The Houston Astros won’t be joining the “opener” revolution any time soon. At least not if starting pitchers Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander have a say in the matter.
Speaking to the media this week, the Astros’ aces attempted to shred MLB’s newest pitching trend by pointing out some potential hazards.
Among them, according to Cole, is the precedence analytics take over conventional wisdom, and, perhaps more significantly, the judgment of a manager when determining how, when and where to use pitchers.
“There’s a human element here you start to lose when you start rattling off the best mathematical equation to get the out,” Cole said courtesy of MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart. “I certainly wouldn’t pay for a ticket to watch a math equation. I kind of want to go watch a human interaction, a human competition. There are guys that are really good at this and have been doing this for a long time. I think they should be left alone.”
Cole’s old school, workhorse mentality should come as no surprise. Along with Verlander, he was one of only 13 MLB pitchers to top 200 innings last season. He clearly prides himself on pitching deep into games, so it’s only natural he would outright reject a concept that requires less from a starting pitcher.
That said, Cole’s argument seems to be based more on mentality than the reality teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics faced in 2018.
We specifically mention those teams because the Rays essentially created the opener and the A’s quickly embraced it. The strategy is based around using a relief pitcher with the most favorable matchups based on the numbers to record the first three-to-six outs of the game. From there, teams either pivot to a starting pitcher or long reliever who can cover multiple innings, or they continue cycling through relievers inning-by-inning in a strategic extension termed “bullpenning.”
What’s most important to note though is that not all circumstances are the same. While analytics were an important factor, they weren’t necessarily the driving force. For the Rays and A’s, the need to devise a new plan trumped adhering to old standards. And for parts of one season anyway, the new concept worked.
The Rays used a traditional starting pitcher in just 84 of 162 games in 2018. That’s mainly because they had few clear starting options. Once Chris Archer was traded midseason, the Rays felt they had to go all the way with it. Of their 84 traditional starts, 31 were made by American League Cy Young award winner Blake Snell. Of the Rays’ remaining 78 games, 23 consisted of full bullpen games and 55 featured a pure opener. The Rays posted a 32-23 record in those games to help them reach 90 wins.
The A’s didn’t rely on the opener as much, but one could argue it helped save their season. Oakland secured the AL’s second wild card spot despite being ravaged by injuries to their starting rotation. Using an opener helped plug those gaps, though the concept did ultimately flop when the Yankees jumped out in the first inning against opener Liam Hendriks in the AL wild-card game and never looked back.
This is where Justin Verlander interjected a stronger argument by pointing out how too much reliance on openers can have an adverse impact. Particularly on teams that make the playoffs.
“You can really burn guys over the course of the season, and you get to the playoffs and you have a handful of guys in your bullpen you really want to go to,” Verlander said. “You’ve been going to them all year and you really overuse them in the playoffs because of that style of play. That’s how you get beat.”
The Milwaukee Brewers were a classic example of that. Manager Craig Counsell put almost no faith in his starting pitchers during the 2018 postseason. He instead relied on a deep and dynamic bullpen to consistently record 18 or more outs. The result was a taxed bullpen and ticket home against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of the NLCS.
Like all new trends in baseball, the opener will face a long, uphill battle before gaining acceptance. We’ve already determined it’s not a perfect concept. Now baseball’s brightest minds have to determine if using openers is an advisable short-term or long-term plan. And if so, how much is too much.
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