The Rays’ opener strategy: Did it work?

At first glance, it appears so, but other variables could have contributed to Tampa Bay’s surge.
Ryne Stanek posted a 2.98 ERA last season, beating his Baseball Prospectus projection by nearly a full run. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
Ryne Stanek posted a 2.98 ERA last season, beating his Baseball Prospectus projection by nearly a full run. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published March 22
Updated March 24

But did it work?

That’s the question, isn’t it?

We’ve just assumed that the Rays “opener” strategy worked last season, haven’t we?

That’s what happens when you blow away expectations and win 90 games. You get more compliments than complaints.

But maybe we’re falling victim to a fallacy. We assume that the Rays are onto something because they’re the Rays. They’re innovators, pioneers, trailblazers. They’ve been at the forefront of baseball trends for years — data analysis, position versatility, defensive shifts, matchup-driven vs. role-driven bullpen decisions and on and on.

Or maybe the opener strategy did, in fact, work. Once the Rays committed to it in mid May, their ERA began to decline and they began to win more games. Before May 19, they had a 4.43 ERA, which ranked 22nd; after May 19, they had a 3.50 ERA, which ranked third. Before May 19, they won half of their games; after May 19, they won 58 percent.

It’s tempting to stop there. Suspicions confirmed.

But it’s more complicated. Other variables could have contributed to the Rays’ surge.

Maybe they simply played better baseball during the second half. (They did).

Maybe they got better players. (They did).

Maybe they got off to a slow start because of a difficult schedule. (They did.)

Remember, they lost eight of their first nine, games that happened to be against the Red Sox and Yankees, who went on to win 108 and 100 games, respectively.

So how then do we determine whether the opener strategy worked?

We can break down the runs the Rays allowed by inning, with particular interest in the first inning, the inning in which teams score the most runs. If the Rays’ openers were effective, we’d see an unusually low number of runs allowed.

As it turns out, that was exactly the case. The Rays allowed an average of 0.41 runs per first inning, well below the major league and American League averages.

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That average jumped to 0.44 in the second inning, which was consistent with the MLB average but still well below the AL average. From then on, they beat MLB and AL averages in every inning … except the seventh. More on that in a moment.

Maybe the Rays would have performed just as well had they handled their pitchers the way teams have handled them for a century. Perhaps, but consider this: The 0.41 runs the Rays allowed per first inning were the fewest in the AL and fewer than all but three teams in the NL. They also were the fewest the Rays have allowed in the first inning since 2012, when they had the best pitching staff in baseball. Coincidentally, they won 90 games and missed the playoffs that season, too.

Baseball has long been moving toward relying more on “relievers” and less on “starters.” The Rays, though, are the first team to fully embrace experimenting with roles at the beginning of games, and our language has yet to catch up. We don’t know what to label what it is that they’re doing.

Some have referred to it as “bullpenning,” and though the Rays certainly deploy that strategy, Bryan Grosnick argues in Baseball Prospectus’ 2019 annual that it’s different from the opener strategy. He defines an opener game as a game in which the first pitcher faces batters for no more than three innings and the second pitcher (what he calls the “yeoman”) faces batters for no fewer than four innings. He found that the Rays had 36 games last season that met these conditions. They won 19 of them.

By this method, it seems that the opener strategy yielded only mediocre results. What if, though, those opener games replaced games that would have featured traditional back-end-of-the-rotation starters? Most teams would be happy with a 19-17 record.

The most compelling evidence that Grosnick presents in favor of the opener strategy is Rays pitchers’ performances relative to Baseball Prospectus’ projections. Almost all exceeded expectations. Among them: Ryne Stanek (actual ERA of 2.98 vs. projected ERA of 3.79), Diego Castillo (3.18 vs. 4.90), Hunter Wood (3.73 vs. 4.64), Ryan Yarbrough (3.91 vs. 4.56), Yonny Chirinos (3.51 vs. 4.43) and Vidal Nuno (1.64 vs. 4.86). The pitchers who didn’t: Sergio Romo, Matt Andriese, Jalen Beeks, Austin Pruitt and Ryan Weber. This might not be definitive proof that the opener strategy worked, but the results are persuasive.

The strategy isn’t without drawbacks. Though it seemed to help the Rays prevent runs in the early and middle innings, the team saw an unusual spike in runs allowed in the seventh inning. Typically, run scoring gradually increases through the middle innings and then tails off starting in the seventh.

There are a few explanations. The seventh inning is a bit of a transition period, especially for the Rays. If they’re using a traditional starting pitcher, he’s likely not going past the seventh inning, even if he’s a Cy Young contender. Blake Snell, for example, pitched into the eighth inning only three times last season. If they’re using an opener, the “yeoman” likely will be more hittable, as batters will be seeing him for the third time.

It’s possible the Rays are sacrificing late-game run prevention for early-game run prevention. By burning a high-leverage reliever like Stanek or Castillo early, they have fewer options later as they try to piece together a bridge to the ninth inning. Because of this, their hopes for this season will be tied to their bullpen depth. They’re showing a lot of confidence by rolling with largely the same group.

Even so, the Rays are better off deploying their better arms early and worrying about the rest later. The opener’s job, of course, is to prevent runs, but the hidden, and harder to measure, advantage in featuring one is that he can help dictate the flow of the rest of the game.

At least for now. We’ll see once everyone starts doing it.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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