The Tampa Bay Rays started a thing. It could turn out to be revolutionary. It probably will. Not because it’s good for the game—personally I think it sucks. Not because players want to do it or even other GMs are particular fond of it.
But you can bet it will soon be copied by every other major league team, despite the protests to the contrary, because it is working.
Tampa Bay has pioneered the use of an opener. Not a starting pitcher. An opening pitcher.
An opener is like a closer. But in reverse.
When they started this experiment, the Rays ERA was eighth worst in baseball. Since then, it’s the best in baseball. Best batting average against, too.
In a me-too sport, that is why every other team will jump in.
It’s been evolving over time. Starting pitchers used to be expected to go nine. Then eight. Then seven. Then six. Now the average length a starter goes is five innings. And, it will get even shorter as some genius in some front office can prove with reams of data that a pitcher loses his effectiveness every time through a lineup.
Pitchers are china dolls now as well. They can’t be asked to hit. If they do come to the plate, please don’t run to first. In the unlikely event you get to first, by all means, try to get forced out so you don’t have to run. And on defense, stay away from pop ups, those are too difficult for you. It’s as if pitchers are so precious they need their own personal valets to do everything for them.
Including, it seems, to throw the ball for them. Because now they don’t even have to do much of that.
Where the Tampa Bay experiment is taking baseball is the notion that starting pitchers are no longer important. It’s really just a collection of guys who can get outs. They don’t care if it comes from one pitcher going nine innings (a fantasy like Santa Claus) or from nine pitchers going one inning each. It hasn’t come to the nine pitchers going nine innings each yet, but give it time. With expanded rosters after September, a team could have twenty seven pitchers. One for every out.
What the Rays are doing is having a reliever start the game and try to make it one time through the order. Then they bring in the long man, the guy who in olden days would be called the “starting pitcher.” If things go right, he throws his 80 pitches, hopefully getting them through the seventh innings. Then they bring in their late-inning guy and their closer, if need be to finish the game.
If that makes you wince, it should. It goes against everything that has made baseball great for the past century and a half.
“I’m going to the game tonight.”
“Kershaw versus Scherzer.”
“Awesome, that will be epic.”
That was so 2017. Now it’s this:
“I’m going to the game tonight.”
“Oh, have fun. I’m watching women’s’ college bowling on TV tonight.”
“Really? Can I come over there instead?”
Baseball is shooting itself in the foot. The starting pitcher is soon to go the way of the milkman. It’s going to be about getting outs. “Get me two outs, then go sit down. Next.”
Lurking behind this, of course, but denied every time it’s brought up, is that you no longer have to pay outrageous prices for a starting pitcher. Because there won’t be one. You no longer have a rotation. You no longer have a closer. You just have pitchers. The aces will be gone. Pitchers will soon all be interchangeable drill bits. No Clayton Kershaws and a staff full of Chris Martins. You can buy fifteen Chris Martins for what it takes to buy one Clayton Kershaw. Genius.
This will happen. It will happen because baseball front offices are one thing: Copycats.
In an unrelated story, last night the Oregon State Beavers won the College World Series 5-0 over the Arkansas Razorbacks. Oregan State’s pitcher threw a complete game, two-hit shutout. He threw 129 pitches. Charges of abuse are being filed against the university.
Good thing for that pitcher, though, is that’s the hardest he will ever have to work the rest of his life. From now on, in the real world of professional baseball, it’s three innings a week.
Dylan Covey (8-5, 3.15) vs. Yovani Gallardo (1-0, 12.08)
Game time: 7:05