Does the opener actually work?

There has been a lot of speculation about how impactful that the opener has been in baseball and whether it is worth keeping around.

Sports are all about trends and fads. Last season, the Rays started with the opener. This spread like a wildfire with four other team experimenting last year. In 2019, a few more teams tested with it as well.

The concept makes some sense on paper. Teams allow an effective, hard-throwing reliever to open the game and get things started in the right direction, treating the first inning or two as the highest leverage. The aforementioned reliever gets the heart of the order the first time around. Then, the traditional starter takes over and goes through the order again as many times as possible. It also ideally allows that pitcher to start with the bottom of the order if all goes well. Ideally, they also face the meat of the order twice rather than three times.

The biggest face of the opener this season has been Ryne Stanek, before he was traded from Tampa Bay. His numbers are actually pretty staggering. As an opener, the league is hitting just .190 against him with a .568 OPS. As a reliever, Stanek is allowing an inflated .277 batting average with a .949 OPS. His SO/W goes from 3.5 as an opener to 1.69 as a reliever. His ERA jumps from 2.09 to 8.10. Some of this has to do with his poor August since the trade, but overall his career numbers are still much better as the opener.

On the opposite side of the duo, Tampa Bay’s Ryan Yarbrough has seen trends much closer together. His overall splits in 2019 are slightly better as a starter, but much closer than what Stanek has seen. The biggest difference for Yarbrough is how deep he works. As a starter, he works an average of 6.6 innings. As a reliever, he works just four innings. Basically, this puts more work on a bullpen, which already has burned one member with the opener.

While Taylor Cole was part of the first opener no hitter, he has had a disaster of a 2019 season. He has been completely beaten up as the opener to the tune of an 11.05 ERA. As a reliever, that falls to a still inflated 5.94. The numbers are deceiving though. Cole did not allow a single run in his first four outings as the opener. In his last two, he allowed nine earned runs on nine hits in just 1.1 innings. The biggest issue is that the numbers last season were also worse as the opener. In two opener appearances, he allowed six earned runs in 2.1 innings.

On the reliever end, the opener has worked well for the Rangers’ Adrian Sampson. As a starter, Sampson was a home run machine. As a starter, he was allowing a long ball every 15 at bats. As a reliever, Sampson has been much better in that department, allowing a homer every 29 at bats. His WHIP has fallen from 1.576 as a starter to 1.446 as a reliever. While not all of this is due to being the follow up to the opener, and is partly actually being a reliever, the role has fit Sampson much better.

Jesse Chavez has worked as the opener nine times for the Rangers, and his numbers are elevated in that role as well. The biggest issue with this is that he has allowed 19 runs in 11 innings in three of these starts. He actually has five openings of at least five innings of work, which is fascinating because Chavez is still averaging just 1.6 innings per outing. He is not a long man, but he is also not exclusively a short-inning reliever either.

Basically, the story with the opener is that it is user-centered. However, there is a lot of give and take between the opener and the pitcher who is piggy-backing. Finding that key formula is vital to the success of it.

The final aspect is that it allows team to ultimately save money, which is the name of the game in today’s baseball environment. There is no winning for the opener, as they will still be paid as a reliever. It also allows for financial flexibility to not have to pay an extra starter. With this, it appears to be a losing situation for the participants…unless they are able to find much more success like Sampson has.

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