The MLB and the MLB Players Association are standing off over the 2020 baseball season. Players want longer seasons and full prorated pay, while owners prefer to offer varying season lengths and pay scales, meaning players would receive between 30% and 35% of their full contract values. As teams adapt to a shorter season, they will have less reason than before to protect pitchers’ health, which was a bigger concern during the 162-game season. This may lead to the demise of the opener.
The past two years have seen a rise in the use of the opener strategy. The opener strategy refers to the use of a starting pitcher to pitch only the first few innings when the opposing team’s batters perform their best. The Tampa Bay Rays, under the direction of their former analytics-oriented Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom, most frequently used the approach. With Bloom moving to the Boston Red Sox, this strategy may become a thing of the past.
The thought process behind using an opening pitcher before the traditional starting pitcher is simple. Historically, the first inning, the only inning where the offense chooses which players bat, has the most runs because it is often stacked with the best hitters. From 1921 to 2018, the first inning was the highest-scoring inning over 85% of the time, averaging better than five runs per nine first innings.
In part two of the strategy, when teams face the offense’s best hitters late in games, they use an elite reliever, limiting damage caused by opposing superstars. Tampa Bay thought this technique could be used at the start of the game as well. The team used their starting pitcher, the pitcher expected to pitch the most innings, in the second inning after the opener, a traditional reliever like Sergio Romo or Ryne Stanek, has already retired the first three or four batters.
Tampa Bay has two well-established starting pitchers in Charlie Morton and Blake Snell, each of whom has contracts with an annual value greater than $10 million. However, the team has a great dropoff to its third, fourth and fifth pitchers in the rotation, meaning an opener comes in handy. Without Bloom in charge, the front office will be less inclined to use an opening pitcher and more willing to let their back-end starters go 18 batters, trusting the bullpen for the final four or so innings.
In Boston, where Bloom is moving, he will be less incentivized to use an opener to cover up the less expensive pitching staff, even as the team goes through a temporary rebuild to reset the luxury tax, a penalty imposed gradually over multiple years to teams that spend above specific annual thresholds on player salaries. As evidenced by statements from team owner John Henry, Boston has every intention to reset the luxury tax, which cost them more than $12 million in 2019. To do so, Boston must spend fewer than $208 million on payroll in 2020.
Even while spending under the $208 million threshold, Bloom has more valuable players at his disposal than ever before. At just over $64 million, Tampa Bay had the lowest payroll of the 30 MLB teams in 2019. Boston, meanwhile, spent over $229 million, making them first in the league. Bloom is inheriting a team looking to limit spending, which remains a possibility even while spending nearly three times as much money on the active roster as Tampa Bay does.
Tampa Bay has been responsible for more than half of the instances of using an opener since the middle of 2018 when they started using it. Without Bloom, fewer voices within the organization will be claiming the strategy works. With Bloom at the helm of a team with a robust payroll, he will see less reason than before to use an opener, even if it was a factor that brought Tampa Bay from the 30th largest payroll to the seventh-best record in baseball in 2019.
The Boston front office’s more traditional minds could spell the end of the opener as we briefly knew it. With no other organization using the strategy more than seven times during the first year after Tampa Bay first did in the summer of 2018, the future of the position is bleak with no team in position to carry on Tampa Bay’s innovation.
Jake Wexelblatt is a rising junior in the College. Finding Fallacies appears online every other week.