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The ethics of the opener

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Where is the balance between innovation, tactics, economics, and the human element in baseball?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, May 19th, the Rays started Sergio Romo, and it generated a lot of heated discussion. On Sunday, May 20th, they started him again, and the discussion became a firestorm.

Traditionalists maintained that this was not how the game of baseball should be played. Analytics boosters called this a brilliant step forward to a new era. Brian Kenny is still celebrating somewhere in the MLB Network studios.

In case you somehow missed it, the Rays employed a strategy that some have called an opener, where a good reliever (but not your best) starts the game, and pitches the first inning. Then your backend of the rotation “starter,” who was scheduled to pitch, comes into the game to follow him. On Saturday it was Sergio Romo and Ryan Yarbrough playing those roles; on Sunday Romo was followed by Matt Andriese and then Anthony Banda.

There were all sorts of comments from players, coaches and the media , some of which can be easily dismissed. But one concern, heard from a number of fronts, was the one noted here by Angels’ infielder Zach Cozart

“I feel like teams have an ulterior motive when they are doing this,” Cozart said before the Angels’ game on Tuesday night. “Less starting pitching means you don’t have to pay guys as much.

“It’s not like I don’t get it. I just don’t want to get where guys aren’t getting paid as much because there’s a ton of bullpen guys coming in one and after another and then all of the sudden there’s one or two guys on the staff who start.

“I’m more concerned about the financial aspect of three or four years down the road, if your whole staff is bullpenning except a couple guys, your payroll is going to go down because you don’t have to pay starters anymore.”

Is the opener all about keeping down pitching salaries? It is unethical for teams to rob players, especially young players, of opportunities to gain lucrative resume builders like “games started?” We explore these questions below.

The Broken Arbitration System

The arbitration system in MLB is a mess.

As it stands now, when a player reaches arbitration, both the player’s representative and the team review his performance, name a salary, and seek to come to an agreement. If they cannot come to an agreement, each side’s salary proposal is sent to an independent arbiter. Both sides can present their case in support of their proposed number; the arbiter then must pick between the two numbers.

Each side presents evidence to support their salary proposal. According to the CBA, evidence can include the player’s performance, comparable player salaries, and even some intangibles (“special qualities of leadership and public appeal”), among a few other factors. In practice, it is a system that relies far too heavily on poor counting stats like saves and pitcher wins to determine a pitcher’s value.

In theory, any available stat can be used to make their case, and this includes the more advanced analytics available like WAR and xFIP, but this is a process determined by a human element. Humans are flawed, and prone to being swayed by the familiar stats that they know. Wins and saves provide a nice, easy number to quantify a player, even though they do relatively little to tell us about pitcher value.

The system also requires players to, of course, stress their upsides, but also, perhaps more perniciously, encourages teams to seek to undermine their employees. I do not know exactly what a better system would look like, but a system that fails to properly value players and encourages teams to trash their talent seems, to say the least, flawed.

This has been a major problem that made national baseball attention with the New York Yankees and their bitter arbitration fights with their elite relief ace Dellin Betances. The Yankees, a team so rich Scrooge McDuck would say “tone it down,” have had made some unpleasant public comments about Betances, even after winning their case. Yankees’ president Randy Levine was quoted after the most recent case:

“It’s like me saying, ‘I’m not the president of the Yankees; I’m an astronaut,’” Levine said. “No, I’m not an astronaut, and Dellin Betances is not a closer.”

The Yankees emphasized the fact that Betances did not have that precious “saves” stat bolstering his resume, despite posting incredible numbers in pretty much every other category. This is the well-founded fear that Cozart and others have when they look at a strategy that could allow teams to manipulate the arb system and shortchange talent.

So, is it ethical and fair for the Rays to use a strategy that they believe will give them the best chance to win a game, against a very good team, even if it means potentially giving teams ammunition for making the case for a reduced number of years down the line in arbitration and free agency? This is where the argument gets complicated.

Yarbrough: beneficiary or victim?

The injuries to starter Nathan Eovaldi, and big time prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon foiled the early March pitching plans for the Rays. Even before these injuries, the Rays had announced plans to eschew the traditional five man rotation, at least earlier in the season when they had a slew of off days, with scheduled bullpen days replacing the fifth starter. This provided opportunity for fringe prospects like Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough to make the team out of spring training and gain valuable major league experience right out of the gate.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It is Yarbrough (and other pitchers of his caliber) who have been and are likely to be the second man up when a relief opener is used. Yarbrough has worked as the main starter behind a reliever opener thus far, first following Andrew Kittredge and then Sergio Romo, so we are using him as our main example. (Look here for more on the thinking behind these decisions).

