be down the road, that’s why we try it out), and teams are SUPPOSED to be trying to make it uncomfortable for the other guys.

2. It’s bad for fan engagement

The Rays are making baseball less fun because these interchangeable relievers aren’t marketable stars. We had heard this as a general critique of bulllpen day in March, and now it’s returned, as we see, with writer Nick Stellini:

No doubt Stellini and those who share this view have a closet full of jerseys with the names of guys like Mike Fiers and Sam Gaviglio, because these fourth and fifth starters are the ones replaced by the bullpen/opener. And if you are looking for players who are likely to stimulate some fan interest, a lively personality like Sergio Romo strikes me as a great candidate.

Just to be clear: teams that can start Justin Verlander should do so, and feature his face on all their marketing material as well. But when your pitching options are more modest, perhaps trying a different way to get twenty-seven outs isn’t killing interest in the game after all.

3. Rays are only doing this because they are cheap/have a terrible team

Some comments suggest that the Rays are such a terrible team that might as well pull the equivalent of grabbing a guy off the street to pitch, because they are going to lose anyway. Their record, of course, suggests otherwise, but I think it is fair to say that had the team seen this as a year in which they were competing for a division title they would have been less likely to go into the season without 4-5 legitimate starters.

Jesse Spector of FanRag Sports had a more nuanced (but somewhat confusing) take. He says that experimentation is fine and even admirable. But he seems to assume that the Rays are doing this for the wrong reasons, namely “long-term corporate goals.”

I’m not sure what this means. Presumably baseball teams, as corporations, all have the similar long term goals of fielding winning teams while earning profits, right? But I think the implication here is that the Rays are making these particular pitching choices to further corporate financial goals rather than in the interest of playing better baseball.

We who watch the Rays every day beg to differ. Of course the Rays are always looking to find inexpensive wins, that’s life at the bottom of the revenue ladder. But the idea that they are experimenting with pitching roles for no reason other than rewarding owners with big profit checks doesn’t make sense. You run a similar payroll letting guys like Yarbrough and Chirinos just start games and pitch the usual seven innings, and they sink or swim; if they overperform expectations to where they become expensive in arbitration, presumably they become great trade pieces. You could pick up an out of work veteran arm for little and let him burn through innings (isn’t Scott Kazmir available?). I don’t understand why those traditional low budget moves would be acceptable but moving the pieces around a bit is just “corporate.”

4. Think of the poor pitcher’s agent!

Ever since the Rays announced the “bullpen day” plan there has been what I consider to be a puzzling level of concern among baseball writers about how minimizing the number of guys called “starters” will affect players’ ability to get paid. For example, R. J. Anderson notes the potential impact of the Rays approach on arbitration salaries in this season preview.

Nick Stellini also finds that a good reason to dislike the “opener” approach:

Full disclosure: I am a proud union member, and when it comes to things labor related I am squarely on team labor. I hope the MLBPA fights hard for its members and I think MiLB players should earn a living wage.

That said, I am perplexed by the idea that teams have a responsibility manage players with an eye to their future salaries, rather than the ways they can best help their team.

By Stellini’s logic, teams that platoon a player, make a player the DH or give someone a bench role should all be subject to this kind of scrutiny. Yet no one would suggest a team should move a poor fielder out of the DH role or send a guy with pronounced splits up against a same-handed pitcher to avoid DH or platoon player salary penalties. By Stellini’s logic, the Rays should have let Brad Miller continue to play shortstop.

The concern with impacts on player’s salaries also assumes that these new arrangements will produce losers — starters who are now “demoted” to relievers and go into arbitration without shiny metrics like starts and wins. But it overlooks the potential to create winners. This could include a player (Ryan Yarbrough?) who might still be in the minors but for this opportunity to be part of a re-structured bullpen. And there may even be more opportunities for those still-beloved pitcher wins. Starters must pitch five full innings to get a win. The guy who comes in at the start of the second doesn’t need to meet that threshold.

I seem to remember a time not too long ago when the “utility player” label was considered the kiss of death for someone hoping for All-Star recognition and big pay days. But Ben Zobrist dragged his five different gloves to stadiums around the league, got a nice extension from the Rays and a nicer free agent deal from the Cubs, and now everyone is looking for the “next Ben Zobrist.” As baseball roles adjust, markets adjust too.

I hope Matt Andriese and others like him get paid well for good production. I hope Matt Andriese’s agent is working hard to identify the metrics that show how his client’s contribution helps his team. But insisting that baseball teams don’t try new ways of winning seems like a very bad way of supporting players’ ability to bargain for better salaries.

To recap: the Rays current bullpen-ish experiments may or may not have staying power. Thus far, however, we have not seen any arguments that convince us that the team should stop trying.