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Rays 2019: Ten things to know about Tampa Bay’s opener approach

With the Rays set to use it again this season, he’s an in-depth look at that we learned about the opener.
The acceptance of the Rays' opener concept has spread beyond the Tampa Bay dugout, where shortstop Willy Adames (1) helped Rays reliever/opener Ryne Stanek's (55) with his hair during a spring training game in Port  Charlotte. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
The acceptance of the Rays' opener concept has spread beyond the Tampa Bay dugout, where shortstop Willy Adames (1) helped Rays reliever/opener Ryne Stanek's (55) with his hair during a spring training game in Port Charlotte. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Published Mar. 22, 2019

1. It worked

There realistically is no true way to assess the exact impact. But by a number of measures, it sure seems, as the Rays say, to have worked.

From a W-L view, they went 32-23 in the 55 opener games, a .581 winning percentage compare to .542 (58-49) otherwise. Also, they were 21-22 (.488) before the May 19 debut, 69-50 (.580) after.

Pitching stats show well, too. The Rays had a 4.43 staff ERA pre-opener that was 22nd in the majors, 3.50 after that was third-best in the majors. Their overall 3.61 ERA in the usually volatile first inning, in which the most runs are scored, was best in the AL, including a 28-game scoreless streak.

Blake Snell, shown here hugging Ryne Stanek, didn't initially embrace the Rays' decision to go with an opener last season. TAILYR IRVINE | Times

2. Not everyone was all in at first

It wasn’t just critics and opponents who didn’t like the plan when they heard about it. Neither did Blake Snell, who was on the way to a breakout season culminating in a Cy Young award.

“I thought it was stupid,’’ Snell said. “They proved me wrong. They proved everyone wrong. I didn’t really understand why we were using it or how we were using it. Then I started asking more questions and learning why we did it, which was really smart. Which it not surprising for the Rays.’’

Even more important for manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder was getting the pitchers involved to buy in and put the team ahead of their stats or even career paths. The relievers who were now going to start (and could only lose the game), and the converted starters who had to be convinced that following the opener wasn’t a show of the lack of confidence the Rays had in them (or would stunt their development), but a move to put them in the best position to succeed. And now they have to convince them to do it again, and with the lure of potentially “graduating” to being a traditional starter or closer.

While Giants veteran Jeff Samardzija questioned why the Rays pitchers didn’t fight it more, it’s worth pointing out, and not a coincidence, that most of the pitchers the Rays cast in these roles were at the start of their big-league careers, and thus were more likely to appreciate and accept any role in the majors than being a starter or closer back in the minors. Or at least to not say anything publicly about it.

When he opens for the Rays, Ryne Stanek (above) says he knows he won't pitching long enough to qualify for the victory. "I go in thinking the only thing I can get is the L. So, don’t get the damn L," he said. MONICA HERNDON | Times

3. Money matters

One of the biggest questions about the consequences of the opener may not be answered until after next season. That’s when the pitchers who were most involved, Ryne Stanek and Ryan Yarbrough, could be first eligible for arbitration (assuming the current system remains in place). And that may be the first chance to see if being an effective short reliever who doesn’t get saves or holds, such as Stanek, or working bulk innings and getting wins without starts, such as Yarbrough, will be penalized or rewarded. Critics claim the Rays’ motive is suppressing salaries, which they strongly deny. While Yarbrough and Stanek say the right things about having to wait and see, it’s a question even in their clubhouse. “They’re doing it in plain sight, so I don’t think there is malintent involved,’’ veteran Charlie Morton said. “But my concern would come from devaluing guys who are throwing lots of innings but not getting the start by their name (in the stats).’’

Left-hander Ryan Yarbrough thrived last season behind the opener, finishing with an overall record of 16-6 and a 3.91 ERA. TAILYR IRVINE | Times

4. What it really said about Rays starters

A snarky take on the opener was that the Rays couldn’t afford to have enough starting pitchers. Though injuries accelerated implementation, they actually are using it because they had a bunch of young/inexperienced starting candidates, but didn’t feel any were ready, or best served, to go right into the rotation full time. They saw this plan as a better way to break them in, having a soft landing by coming in to face the bottom of the opposing order, and if they do get to a third time through the order also doing so at the bottom.

As for not valuing starters, it would be pointed out they had the best starter in the league in Cy Young award winner Blake Snell, whose success made the opener more effective since the Rays could bank bullpen innings. This off-season they invested $30 million to add veteran Charlie Morton. “Reliable starters are the key to letting us do the opener,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “If we get good starting pitching we can be a little bit more aggressive on the other days and mix and match a little bit more.’’

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has his opinions on the opener, and they are mixed. MARC TOPKIN | Times

5. The commish is lukewarm on the concept

Following the Rays’ offseason of unloading veterans, some saw implementation of the opener as feeding the narrative that they were tanking. The 90 wins by the end of the season refuted that, and so did commissioner Rob Manfred, even if he doesn’t particularly like the opener concept.

“I think the opener is an example of clubs that may not have as many resources as other clubs thinking outside the box in creative ways in an attempt to win more games. That’s what it is,’’ Manfred said. “Do I like the art of it, that’s sort of a different question. But when I see it happening I understand, and actually am heartened by the fact, that it is a reflection of the fundamental competitive effort that each and every one of teams put forward for 162 games.’’

