The Opener is Great Strategy and I Hope It Goes Away Soon

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
— Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park (1993)

Sergio Romo is a reliever. He has always been a reliever. He will always be a reliever. Even when he is the first pitcher in a game — as he was twice last week and will be again twice this weekend — he is a reliever.

The idea of an “opener” — parallel to the “closer” pitching the ninth inning — has been championed by MLB Network’s Brian Kenny for years, perhaps most notably in his 2016 book “Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution.” The concept is simple: teams usually bat their best hitters at the top of the lineup, so those guys generally come up in the first inning. In this day and age, almost no starting pitcher has a realistic chance of throwing a complete game; once you’ve acknowledged that your bullpen will be involved, you start thinking about whom to deploy in which situations.

In the specific case of the Tampa Bay Rays facing the Los Angeles Angels last weekend, using Romo in the first inning made a ton of sense. Romo has been remarkably tough on right-handed hitters throughout his career, allowing a .188/.232/.323 slash line. The Angels have a very righty-heavy lineup, especially when phenom Shohei Ohtani is out of the lineup. In Romo’s two “starts,” he faced (in order):

Source: Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images North America

The results of this opening experiment don’t really matter. Romo pitched well in both games; the Rays and Angels split the two games. But this idea doesn’t need a ton of validation — if you go into the game fairly confident that Romo will be pitching, it makes sense to guarantee that he can face the opponent’s toughest righties when the game is close. A 0-0 score in the first inning is a great time to do it.

Proponents of the opener, especially Kenny, have been giddy on social media and television, seeing a historically progressive team branching into the apparent future. I don’t begrudge them their joy — I think it’s a great idea whose time has finally come.

I also hope it goes away. Not because it’s bad baseball, but because it’s bad for baseball. Or at least a symptom of something that is bad for baseball.

I’m not some baseball purist who thinks everything new is bad. I have advocated in the past for expanded use of instant replay and having balls and strikes called by computers as soon as the technology is ready. I applauded the rule changes to avoid collisions and injuries at home plate and on the bases. There are countless examples of me being on board with changes to the way things have always been. Where the opener is different for me is that it is a change to the way the game is actually played. With replay and robot umps, it’s just changing the way the game is officiated — for the better. With the slide rules, the game didn’t really change all that much — it just got safer.

But the opener is a symptom of something that drives me crazy: too many relief pitchers. Most teams have eight-man bullpens these days, with the eight pitchers actually a group of 10 or 12 guys being shuttled back and forth between the minors, the disabled list, and the active roster.

My contention is that limiting bullpens to six pitchers would solve several problems MLB is currently facing. Right now, offense is down, because everyone throws 96 MPH except the guys who throw 99. If starters came into a game knowing they needed to make it through at least six or seven innings, they’d have to save some bullets. If relievers came in knowing that they might have to go two or three innings, they wouldn’t be throwing the gas they currently do. And if teams had two roster spots that were going to hitters instead of pitchers, they’d have more platoon advantages and situational pinch-hitters available to face those tough relievers.

Sergio Romo as 'opener' is good baseball, but it's not necessarily good FOR baseball. @snidog explains.Click To Tweet

So limiting the size of bullpens would reduce strikeouts and increase offense. It would also improve the pace of play — you wouldn’t see a manager using three different pitchers to get three outs in the seventh inning like you do now. Pitching changes don’t slow down the game — mid-inning pitching changes do. If you had fewer available relievers, you’d have fewer mid-inning pitching changes.

I don’t know the logistics of how to make this happen. With half the players’ union being pitchers, it’s unlikely that the union would agree to a rule that limits the number of jobs for pitchers. Perhaps the solution is the oft-suggested rotating roster, where you have a larger big-league roster but have to specify a certain number of “active” players for each game. If teams were allowed to have a 28-man roster but only six pitchers active for any given game, that would be outstanding. (And yes, I just snuck us down from my original six-man bullpen to a starter and five relievers; I’m negotiating here!)

What does this have to do with the opener? Well, if the Rays weren’t so sure that they only needed Romo for one inning, they might not be so keen to use him up in the first inning. And if a team like the Angels had two or three more hitters on the bench, they might be more inclined to use some of them early — “start” your lefties to face Romo in the first, then replace them early when the time calls for it.

I don’t blame the Rays for using the opener. Like I said, it’s good strategy with solid reasoning behind it. And I don’t want MLB to make a rule outlawing it — at least in part because I have no idea how you would go about wording that rule. But I would love it if MLB would tweak the rules in ways that would, among other things, discourage the use of the opener. Or, at least, increase the changes of the offense knocking the opener around a little bit.

Offense is fun to watch. A great pitching performance is fun to watch, too, but that’s not really what Sergio Romo against a bunch of righties is. The balance has shifted towards the pitchers, and it’s time for MLB to shift it back. And I think the answer lies not in changes to the rules of the game, but in changes to the composition of rosters.

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