Some say Major League Baseball is tethered to the past and therefore it will never catch up to the role analytics plays in the game today. And yet, usage of analytics is producing far-reaching changes in baseball. Which causes me to wonder how and if the managers of the Yankees and Mets are prepared to meet these challenges.
We now have a new term in the Major League Baseball (MLB) dictionary for you to become familiar with. It’s culled from (of course) analytics and it’s called the opener as opposed to the typically familiar starter. The “opener” is an idea rolled out by Kevin Cash and the Tampa Bay Rays, who have nothing to lose as a franchise constantly forced to be mindful of the dollar, and therefore are always forced to think outside the box to win games.
The idea, when thought about, though, is sound and prompts one to imagine why it hasn’t been tried before. Why not have one of your best relievers start a game by blowing away the opposition and setting a tone for the “starter” to enter the game in the second inning to continue the onslaught?
Sergio Romo, a Tampa Bay reliever and a bullpen artist for his entire career, has made two successive starts for the Rays in the last seven days, striking out six in two innings, before turning the game over to the “starter” for that game.
Teams, as is the way in MLB, have taken notice and it won’t be long before managers are taken to the task by reporters and fans, asking why aren’t you doing the same?
Imagine, for instance, a night when Aaron Boone has CC Sabathia making a start for the Yankees. Sabathia, at 37, cannot be counted on to make it beyond five or six good innings. So why not have Chad Green, who was seriously considered by the Yankees to move into their rotation in the spring, “open” the game for Sabathia or any of the Yankees starters not named Luis Severino, who is in a world of his own, and therefore is excepted.
Chad Green is continuing his onslaught of American League hitters, recording 34 strikeouts in just 25 innings this season. In theory, he could make as many as three “openers” for the Yankees in a given week, providing the team with a lift from the first pitch of the game, in the same manner, Romo is doing for the Rays.
Turn it around and move over to the Mets with Jeurys Familia, their closer, together with Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, both former starters who are excelling in the bullpen – and that should give Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland at least something to think about. This would be especially true when it comes to extending the “starts” of both Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, both of whom if it were up to the Mets could pitch all day, every day.
Consider too, a starter entering the game in the second, or possibly even the third inning, is now enabled to wipe out the fabled axiom in MLB that a starter should never face an opposing lineup more than two times if he not named Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander.
Caveat emptor, though. Let the buyer beware, because I see a day coming when lineups and pitching rotations for an upcoming series are treated like the latest Intel from NSA on ISIS. Of particular interest to Mickey Callaway, lists will no longer be pre-published to media, and the lineup posted in the dugouts will contain the names only of pitchers one thru nine.
Remember, the only official lineup is the one handed to the home plate umpire just before the start of a game. Consider, for example, Aaron Boone developing a strategy to face the lineup of the Boston Red Sox. Boone has already decided he’s going to use an “opener” to start the game. The question he’s tossing around now is which pitcher to use in this spot.
If the game were played yesterday, Boone would have noticed that the Red Sox posted lineup included three right-handed bats (Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez, and J.D. Martinez) along with one lefty (Andrew Benintendi) in the one thru four spots.
Thus, Boone’s call would probably go to Chad Green, David Robertson, or Dellin Betances as the opener, instead of Aroldis Chapman. It’s all about playing the game backward, and if you have a strong bullpen as the Yankees do, who not take full advantage of it early in the game when there are no runs on the board?
The same goes for analytics. If we are going to have all this extra information available, why not take full advantage of that as well? Some of this new strategy might get a bit Orwellian, with “openers” warming up under the stands out of sight from the opposing manager drafting his official lineup, while his coaches scurry around counting players to find out who’s not visible.
Now, add this “crazy,” but still very plausible and sensible idea. If Mickey Callaway, for instance, sees his three, four, and five starts consistently unable to get beyond six innings with reasonable damage, why wouldn’t he consider expanding his “openers” to two or three innings, using (if he needs to) the same number of pitchers he usually would at the end of the game.
Working backward, of course, pre-supposes that your best pitchers are your starters, and Noah Syndergaard is a far better pitcher than Jeurys Familia. So, why does it not make sense, then, for Syndergaard to be your closer as well as your starter?
As mentioned before, the Tampa Bay Rays have more of a reason to rock the boat than either the Mets or Yankees, and we can be sure other teams will hop on board soon to give the idea of the “opener” at least a try.
Major League Baseball is moving at a rapid pace to inhale the influences of analytics. Both Boone and Callaway, we were told, were hired precisely because of their appreciation for analytics. Two days ago, I wrote about the gradual disappearance of the position player in baseball, and this another area deemed worthy (at least to me) of keeping our eyes focused on Boone and Callaway. Do they buy into these trends, or is it baseball as usual at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium?
This writer has been following baseball for half a century. I’m not a big fan of analytics, but my vote doesn’t count. And beyond my wishes, baseball tomorrow is here today. And in some respects, thinking outside the box has become passe, only because the sport is already moving in directions heard of, but unheralded until now.
And if you want to test my theory, Google MLB Electronic Umpires to see what you find.
The Mets and Yankees are favored with two fine and competent managers in Mickey Callaway and Aaron Boone. They are both young, untested, and open-minded. Soon, we’ll see how far that open-mindedness extends when they begin to face teams employing strategies that are not in their Little Black Book.
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