Early last season, the Tampa Bay Rays found themselves facing a unique set of problems, mostly because they’re the Rays and that’s just part of the deal with them. They always seem to make the most of it though, and this was no exception. With very little in the way of pitching depth, they were forced to start some pitchers that were perhaps not yet up to the task. Specifically, they had some young southpaws who were not making it deep into games and were struggling to put away tough right-handed hitters. Their now legendary solution, of course, was to utilize an opener.
One Saturday afternoon in May, in a game against the Angels, the Rays tasked reliever Sergio Romo with taking the mound in the first inning to face the righty-heavy top of the Anaheim order. Romo, who was one of the game’s best at mowing down right-handed batters, struck out the side before yielding to Ryan Yarbrough, who began his day facing a more manageable bottom of the order instead of Mike Freaking Trout. The next day, Romo took the mound again and struck out three more in 1 1⁄3 innings, then handed the ball off to Anthony Banda. It made sense for their situation, and to their credit it worked pretty well.
Since then, the opening pitcher hasn’t exactly revolutionized baseball as some predicted it would, but openers continue to be utilized by a number of teams. It really is a situational thing though. A team with a good rotation doesn’t need an opener at all, nor is the opener a magic fix for every ailing rotation. Still, it’s an interesting concept and a fun one to think about, particularly when your team is competing for draft position instead of a playoff spot and, you know, you don’t have much else to do.
The Royals do lack pitching depth, which is one of the key ingredients to any successful opening scenario, and Ned Yost has said he’s “not opposed to” the idea of using an opener. In addition, the Royals have had Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer working as openers in Omaha. They also have some young-ish starters who, despite some recent success, have been rather lackluster all year. At a glance, they appear to be the type of team that might benefit from the opener strategy.
This whole scenario made the timing of Josh Staumont’s recent callup pretty interesting – at least on the surface. The Royals had just traded for Mike Montgomery, who would be given an opportunity to start right away in KC after being utilized primarily as a reliever in Chicago. He’s not having his best season to date and didn’t make a start for the Cubs at all this year. In other words, he could be a little rusty as a starter and might benefit from a buffer against the top of a lineup. And he’s a lefty, of course, and Staumont is a flame-throwing right-hander with opening experience. It seemed like a perfect storm for an opening act.
Alas, it’s not quite as perfect as it sounds. As it turns out, Montgomery may or may not be totally broken right now and has some really severe reverse platoon splits this year. Left-handed batters are stroking .512/.523/.927 against him, whereas righties are hitting a less robust (but still kind of robust) .260/.352/.494. Staumont, on the other hand, was holding right-handed batters to .120/.288/.214 in AAA vs. .270/.387/.444 to lefties. Staumont could still open for Montgomery, but he wouldn’t be helping him as much as he would if they both had traditional platoon splits.
But platoon advantage isn't the only reason to utilize an opener. Having the starter pitch to the bottom of the order can potentially extend the number of innings he is able to pitch because it limits his exposure to the very best hitters. Like most teams, the Royals get worse the more times they face a lineup in a game. The first time through the order, the current rotation (sans Montgomery) have a collective ERA of 4.42, and the second time through it’s 4.77. But the third time they face an order it’s a whopping 6.79.
An opener could help with this. Let’s say the opener faces four batters, then hands the ball off to a starter that really struggles the third time he faces an order. When the starter reaches the third time through the order, he’s facing the fifth batter, not the first. He’s pitching to the worst hitters on the team, not the best, which could allow him to stay on the mound a little longer and save the bullpen.
The ideal candidate for this type of scenario would be a starter who gets off to a rocky start against the top of the order and struggles to go deep into games because of a high times-through-the-order penalty.
Royals Starters - ERA
|Starter||1st Time||2nd Time||3rd Time|
|Starter||1st Time||2nd Time||3rd Time|
There’s something that really stands out to me here: Glenn Sparkman is a freak and he makes my head hurt. I’m not sure how long he’s going to be able to continue cruising with a K/9 under 5 while giving up 40% hard contact, and I actually think he could end up being a decent candidate for an opener by the end of the season. But also, take a look at Jake Junis! He has the worst ERA of anyone the third time through the order. He also seems to have some trouble at the start of games. That’s just what we’re looking for.
Junis has just strung together three pretty good starts though, the last of which was the best I’ve thought he’s looked all year. If he’s going to continue pitching like that, there’s no need to mess with success. But if he starts to falter, it might make some sense to use an opener. And there’s always Mike Montgomery, who might appreciate a break from the top of the lineup as he transitions to a starting role, plus Sparkman, who is bound to coming crashing to earth someday. If anyone gets hurt and Jorge Lopez is put back into the rotation, he would be a candidate as well. The opportunities are there.
I doubt the Royals actually do it, and honestly their personnel isn’t ideal for it, but dang it, I really want this to happen. A guy can dream, right? If they really wanted to, they totally could. And if they were to do it, now’s the time; I have a feeling they’re looking for just about anything to get people to come out to the K. They have a couple of guys who have been opening all year in AAA, too, and know what to expect. What have they got to lose besides a few more games? Let’s get weird. Bring on the opener. Make my strange little dream come true.