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Consequences of The Opener: MLB wants the 15-Day DL to return, longer minor league assignments

MLB is reportedly trying to bring more offense back into the game, and the Rays are to blame.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball changes are afoot, and blame may or may not fall on the Rays and The Opener strategy.

A source has reportedly told The Associated Press that Major League Baseball has proposed going back to a 15-day disabled list, while simultaneously increasing the time optioned players usually must spend in the minor leagues.

The moves being proposed by MLB are aimed at reducing the use of relief pitchers and reviving offense, and per the AP report, this has everything to do with The Opener:

Advanced analytics have shown team executives that starting pitchers are less successful the third time through the batting order. Increased DL and minor league option use has led to a strategy of teams rotating their middle relievers with their minor league affiliates in order to have more available pitchers each day. Teams even began using relievers as “openers” to start games last season, a trend sparked by the Tampa Bay Rays.

This is where the blame falls on Tampa Bay.

After the Rays lost three of their starting pitchers to Tommy John surgery in spring training, the team implemented the now infamous Opener strategy as a means of keeping afloat, putting relief pitchers like Andrew Kittredge and Sergio Romo on the mound ahead of Triple-A arms that might otherwise have not been promoted.

The resulting ripple effect has seen organizations across MLB begin to implement or consider a similar approach when a spot starter is needed, or when a team has wanted to limit a pitcher’s exposure to a batting order for a third time.

Back to the AP’s report, and the data they cite in support of MLB’s logic:

As part of the plan, a player optioned would have to spend at least 15 days in the minor leagues, up from 10. [...]

Teams averaged 3.4 relievers per game last year, up from 3.2 in 2016 and ’17 and 3.0 in 2012, according to Sports Info Solutions. The total number of relief pitchers used was 16,339 last season, up from 15,657 in 2017.

Average innings per start dropped from 5.89 in 2012 to 5.65 in 2016, the last year of the old labor contract. The average sunk to 5.51 in 2017 and 5.36 last season. Average pitches per start has fallen, too, from 95 in 2012 to 93 in 2016, 92 in 2017 and 88 last year.

And yet it’s unclear why the Disabled List is to blame.

The minimum length of time an injured player spends on the disabled list was cut from 15 days to 10 in 2016 as part of baseball’s new labor contract. As a result, DL placements rose from 563 in 2016 to 702 in 2017 and then again to 737 last year, the commissioner’s office said.

There were many reasons a 10-day disabled list was introduced, and chief among them was the protection of players. Teams may be more hesitant to put players on the DL for low-severity injuries if they will be unavailable for more than two weeks.

Incentivising teams to keep injured players on the 25-man roster may indeed add offense to the game, but not for the reasons teams should want. This is not a good look for MLB when upcoming labor negotiations are at the forefront of players minds.

Of course, these changes are unlikely to happen without the players’ blessing.

MLB included the proposals in a wider plan given to the players’ association, which also is considering management’s proposal from last offseason to institute pitch clocks. An agreement with the players’ association is necessary for playing rules changes. While management can make changes with one year advance notice, Commissioner Rob Manfred repeatedly has said he is reluctant to take that step.

If any changes are introduced, we will likely find out early in spring training, or or just before it begins.