Joe Nash rolled around in agony. Fake agony. The kind of fake agony a 9-year old boy displays when forced to wear that nerdy winter hat with the ear flaps he hates almost as much as his sister. In his defense, the Seattle Seahawks lineman was simply doing what coach Chuck Knox had asked of him—slow down the Cincinnati Bengals no-huddle offense any way he could. A week later, Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy would threaten to do the same.
Imagine Rob Manfred announcing—on the eve of the ALCS no less—a rule change forbidding the Tampa Bay Rays from using the shift against the New York Yankees. Yet, something like that—something anarchical and soul-crushingly wrong—almost occurred in the 1988 AFC Championship game:
“These two guys walk into the room and they say we want to give you TV people a heads up, tomorrow, that the commissioner has gotten a phone call from Marv Levy and Marv is going to fake injuries and the commissioner said that will make a farce of the game, a big marquee game, so the commissioner has ruled that Sam cannot run the no-huddle, which we’ve run for five years, all season long, number one offense in football and that’s all we practiced all week for this game. Then that night they say that. I get a phone call from one of those members of that group I just named and he said sit down, I’m going to tell you’re not going to be happy with this, they’re not going to let you run the no-huddle.”
—Sam Wyche, Bengals HC
Whether rules changes are hastily made during the offseason, or threatened hastily in the moment, it’s clear that those that think outside-the-box in sports threaten the gatekeepers of sport. The Shift is nothing new. By now, everyone knows of Lou Boudreau and his quixotic attempt to diminish Ted Williams with the shift in 1946.
Still, the shift faded from view.
In the early part of the decade, when the shift reappeared courtesy of the Rays, the Reds were one of those teams at the bottom of the list of shift usage, pulling up the analytic rear as they almost always did. Today, most, if not all teams use the shift to their advantage, but that advantage has largely diminished as everyone does it. Like Billy Beane’s MoneyBall exploitation of on base percentage as an undervalued asset, that slice of the pie is filling when a handful of people are at the table; not so much when the pie is sliced into 29 or 30 pieces.
However, I come not to bury the lede, but to praise it. It is the Rays who introduced it. And it’s the Reds who should adopt it now. All hail the Opener.
On May 19, 2018, Sergio Romo ushered in the Opener Era against the Angels, striking out Zack Cozart, Mike Trout and Justin Upton. Other teams looked at the Opener and stuck a toe into shallow end of the experimental pool, but that’s about all they did. Still in its infancy, the Opener has been used in less than 2% of games, the Rays obviously using it the most, with the A’s, Rangers and approximately ten other teams using it a handful of times.
If we break down just how efficient the Opener has been so far, we get mixed results. But that’s not the point. As of now, the sample size is much too small to use current numbers as a meaningful guidepost. Other signposts, however, point the way.
The first inning is the most dangerous inning to a starter. It’s where the most runs are scored. A starting pitcher takes the bump knowing he not only has to face the opposition’s best hitters from the jump, he also knows he needs to pace himself to go six, seven or more innings. If only he could pitch with max effort to begin the game, the odds would favor him. But, he cannot. If you find the idea of the Opener intriguing, this year’s All-Star Game is instructive.
Justin Verlander opened the game for the American League. These days, Verlander—at age 36—throws his fastball a somewhat pedestrian 90-91 mph. Once thought to be in the twilight of his career, the Astros plucked him from the Tigers, walking the trade deadline waiver high-wire, convincing him to ditch his two-seam fastball and in doing so, help reinvent his career. Here’s what he dialed up to leadoff hitter Christian Yelich to begin the Midsummer Classic: 95-95-95 for out number one. Javier Baez was next. He saw 97-96-97-96-97-97 before an 88 mph offering fooled him badly, resulting in a harmless strikeout. Finally, Freddie Freeman looked at 97, 81, 88, 88 for the K. End of inning.
What Verlander did was pitch like a high-leverage relief ace, giving max effort with a limited assortment of offerings, knowing he was out there for the briefest summer moment. This, of course, is what the entire All-Star Game looks like—a parade of starting pitchers doing their best Aroldis Chapman impersonations, leveraging their arms to maximum effect.
Follow me down the rabbit hole. Robert Stephenson takes the hill to begin the game. The mound is smooth and unsullied, devoid of the usual ruts and ravines that greet relievers when they stride to center stage. It feels like a high-leverage situation, but it’s really not. After all, like the mound, it’s a clean beginning; no one on base. BobSteve knows his endpoint. He’s here for two innings—or when his turn at the plate comes up. It’s an optimum beginning for him and the Reds. Stephenson can let it fly, challenging the other team’s best hitters in a manner a traditional starter cannot. His arsenal is limited in scope—he is a reliever, after all—but his skill set is a perfect match for the task at hand, keeping the top of the order back on their heels in what is the most opportunistic inning of the game statistically for hitters.
