I don’t know if I have a strong opinion on using an opener (a pitcher who starts the game with the mindset that he’ll only be going for just an inning or two) or not. On the one hand (theoretically at least) you are keeping the opposing teams three or four best hitters at bay, if you expect the opener to shut them down completely. On the other hand, assuming the opener is one of your better non-starting pitchers (and he’d have to be if you are assuming he’ll neutralize the opposing teams best hitters), not having him available later in the game (where outs and runs are more valuable) seems like a negative.
And this is all besides the point that even if the opener is a good strategy and it does work, not even the Tampa Bay Rays (the team taking the charge using an opener) can tell you how much it worked, just that maybe it did.
The whole point (or at least the main point) of the opener is to limit how many times your prototypical starter faces batters a 3rd or 4th time through the order. An ideal opening scenario goes something like this:
Opener goes through innings 1 and 2 (faces ~7 batters)
Starter goes through innings 3-7 (faces ~17 batters)
Bullpen goes through innings 8-9 (faces ~7 batters)
Obviously the ideal scenario would be facing exactly 27 batters but I left some buffer in there with the expectation that teams aren’t throwing perfect games every night. But the starting pitcher here only goes twice or so through the order, but not three or four times.
It just kind of seems to me like shuffling the deck chairs a bit. If a starter does get knocked around early, okay, that sucks, but runs in the second inning aren’t as valuable as runs in the seventh inning. But maybe he gets knocked around in the fourth inning instead (where he’d be facing the top of the lineup ideally), which is worse than if it happened in the first or second.
I mean, the idea is novel and I can see the merit but I’m not convinced it matters either way. If a team scores on average 5 runs a night, won’t the distribution of runs be pretty much the same despite the chronology of opposing pitchers?
But let’s ignore my existential thoughts and say the Royals do buy the idea of an opener. Who would that be?
Generally an opener wants to satisfy two criteria:
- Actually be a good pitcher - There is no point in running someone like Burch Smith out there if he’s just going to give up runs anyways
- No significant platoon splits - Typically teams have right handed hitters at the top of their order and we don’t want a pitcher who is susceptible to lineup maneuvers
So what pitchers would fit that mold? Let’s run down a list.
Kennedy has not been a good pitcher since he signed the second largest contract in team history, so I don’t think he even fits criteria #1. Perhaps he’ll be better out of the bullpen (I’m not going to read anything into him not allowing a run yet in two innings so far), but we’ll cross that bridge if we see that body of water.
Does not satisfy criteria #2, as he has a career 4.23 FIP vs right handed hitters.
Okay, maybe the most interesting candidate on the 25-man roster. Zimmer has pretty good stuff and I don’t think we expect any platoon issues from him, so he preliminarily satisfies both criteria. The only problem is that even going two innings in the minors has sometimes been an issue for Zimmer, who has an injury history that has plagued him. If he is truly healthy (yes we’ve said that before) then he is the probably our winner here.
I’m an unapologetic fan of Lovelady, who I think will be a good reliever and want the Royals charged with a crime for not having him on the roster over a 32-year old Jake Diekman and 31-year old Brad Boxberger. While we don’t know if Lovelady will be a good pitcher in the majors, he’s been very good in the minors with a career 2.02 ERA and 2.77 FIP. I think he could satisfy criteria #1 but there might be worry about criteria #2. Lovelady is left handed and throws from a lower arm slot, which usually spells out L-O-O-G-Y in big, bold letters. However Lovelady hasn’t shown such issues in the minors at least.
2018 vs RHB: .228/.289/.298
2017 vs RHB: .195/.249/.244
2016 vs RHB: .197/.250/.212
Lovelady has ~50 multi-inning appearances, so he has a track record at least of getting more than three outs.
I don’t personally think López fits criteria #2, at least as a starter. In just over 70 innings and age 26, López has a career ERA/FIP of 5.22 and 4.23, respectively. You could argue he just needs more time but time eventually has to run out. There could be an argument for López to fit as an opener. Although he hasn’t been good against left handed hitters, he doesn’t have some pronounced split where he is considerably better against right handed hitters. At least in theory, he should fit criteria #2 given he is right-handed and should have a platoon advantage of the strong side of the platoon. The question comes down to criteria #1, and that’s the one we’ve seen very little evidence of.
Disregard that he isn’t currently on the 25-man, Staumont would get some steam for this discussion, but at this point doesn’t satisfy criteria #1. It’s not even that Staumont has been ineffective as a starter and maybe he’ll be a lot better as a reliever. He was converted to a reliever last year and he proceeded to still walk 16% of the batters he faced (only one qualified reliever since 2010 has walked 16% of batters and reached the innings threshold - José Leclerc). Staumont would have to show improved control to be a candidate here because as of right now he’s a low-leverage reliever who you might want to save for blowout games.
Really our two candidates are Kyle Zimmer and Richard Lovelady. Zimmer is probably the choice right now given that he’s at least on the 25-man and has pitched in the majors, even though he is one sneeze away from being injured again (aren’t we all?). Lovelady could usurp him if/when he makes the majors.
You could even make the argument that Lovelady is currently the best option. If the LOOGY is going away with the implementation of the three batter minimum rule (and not that Lovelady is a LOOGY but he definitely looks like at least a lefty killer), left handed specialist are in need of a new role and those who can survive a bit vs right handed batters will stay.
It seems...unlikely the Royals even flirt with the idea of an opener, but they might have two decent candidates if they do.
Who on the current roster should be an "Opener"?
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