Yarbrough has performed well in this role. While pitching after an opener, he has added more innings, pitched clean innings, and improved all his peripheral stats. The only thing missing on these nights from his line was the “games started.”

That brings us to the ethical question. Are the Rays hurting Yarbrough by employing this strategy, robbing him of his “starter” status and the “games started” metric? Will he, like Betances, have to hear Chaim Bloom denigrate his contributions at a future arb hearing because he’s “not a starter?”

It’s a difficult question, especially because it requires projecting so far in the future ,and the game seems to be undergoing a dramatic shift in the way bullpen’s are utilized and valued. Furthermore, if the opener is unethical, what about any other use of pitchers that denies them opportunities to gain starts, saves, or wins?

For example, let’s consider the middle relief ace. Players like the Astros Chris Devenski and Brewers Josh Hader both came through their systems as starting pitching prospects, but their breakthrough success in the majors came as relievers (Matt Andriese may be emerging as the Rays version of this type of player).

Actually, saying they’ve had success is underselling it: they have flat out dominated. Both Hader and Devenski have been two of the very best relievers in baseball, with multi-win fWAR seasons under their belts already, and with another seemingly on the way in 2018.

If utilizing an opener is crossing the line, is it fair to use former starters as multi-inning relievers instead? Chris Devenski did not have a ton of prospect hype behind him as a starter, but as a reliever he has grown into a household name.

As an analytically-driven baseball fan, I could not care less about counting stats like wins and saves, and often find that the old traditional closer role to be antiquated. Ken Giles may end the games in Houston, but Devenski is the best reliever on that team, and should be paid like it. Nowadays relievers are such a huge part of the modern game that a traditionalist practice of paying starters more simply because they can start doesn’t make a ton of sense. A backend of the rotation guy who throws 150 league average innings is not more valuable than someone like Devenski who gives his team 80-100 great innings.

Chris Devenski will be entering his first year of arbitration in 2019, and his case will be fascinating to watch to see exactly what the market really is for elite bullpen arms that don’t have many saves. I desperately hope he breaks the bank.

Can the Rays be Trusted?

Bryan Grosnick, way back in 2013 at Beyond the Box Score, wrote about a theory of using a set-up man as an opener to a game instead and outlined how it would work in practice and why teams should try. Recently, Grosnick got to write about that very theory and how it worked in execution in the real game. One criticism of the tactic that Grosnick noted was the ethical concerns, and more specifically about the team itself that employed the strategy:

The Rays have a recent history of being extremely cost-averse, and working hard to keep player payroll extremely low in spite of large payouts from the league. We probably can’t (at this point) trust that the Rays are making moves simply in order to win games.

Now, Grosnick is not alone in his concern. Many baseball writers and commentators have cast the Rays this offseason being greedy, selfish, disgraceful, and most importantly, un-trustworthy. However, while that narrative certainly is convenient, from the point of view of explaining how often big-name players are traded near the end of their contracts, is it accurate?

The Rays payroll has been on the lower end of baseball for pretty much the entire franchise history, but as JT Morgan wrote earlier this year: the Rays spending is in line, per their revenue, with the rest of baseball. About 56% of their revenue in 2017 was spent on players (that’s including things like International FA and the draft, etc.), which is similar to what Ben Lindberg of the Ringer found in his research on baseball’s economics. The Rays clearly have financial restrictions, placed on them by their ownership group. But that does not mean they are operating like a Jeffrey Loria team, running the organization solely as a way to pack their pockets and grift the fans. There are some big and obvious issues that impact the Rays revenue:

  • Old, widely decried stadium
  • Low attendance
  • Old and unlucrative TV deal

Now that a new TV deal has been agreed upon, based on the consistent strong ratings in the Tampa Bay market, that will fix one revenue stream, but the two other issues won’t be change until the team moves, preferably across the bay to a new, more accessible stadium in Ybor City.

Another big reason why folks have thought that the Rays cannot be trusted is the way they have manipulated the arb system to their advantage by holding players down in the minor leagues to secure an extra year of control. There is no doubt that the Rays do this. Practically every team in baseball does this.

The Chicago Cubs, not exactly a pauper of a team, held Kris Bryant down to “work on his third-base defense” for a convenient amount of days at the beginning of the 2015 season—until they had an extra year of control.

Just this year the Atlanta Braves left uber-prospect Ronald Acuna in the minors, despite his blistering spring training. After the Braves had secured his extra year of control, Acuna got the call and immediately continued to crush baseballs.