As for “art?’’ Manfred’s reservations stem from the marketing aspect, though not necessarily applicable since it’s not like a Ryan Yarbrough start is going to be a bigger draw than a Ryne Stanek open. “Starting pitchers have traditionally been some of our biggest stars,’’ he said, “so I don’t think it’s that hard to come to the conclusion that if you don’t let them start or you leave them out there less that affects the marketability of those players, and I don’t think that’s a positive.’’

Boston's J.D. Martinez (28) thinks the concept of the opener is "weird." He's not the only hitter who doesn't like it. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

6. Hitters don’t like it. That’s a good thing

The focus of the opener is usually on how the pitchers do, but there has been plenty of evidence about how much the hitters don’t like it, starting with Zack Cosart, the first batter Sergio Romo pitched to in the May 19 debut, complaining it was “not good” for baseball and felt “like spring training” with a different pitcher each at-bat. Also, Boston’s J.D. Martinez, who said “It’s just weird. You’re preparing for one at-bat pretty much.’’

That’s actually a major benefit of the plan, Cash said: “The feedback, from very select conversations with opposing hitters, is they were kind of open in saying that it’s not ideal, it’s not the best thing in the world. … Veteran hitters, they’re pretty cerebral. They will probably go up and say after one at-bat (against a traditional starter) I can probably eliminate some pitches today, or they’ll watch how a starting pitcher navigates the first time through the lineup and say, ‘All right, he’s missing his changeup today, he doesn’t have that best pitch,’ or whatever it is. You can eliminate stuff and kind of narrow that down. If we’re not allowing that to happen a couple times through it should be a benefit.’’

Also unique is playing matchups in the first inning with the flexibility to change pitchers. Adding to the effectiveness is that the Rays have such good arms, and with different styles, in these roles. “The Rays up and down their staff have guys with characteristics capable of getting different people out,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “They were able to match it up in a creative way. So it does create a challenge.’’

Diego Castillo (63) kicks a ball around during spring training in Port Charlotte. TAILYR IRVINE | Times

7. It gets things off to a really fast start

Availability is the driving force in picking an opener, which is why the Rays often have to wait until knowing which relievers were used in that day’s game before naming the next day’s opener. But when given the choice, they like to go high-octane, figuring that hitters aren’t used to seeing 100-mph right from the start, as even the hardest throwing traditional starters tend to work their way up in velocity. So opening 29 times with Stanek, who averaged 97.9 mph with his fastball and hit 100.5, and 11 with Diego Castillo, who averaged 97.7 and maxed out at 101.9, had its benefits.

“I even had an umpire say he wasn’t quite ready for 100 out of the gate,’’ Cash said.

Rays manager Kevin Cash, left, used Jalen Beeks (68) as a starter and reliever last season after Beeks came to Tampa Bay in a trade with Boston. CHRIS URSO | Times

8. Critics were wrong about the bullpen wearing down

The numbers are skewed by categorizing the opener as a starter and the pitchers working the bulk of the innings as relievers as the Rays logged an MLB-record smashing 824 1/3 relief innings. But the system does put a heavy workload on the bullpen, which required complex planning and monitoring, and the flexibility to shuttle in fresh arms from the minors when needed.

And armed some of the critics, including Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who said he applauded the Rays for their creativity but remains suspect.

“When I first saw it last year I thought this can’t possibly end well and work, and it did,’’ Luhnow said, though with a but ….

“It comes back to managing the arms and how many innings you allocate and how tired your bullpen and your starters are. Anytime you shrink the starters’ workload that has to go somewhere so either you expand the number of pitchers — it’s gone from 11 to 12 to 13 — or you have guys you can flip back and forth regularly or you have guys that are exhausted by August. You push the balloon in one spot and something’s going to happen.’’

There was no obvious impact as the Rays finished strong on their way to 90 wins, posting a majors-best .221 opponents average after Aug. 1 and a 3.39 ERA that was fourth best.

“I saw some people accuse us of wearing down our bullpen,’’ principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. “It was exactly the opposite. Our guys were fresh in August and fresh in September. They didn’t get up and throw meaningless (bull)pens.’’

Agent Scott Boras. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

9. Scott Boras says pitcher health is a worry

Worse than wearing out their pitchers would be putting them at risk for injury, potentially by compromising the between-starts prep and warmup routine of the starters now converted to coming in after the openers. Though the Rays are aware and have prioritized pitcher health, prominent agent Scott Boras said it is a major worry, more so than how the opener plan effects performance.

“The irregularity — they’re not trained to do it,” Boras said. “They’re only doing it at the big-league level. (Actually the Rays also used openers at times in the minors to prep pitchers.) We’re going to have to make sure that we prepare players for these roles. I’m very concerned about injuries. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but there’s a huge caution flag for me about how you do that and the way you do it and what it does to how a player thinks. How he prepares for his role. What he does consistently because you’re asking him now to have two roles, quasi-starter and readied reliever.”

New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone, left, takes the ball from starting pitcher Chance Adams as he is relieved in the first inning during a spring training baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

10. He comes the copy cats

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. So just by the half-dozen or so teams that tried the opener last year, another 10 or so talking about doing it this year — including the highest revenue Yankees — it’s clear the opener is a thing.

Marlins manager Don Mattingly said it’s hard to ignore the Rays’ success: “Anything in baseball that’s different, everybody fights it, right? And I think what they did was very eye-opening for a lot of teams. … If it works, people are going to try it.’’

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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