by John Unrein
The Tampa Bay Rays were the first Major League Baseball team to use the concept of the opener on May 19, 2018. Sergio Romo was the initial opener to be used after his first 588 games came in relief according to MLB.com. The idea being that the opener allows you to push back the starter coming into the game by an inning or two. There is strategy behind this concept.
Mike Petriello, who writes for Major League Baseball, recently said “The entire point of the opener is to still use a starter, just in a different way, slightly delayed. It allows a good pitching team to line up a good reliever against the top of the opposing lineup, which should generally be three of the best hitters available. That’s part of the reason why the first inning has traditionally been the highest scoring – it’s the only inning the hitting team can guarantee who comes to the plate – and it also helps alleviate the third time through the order problem, by making it so the third time through for the pitcher who follows the opener begins with the middle of the lineup, not the top.”
Kansas City Royals Manager Ned Yost is somewhat of a purist when it comes to baseball and how he manages. For example, Yost is not a fan of the defensive shifts you see infields deploy based on hitting spray charts that expose the tendencies of batters. Yost has gone on record as saying that he feels that a team should only be able to deploy two infielders on each side of second base along with requiring that each infielder have at least one foot in the dirt.
Yost has explained the reasoning for his argument is that the base hit single is disappearing from the game, in his opinion. Furthermore, the Royals skipper feels that hitters have been slow to adjust their approach at the plate despite the shift. Pull hitters are refusing to go the opposite way or are attempting to the lift the ball over the shift with their swing, often with poor results.
It would stand to reason that any consideration for using an opener by the Royals would need to have an argument with significant teeth. The Royals currently rank 10th in Major League Baseball (the week of 8/5) for innings pitched by starters at just over 600 innings.
The team ranks 29th or next to last in opponents batting average at .272, with the opposition hitting well against the Royals in the first inning and the third time through their batting order. Kansas City has not done much better in team ERA either. The starting staff currently boasts a 5.23 Earned Run Average, good for 25th overall in Major League Baseball.
The Royals do possess candidates in their bullpen who could be considered as an opener for games. They include righthanders Scott Barlow, Kyle Zimmer, and Josh Staumont along with southpaw Richard Lovelady. It would less be about their experience as major league pitchers and more about the stuff they possess in getting batters out at the beginning of games that would warrant their consideration.
Having an opener pitch for one to two innings and a starter go for the next five to six innings would mean that the team may only need to use one reliever at the back end of the game. This strategy also has the potential to limit the wear and tear on bullpen arms as well, something that would be a welcome site with the number of young arms that exist behind the outfield wall.
The Kansas City Royals currently sit in fourth place in the American League Central Division. They are amid another rebuilding period with an abundance of young players on their roster. Any edge that could be gained by using an opener would be a slight one. It might be one worth considering though, as wins build the confidence of young players trying to find their footing in a highly competitive game.