This loophole in the CBA is glaring and teams are taking advantage of it left and right. Is it ethical? No, it’s not. But until a new agreement is negotiated that closes the loophole, most teams will still take advantage of it, not just the Rays.

As BJ Upton once said, the Rays have to “ball on a budget.”

In Stu Sternberg’s time with the Rays, the team has never gone through a complete tear down rebuild, they have not made moves solely with money in mind and no desire for winning, and they have maintained a competitive team for a shockingly long amount of time utilizing different techniques, tactics, and strategies that all have a sound process in mind.

In most of the Sternberg era, recent years especially, Rays trades have emphasized acquiring win-now pieces along with prospects for the future. The David Price trade at the deadline in 2014 wasn’t the “prospect” haul that many folks thought they would. Instead the Rays picked up Willy Adames as the future big prospect many years away, but also targeted young veteran LHP Drew Smyly to fill Price’s vacant spot in the rotation, and utility major leaguer Nick Franklin.

Some other notable examples of Sternberg era superstar trades:

  • Garza is traded for prospects Archer and Hak-Ju Lee, and immediate major leaguers Sam Fuld, Brandon Guyer, and Robinson Chirinos.
  • Shields is traded for close-to-major-league-ready Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi
  • Myers is traded for prospects Jake Bauers, Trea Turner, and Joe Ross, but the Rays flip Ross and Turner for the major-league-ready Steven Souza Jr.
  • The Longoria trade was headlined by major-league-ready Christian Arroyo (who was blocked on the Rays MLB roster by veterans) and hometown vet Denard Span.

Even the most puzzling move of the offseason, the DFA and then trade of Corey Dickerson, the Rays avoided the easy option of letting Dickerson walk for a mere $1 mil. Instead of simply DFA’ing their 2017 All Star, the Rays said they used the DFA to motivate a deal and put a ticking clock on the situation. In theory the Rays took on Daniel Hudson’s salary (which effectively equaled Dickerson’s for 2018) to secure the prospect they wanted from Pittsburgh (Tristan Grey).

If the Rays wanted to simply shed salary, there are far easier and cheaper ways they could have done it. As Jeff Sullivan wrote at Fangraphs, the Rays were able to cut payroll without getting any worse on the field in 2018. These moves each fit into the overall Sternberg plan for the team: work under the tight revenue restrictions the uneven baseball marketplace sets on them to try and compete now, while building towards a bigger competitive window in the future.

For something like the opener to work, it does need buy in, and that requires openness, honesty, and transparency from the front office to the players. It requires them to work with Yarbrough, Romo, and whoever else might be involved in future opener plans. It requires them to do the hard work of outlining the why of the plan, how it helps the team, and what that means for the players.

As we have already seen with Yonny Chirinos, the Rays are willing leave a path from the pen to the rotation. Presenting that path, but being upfront and honest with the players is the only way they can make this work and do so in a fair and ethical manner.

Conclusion

When baseball goes in new directions, we should remain mindful of the impact on players. It is vital that the folks who entertain us, and perform the amazing feets that make us fans, are taken care of and treated well.

The ethical standards of the opener, or of using Josh Hader as a reliever, or of platooning batters, or of any number of other tactics that baseball teams use to try and squeeze out a win or two, are hard to fully determine in real time. The ends do not justify the means, but intentions do matter, and a strategy meant to circumvent the terms of the collective bargaining agreement and depress player salaries or extend team control (service time manipulation) is not the same situation as a strategy of assigning players to the on-field tasks they’re best able to perform.

Putting players in a position to succeed, even unconventionally, should be a goal. We should not be stuck in the past, because that’s “the way it’s been done,” and if the compensation system is not set up to fairly reward players who excel within new but effective strategies and roles, then that system itself needs to be changed. Metrics like WAR, that combine quality of pitching and innings pitched, are much better equipped to deal with the changing roles of relievers than are wins, saves, or games started, and as such it is ethically important that those who participate in the process are knowledgeable of and fluent in these and any other developments in the understanding of player value.

The analytical side of me desperately wants to see teams like the Rays continue to push the envelope of innovation. I do not want to see baseball played the same way, by every team, as one homogenous blob of bland sameness—this sameness does and always will favor the richest teams in the largest cities.

I like the extreme shifts and the new ways of utilizing bullpens. I like how a willingness to experiment has allowed teams from less affluent parts of the country to compete, even in a sport that remains stacked against them.

But I ultimately love folks questioning why things are done the way that they are. Questioning motives, questioning reasoning, and questioning ethics are important. Traditionalist thinking, and the “way we do things” are not good enough answers.