Michael Lorenzen will bat for Stephenson when his turn in the order arrives. And tomorrow, when he takes his turn as the Opener, Lorenzen will stay in the game and bat for himself, pitching another inning, providing more rest for what once was our erstwhile “Starter,’ but who is now renamed our “Anchor.”
Sonny Gray, our newly christened Anchor, pitches for five innings, giving way to Amir Garrett in the eighth, then Raisel Iglesias in the ninth. If we’re down on the Ohio River, the fireworks light up the Kentucky hillside. If we’re away, the hometown fans mournfully fold up their tattered Jolly Roger or W flags before trudging bitterly up the aisle and out into the lonely night.
What the Reds accomplish, besides the prospect of stifling the other team’s hitters at the one moment in the game when they are stacked to cause the most damage, is to push back the third-time-thru-the-lineup conundrum two innings, and pressure the opposing pitching staff by removing the automatic out that is the pitcher’s spot the first time through the lineup.
There will, of course, be nights when things don’t go smoothly, when the Opener flops. But, if we are being honest, we know this already happens on a not un-regular basis, as it did the other night when Tyler Mahle couldn’t master his pitches early and inclement leather combined to put the Reds into an early 4-0 hole.
Interstate 71 is the answer to the obvious question of enough bullpen arms. You bring them up, use them up, then shuttle them back down to Louisville and bring up the next guy. Matt Bowman, Cody Reed (when he’s healthy), Jimmy Herget, Lucas Sims, Sal Romano. The Yankees and Dodgers have been doing this for years, using nearly 30 pitchers in 2015 before 13 man staffs became the fashion.
If you’re not enamored with a parade of AAA pitchers, just remember they are there to ease the load, eat less meaningful innings, saving others for the high-leverage moments.
Today, 4.4 pitchers are used per team, per game. I would posit that by leveraging pitcher strengths, the Opener philosophy may actually suppress reliever usage by sheer efficiency and by preemptively slowing the up-and-down in the bullpen as players warm-up and sit, warm-up and sit.
Would more pinch-hitters be used? Sure. Is that a bad thing? Every time you pinch-hit for a pitcher you gain a nearly .400 OPS advantage. One national league team effectively gets the benefit of the DH to begin the game. That’s meaningful.
When all the arguments against have been exhausted, we are left with a simple question: are baseball teams maximizing their pitching assets by continuing to use a pitching model that harkens back an era of wool uniforms and dead balls?
The year I was born—a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—relief pitchers began showing ERAs lower than starting pitchers. That trend has continued in the same direction with all the relentless force of a river rushing out to sea. Relievers currently bear approximately 40% of the pitching burden in baseball. That percentage has increased steadily from about 30% beginning twenty-five years ago. It’s only a matter of time until pitching specialists cross the 50% threshold and render starters obsolete.
Meanwhile, the pool of pitchers who have a command of 4 pitches, the ability to sequence those pitches and adjust inning-after-inning continues to dwindle. Yet, we roll imposters out start-after-start, letting them pitch until they put the game in jeopardy, only then addressing the smoke that’s been building, often waiting until the inning is aflame.
All that stops this madness is tradition, unwritten rules about player roles and the not-so-simple act of buy-in by front offices, coaches and players. Make no mistake, though: some forward-thinking organization is going to blow this whole paradigm up and the rest of baseball will follow with it, just like football did with the no huddle and baseball did with the shift. And when the strategic dominos fall, they will fall fast.
Following journeyman Robel Garcia’s shocking home run off Anthony DeSclafani on July 16th at Wrigley Field, Fox Sports analyst Chris Welsh laid some wisdom down on the dilemma facing the modern-day starter:
“It’s harder to pitch now than it’s ever been. Strike zones are smaller. You don’t get that off the edge strike that certain umpires used to give you. The seams are lower. It’s harder to get a feel of the baseball. The bats are much harder. Players are stronger. Ballparks are playing smaller. And you’re mentally worn out.”
As the Rays have already shown, the teams most likely to embrace the radical are the desperate teams, the teams with nothing to lose. Are the Reds desperate? Maybe the better question is, ARE THE REDS READY TO BE OPPORTUNISTIC?
This thing’s to do if only someone has the strength and will to do it. It works. It only requires the verve and the nerve to buck the system. To say fie on the fear of being too saucy with the baseball gods. To grab the flag and say follow me, making mouths at the invisible event for all the fortune that awaits.
Talk about savvy trades and free agent signings. Pitching is the coin of the realm. This is where the war will be won.