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Why the Rays are going with the bundled package on openers

Plan is to use the three traditional starters, then the openers in back-to-back games.
Rays top starter Blake Snell (right) and top opener Ryne Stanek could have a lot to talk about.
TAILYR IRVINE | Times Rays top starter Blake Snell (right) and top opener Ryne Stanek could have a lot to talk about.
Published Mar. 8, 2019
Updated Mar. 8, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE – The Rays doubled down on the innovative pitching strategy they unveiled and implemented last season by designing their 2019 rotation to include just three traditional starters and two openers.

Now they have decided to double up, beginning the season with starters Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow pitching in order and then using the opener on back to back days.

There is a specific reason and, the Rays hope, benefit. They play their third series of the season in DH-less San Francisco, and setting things up this way allows them use the opener in two of those games, better navigating the lack of a DH with more flexibility to pinch-hit for their pitchers.

"It helps ... with the National League game with the pitcher hitting that we can avoid some (pitcher) at bats there,'' manager Kevin Cash said.

But there is a bigger picture premise, too.

Rays officials felt in looking back at last season’s data that packaging the opener days back to back can work better than splitting them up around the other three starters, and could help them, too.

“In theory we have three guys that hopefully can get us deeper into ballgames and if it works that way … we’re fresher for two days in a row,’’ Cash said. “We kind of picked it apart with staggering it, but for the sake of the starters, and giving Charlie and Glasnow the extra day (of rest) in the first month, which is important, it made the most sense to keep them back to back. I’m not saying we’ll do that throughout the rest of the season. We can adjust a little bit if needed.’’

There are potential issues with that plan, starting with the possibility of a bad game by Snell, Morton and/or Glasnow which forces them to blow out the bullpen in advance of the opener days. Or having one of their games go into extra innings or be interrupted by rain forcing heavy use of relievers.

But the concept of the opener is built on flexibility. The pitcher who begins the game gets the first three-six outs, then is followed by a “bulk” guy, basically a young converted starter, who is able to work five or so innings, but can be pulled sooner depending on the score and situation.

The Rays used the opener 55 times last year, and went 32-23 in those games. That included openers on back-to-back days 20 times (including five of three straight days), as they went 23-17 in those games. Five times they won the first game and lost the second. (For what it’s worth, four times they lost the first and won the second.)

The final score, though, is obviously not the best indicator of how the opener did, or the effectiveness. There were no obvious statistical spikes, and as with much of the residual impact, there is no clear answer.

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Ryne Stanek, who made a majors record 29 opener starts, said using the opener on back to back days is no different than using the bullpen to cover several innings in two straight games started by traditional starters.

“It’s pretty much the same,’’ he said. “We had multiple opening days in a row last year, I did a back to back. It’s not all that weird, I feel like, because we have the bulk guys coming in afterward, and they are set to go five or six (innings), it’s basically just a start, but somebody (else) is throwing the first.’’

Plus, he said, relievers are used to pitching two and three straight days, so apart from the innings in which they are used, there’s no reason for it to be any more taxing.

“We have to be ready for the next day anyway,’’ Stanek said. “It doesn’t really change anything on our end.’’

The real juggling to make this plan work has to be done by Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder, sorting through who to use when and who to hold back, balancing the temptation to go all in one day knowing they have to cover the next day. They do usually have the fallback of shuttling in a fresh arm for the bullpen from Triple-A if needed.

Stanek and Diego Castillo were the primary openers last year, though without an experienced closer they may get more late inning opportunities. Depending on who gets the final roster spots, Hunter Wood and Emilio Pagan are other opener candidates this year.

Whether the bundling plan works will play out over the first few weeks, as they open with four games against the Astros and three with the Rockies, then go on nine-game cross-country trip to face the Giants, White Sox and Blue Jays.

One by-product is starting openers in the two NL rules games is the potential to face Giants veterans Madison Bumgarner and/or Jeff Samardzija, who earlier in spring ripped the concept, Samardzija questioning the pride of the Rays pitchers for not objecting.

“That’s be funny,’’ Stanek said, “That’d be pretty good.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.