Rays 2019: Is Tampa Bay’s opener plan really that radical?

Here’s what’s critics missing about the Rays’ pitching philosophy that is spreading.
Photo illustration of Rays pitcher Diego Castillo. Illustration by Sean Kristoff-Jones. Times staff photo.
Photo illustration of Rays pitcher Diego Castillo. Illustration by Sean Kristoff-Jones. Times staff photo.
Published March 22, 2019

The critics are missing the point, which often happens in matters of baseball and tradition. Maybe more so when you add money and pride.

This is the story of Tampa Bay’s flirtation with innovation, specifically the idea of using relief pitchers as openers. Surely, you’ve heard the outrage. It was as if the Rays left graffiti on Cy Young’s headstone.

Opposing players called it a farce. Oldtimers hated it. Agents worried it would upend salary structures, and even baseball iconoclast Joe Maddon doubted its staying power.

But here’s what many of the critics failed to see:

The plan helped the Rays win.

And, really, what other argument is there?

The Rays were not trying to make a mockery of convention or hold salaries down or be the coolest kids in the dugout. They simply wanted to maximize their potential and decided this was one way to do it.

“That’s exactly it. We’re just trying to put ourselves in position to win as many games as possible,’’ said senior vice president Chaim Bloom. “That’s the only objective here and it’s behind everything we do.’’

It might seem like Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija or Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole were defending the integrity of players or old-school baseball when they blasted the Rays for minimizing starting pitching, but in the end they look a little self-serving for failing to understand either the concept or the results.

There are a lot of ways you can measure Tampa Bay’s experiment with openers, but nothing is quite as stark as this:

In 55 games using an opener, the Rays had a .582 winning percentage.

In every other game, they had a .542 winning percentage. And that includes 31 starts by Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell.

“I think if you want to make a blanket statement here, it’s that we are putting guys in position to be successful,’’ pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “More successful than they’d be with any of the traditional ideologies. And we’re giving ourselves a better chance to win ballgames.’’

Rays officials have been kicking this idea around for years, convinced of its potential but less sure about its reception in their own clubhouse. As it so happened, the tumblers fell into place last May.

Tampa Bay had lost several starting pitchers to season-ending injuries. They had a handful of other candidates who could have taken on the role of the fourth or fifth starter in the rotation, but there was concern those pitchers might struggle when facing batters for the third time in a game.

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That made the opener concept a plausible solution.

Instead of putting inexperienced starters on the mound in the first inning, with the risk of pulling them in the third or fourth inning, the Rays went the other way. The first inning or two — and theoretically the best hitters — would be handled by high-octane relievers. The bulk guys could then come in with more advantageous matchups, and a chance to pitch a little deeper in the game.

This accomplished two things: It kept hitters off-balance because they were facing different pitchers early, and it also allowed the Rays to better control individual matchups. The bulk guy would ideally pitch to between 18-21 hitters, but had the flexibility of going longer depending on the circumstances.

As for the results? Ryan Yarbrough had a 4.71 ERA in his six appearances as a traditional starter. Working in relief, including 12 appearances of five innings or more, his ERA was 3.72. Yonny ­Chirinos was the same. He had a 4.73 ERA in six starts, and a 2.83 ERA working out of the bullpen.

“There’s some push-pull to what we’re doing,’’ Snyder said. “There’s a lot of velocity at the beginning of the game and then there’s some craft with off-speed pitches behind them and then we go straight to matchups in the bullpen after that. Yeah, we are offsetting (a hitter’s) rhythm and ­timing by managing it this way.

“It’s definitely disruptive. I think it was (Anaheim’s) Zack Cozart who made the comment that it was like a spring training game and you can’t get used to a guy. Well, that just supports what we’re doing.’’

Does this mean openers are a permanent part of Tampa Bay’s strategy?

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Not even the Rays are prepared to say that. They will use openers again this year because Yarbrough, Chirinos, Jalen Beeks and others fit nicely in the profile of bulk guys, but it’s possible this is just a snapshot in time. Maybe Yarbrough and Chirinos eventually become traditional starters. Maybe the next crop of Rays pitching prospects are better suited for starting roles.

“I don’t think we know enough to say,’’ Bloom said. “The point of this is two-fold. No. 1, is to learn as we go. To say we know how things are going to be in 5 or 10 years would defeat that purpose. No. 2, we always wanted to make a plan that fit our pitchers and their strengths and weaknesses and that’s going to continue to be the objective moving forward.’’

Yes, the Rays are eschewing traditional notions about when pitchers come and go in a game, but they’re still just trying to reach 27 outs as quickly as possible.

Is that really such a radical idea?

Contact John Romano at Follow @romano_tbtimes