Over the weekend history was made as Sergio Romo, a reliever who had never started a game in the Major Leagues over 588 appearances, started back-to-back days for the Tampa Bay Rays as an “Opener“, starting him in very short appearances before giving way to other pitchers–normally youngsters who had been starters down in the minors–for use in extra inning spurts throughout the rest of the game.
The reasoning makes sense:
But the most challenging inning for any staff isn’t the ninth, or the eighth, or the middle innings when a starter approaches his pitch count limit. It’s the first inning, when teams hit better than any other because it’s the only frame in which a lineup’s top hitters are guaranteed to bat. Batters have hit 10 percent better than league average in the first this season, which is the best mark in any inning.
The Rays had a couple of young pitchers scheduled to start over the weekend and knew they probably weren’t going to pitch deep into the game. So with that in mind, they started Romo to face the Angels plethora of right-handed batters at the top of the lineup, as Romo has had success against righties throughout his career (ranking second in opposing OBP with a .232 rate for active pitchers).
So you can see why Tampa was willing to experiment and at the very least give this a shot. But this got me to thinking ‘What if the Royals tried this on occasion?’ and maybe even the more important question ‘Should the Royals try this on occasion?’
If we are talking different options, Kansas City has a number of relievers this might work well with. Brad Keller has been phenomenal this year and there has even been discussion of moving him to the rotation. Trying him as an ‘Opener’ first might be a good way to get his feet wet and the Royals could even stretch out his starts this way, starting him with just an inning or two at first before eventually increasing his innings per outing.
Burch Smith is also an intriguing option, especially since he was primarily a starter throughout his minor league career. Smith has a 25% strike out rate to go with batters hitting .269 against him on balls in play. The one concern with Smith is his walk rate, which as of Tuesday sits at 13.5%. The last thing you want early in the game is extra baserunners, as that would soil the whole purpose of this experiment.
There is also Tim Hill, who would be a trip for batters to see early in the contest. The idea of hitters trying to figure out Hill funky delivery for an inning or two and then adjusting to someone like Jason Hammel, who relies on his slider quite a bit more would be an interesting situation.
So should the Royals consider using an ‘Opener’, at least occasionally? Considering how the starting pitching has been the last month it wouldn’t be an awful idea. Over the last 30 days, the Royals starting pitchers are last in the American League in ERA and fWAR, while giving up the most hits, runs and home runs. In other words, whatever the starters are doing isn’t working and trying almost anything else at this point isn’t a bad idea.
In fact, it might actually help some of the pitchers like Hammel or Ian Kennedy. Let’s say a reliever “opens” the game and throws two innings or less. You can then bring in whomever would normally start that day and let them pitch a couple times through the order. Most of us are aware of the numbers that point out how pitchers fare the third time through a batting order and this might make it to where someone like Hammel never has to see a batter a third time.
A number of people are going to hate this idea and disregard it before it even happens. In fact, I can’t imagine Ned Yost would ever be on board with this, as it has taken him years to warm-up to the idea of defensive shifts and he is still questioning it. But I also feel the Royals are in the perfect spot to try something “out of the box” without any major repercussions.
There is no way to tell whether or not it will work either, as apparent by the results for Tampa Bay over the weekend. On Saturday, things went as hoped:
Yarbrough followed Romo, throwing six innings while giving up only one run. But Sunday didn’t go as smoothly:
The rest of Tampa’s pitchers couldn’t maintain the pace and they ended up losing the game. That’s the thing with trying something like this; it might work as planned but it could also blow up in your face. The bigger question is whether or not it is worth it in the long run.
If we are being honest, I am fully on board with Kansas City trying an “Opener” at some point but I’m not going to hold my breath while waiting. Kudos to the Rays for attempting it and if we are being honest baseball is better and more interesting when teams are changing up the status quo. The game has been around for over 170 years and it has evolved quite a bit since that first game in Hoboken, New Jersey back in 1846. Now it might be time for the game to evolve a bit more when it comes to pitching strategies.