Brian Kenny: Rays’ use of opener signaled the baseball’s old rules are dead

Guest column: The MLB Network host and author of ‘Ahead of the Curve’ argues there’s no going back to the pitching staffs of yesteryear.
Rays front office members Chaim Bloom, left, and Erik Neander, center, worked with manager Kevin Cash to implement the use of a so-called opener to start about two of every five games last season. Tampa Bay is committed to using the strategy again in 2019. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Rays front office members Chaim Bloom, left, and Erik Neander, center, worked with manager Kevin Cash to implement the use of a so-called opener to start about two of every five games last season. Tampa Bay is committed to using the strategy again in 2019. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Published March 22
Updated March 22

Brian Kenny is an MLB Network host and author of the book, Ahead of the Curve, in which he writes about the analytical revolution in baseball. He is an outspoken proponent of the Rays’ opener approach and contributed this story to the Times’ Rays 2019 preview edition.

The opener is this simple: Take a pitcher you trust in a high-leverage inning — ideally, your seventh-inning setup man — and pitch him in the first inning.

This is not your relief ace (don’t get locked into calling him a closer), and might not even be your primary setup pitcher. But don’t go below that level. Part of the impetus of using an opener is that the first inning is the highest- scoring inning. The game is always on the line, and the first inning needs to be attacked.

Check out most any beginning to a major league game. With the exception of the postseason, the intensity is, while not in every case, usually lower at the beginning of a game. Bringing in a fired-up flame-throwing reliever — Ryne Stanek is a perfect prototype — gets you a jump on the opposition. Hitting is a game of adjustments and rhythm. Ideally, your opener and your bulk innings pitcher (formerly the starter) have a totally different look. Arm slot, velocity, repertoire, and of course righty/lefty. Your opponent is now seeing two vastly different pitchers in his first two at bats. Tracking and timing are made more difficult.

Here, though, is the main point: Do what makes sense, for that day, for your team and its personnel. The opener is not some magic elixir. It’s just refusing to be locked into the rigid pitching model that was passed down from the 19th century and blindly followed for more than a century. Maybe your opener is a guy who can go 2-3 innings effectively. Use him that way.

Now you don’t have an opener, you have a tandem starter. The label isn’t important.

In Ahead of the Curve, I devoted a full chapter to bullpenning. Knowing that a full bullpen attack — with no set rules — is a mind-bender, I offered up the opener as a way to get a competitive advantage without changing your entire system or mindset.

The Rays’ initial usage of the opener last May have seemed like a small, tactical move, but it is actually a paradigm shift in pitching. Once ­Sergio Romo pitched the first inning, it became evident to the rest of the league: The old rules are dead, and everything is possible. You realize, once there’s no starter locked in, anyone can pitch anywhere, for any length you deem fit.

We are, at our base, herd animals. There is fear of straying from the pack that is built into our ancient survival systems. Somehow baseball teams compete with each other, but are reluctant to utilize tactics other teams are not using. This is where the Rays stand out from the pack.

Teams did not do full-scale defensive shifting for over 100 years of Major League Baseball until the Rays went all-in in 2012. Now it’s throughout the game, and is so effective, there is a call to ban it. Teams didn’t start games with relief pitchers for over 100 years. The Rays began in mid-May, and by the end of the season, eight other teams had followed. It became a regular part of the post-season, with the A’s and Brewers. Milwaukee went to the next level, using a lefty as a decoy for one batter, in order to get a platoon advantage against Dodgers. The Rays used the opener, then the Brewers thought of the “initial out-getter.” This is just the beginning.

Baseball has always been the thinking person’s game. Now in the post-sabermetric era, we are in a new age of baseball enlightenment. The old ways can be improved, if someone, like the Rays, is daring enough to step from the herd.

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