Rays 2019: The ‘what-if’ that fueled the idea of the opener

Injuries made it a necessity, but it really started with a small group of thinkers looking to shake up baseball
Photo illustration of Rays pitcher Ryne Stanek. Times photo by Tailyr Irvine. Illustration by Sean Kristoff-Jones.
Photo illustration of Rays pitcher Ryne Stanek. Times photo by Tailyr Irvine. Illustration by Sean Kristoff-Jones.
Published March 22, 2019|Updated March 22, 2019

PORT CHARLOTTE — As revolutions go, the genesis of this one wasn’t much.

Three Wall Street guys sitting around 15 years ago talking baseball, about what’s right and wrong with the game, pitching ideas of how they’d do things differently.

“We’re talking about all the kooky things we’d like to try,’’ recalled Stuart Sternberg. “You just sit there and start to groove about stuff. One thing leads to another, ‘This is crazy, that’s crazy… ’ ”

Sternberg had gotten a lot of advice from his father, Sam, including the basic baseball tenet that good pitching always prevailed. Sternberg would draw on that after completing his purchase of the lowly Devil Rays franchise, as he, Andrew Friedman and Matt Silverman plotted, philosophized and planned in the year-plus leading up to their October 2005 takeover of the team.

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Among the ideas they often came back to: Redistributing the way innings were thrown by pitchers over a season, a week, even a game. There were better ways, they were sure, of sharing the workload more evenly with shorter stints, maximizing matchups, limiting exposure of lesser pitchers especially the third time through the batting order, using the best pitchers when it mattered most rather than at preordained times.

Sound kookily familiar?

Those talks produced the opener concept, introduced last May by the Rays, that transformed the game, polarizing observers on whether it was a revolution or a ruination.

“We definitely would have done it a lot sooner had we not had the success and the depth of starting pitchers that we had through the years,’’ Sternberg said.

As the team made the rise from very bad to extremely good, with four playoff appearances from 2008-13, and then dropped back, the conversations continued about finding a better, more effective and efficient way to operate a pitching staff.

“We’ve heard bits and pieces of it from Stu, it’s been debated in the front office, it’s been debated by the coaching staff probably the whole time I’ve been here,’’ said Erik Neander, who started as an intern in January 2007 and now leads baseball operations fo the Rays. “It was not like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do this,’ but wondering if asking for seven innings a night from five guys (starters) and then asking for one a night from seven others is the right balance.’’

They’d talk, but for the most part over the years not act. When there was an occasional opening in their rotation, they’d do what other teams did.

Sometimes, fill in with a fringe pitcher, not good enough to be a No. 5 starter as it was, typically unable of delivering the quality start needed.

Other times, a “bullpen day,” with a long reliever going as deep as he can and other relievers used as needed to cover. Or, what they seemed to prefer, a tandem setup, with two relievers slated for three or four innings each.

There was some foreshadowing. They gave reliever Steve Geltz short starts in 2015 in Miami and Washington under the guise of having no DH.

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All in in 2018

But the Rays decided last year to finally unveil, and go all in on, the opener plan: using a top reliever in a favorable matchup to get the first three-to-six outs, then a converted starter, often opposite-handed or of a different style, for up to four-five innings with the opportunity to begin against the bottom of the order. Plus, the flexibility to react to the game score and situation without the obligation to stick with, or pull, a traditional starter.

Critics cried it was an act of desperation. Though mitigated by misfortune, the Rays saw it as an alignment of talent and opportunity.

And, in a point manager Kevin Cash would often have to reiterate in interviews, to give them a better chance, given the options they had, to win.

Not that it was their first choice.

They went into 2018 with four traditional starters (Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Jake Faria, Nathan Eovaldi), plus some young candidates and prospects with potential but little or no big-league experience.

They had a somewhat radical plan of rolling with those four for the off-day heavy first six weeks, filling in with scheduled bullpen days from an eight-man relief staff that included four pitchers capable of working two-to-four innings at a time. And to think that roiled some folks.

But their depth disappeared. Prospects Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell blew out their elbows early in spring training. Another, Anthony Banda, was sent down for refining. Top Triple-A starters Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough made the opening day roster, but were deemed in need of cautious handling. Matt Andriese, who’d made 44 big-league starts, remained assigned to primarily bullpen duty.

So when the Rays got the stunning news Eovaldi had an elbow issue and would be out two months, they applied some of that creative thinking.

Numbers dictate change

They’d manage those first six weeks, with eight off days in 38, but mid-May required an adjustment. “While we were planning to do (the opener) last year, clearly the injuries accelerated things a bit,’’ Sternberg said.

The early-season showing and feedback pushed them that way, away from the duplicated efforts of the tandem plan and the randomness of the bullpen day. The opener plan was more orchestrated, with the pitcher handling the bulk of the innings usually scheduled, rested and, in theory, put into an advantageous position.

It became, like so much else in baseball, a numbers game.

“Once we got to May we found it a little more practical to split innings two and four, or one and five, as opposed to three and three or four and four,’’ Neander explained. “Probably a more practical way of navigating a game and increasing the flexibility, and with the personnel we had. Those are the things that all probably led to doing, as it’s affectionately known, the opener.’’

Lights, camera, action

The movie version — Sternberg played by Tom Hanks? Neander, Ben Affleck? Cash, Mark Ruffalo? — would have a climatic phone call, Sternberg to Cash, Steinbrenner-style, or slow-motion typed-out email ordering the opener for that May 19 game against the Angels. The Rays insist there was no such drama.

Just an agreement out of the daily discourse between Neander, senior VP Chaim Bloom, Cash, pitching coach Kyle Snyder and other staffers.

The Angels proved a good opponent because they were extremely righthanded at the top of their lineup.

And veteran righty Sergio Romo was the right choice to be the first opener, in part because his sweeping breaking ball made him a good matchup. But also because he welcomed the opportunity, wouldn’t get rattled by the change, and, given his stature in the game, would be a good example for other pitchers.

Even that decision was in the works a week out, giving Cash and Snyder time to spread the word and cultivate buy-in. Cash asked Romo during the opening series in Baltimore if he’d be interested in starting for the first time in his 11-year big-league career, and Romo gave an enthusiastic response. They made it official a few days later on the flight from Kansas City to California.

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Ring the bell

That it worked incredibly well the first night helped. Romo struck out Zack Cosart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton, all swinging, on 18 pitches. Daniel Robertson hit a grand slam in the top of the second. Yarbrough, a lefty with a contrasting style, took over and worked six plus innings. The short relievers finished off the 5-3 win.

Afterward, Cash doubled down, and started Romo again the next night.

“When they told me we going to do it back to back, I had a big smile on my face,’’ Sternberg said. “A thing I tell the guys all the time, because I heard Mel Brooks say it a long time ago, ‘If you’re going to walk up to the bell, ring it.’ So if we’re going to do it, do it.’’

That they did. And the game may never be the same.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays