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Around the Horn

Opening Arguments

The "opener." The "headliner." You may have heard these terms being bandied about lately on Mariner and other Major League teams' broadcasts or read them elsewhere in the baseball press. It refers to a fad—some would charitably call it a "strategy"—that has become increasingly popular among big-league managers this season and that has infected Scott Servais and the Mariners over the past couple of weeks.

M's with an Opener

Through June 13th 2019

Date "Opener" "Headliner" Result 
6/3 Gearrin (1 IP, 3 ER) LeBlanc (8 IP, 1 ER) L, 4-2 
6/6 Adams (23 IP, 3 ER) Milone (513 IP, 1 ER) L, 8-7 
6/9 Adams (1 IP, 0 ER) LeBlanc (6 IP, 2 ER) W, 9-3 
6/12 Bautista (113 IP, 0 ER) Milone (6 IP, 3 ER) W, 9-6 

This practice—I refuse to call it a tactic—involves using a pitcher typically used as a reliever to start a ballgame and having him pitch one or one-plus innings and then replacing him with the guy who would ordinarily be thought of as the starting pitcher in the second inning. Why? Why would any manager not saddled with brain worms do this?

The idea isn't technically new; variants of the idea have been done before, but on those occasions there was a reason. Sound or not, there was logic behind the Washington Senators starting righty Curly Ogden in the World Series and having him pitch to just two batters—they were trying to force their opponents to start a lefty-heavy lineup and then turn the tables by using a left-hander for the bulk of the game after they locked it in. The Pittsburgh Pirates tried this same thing against Lou Piniella's Reds in the 1990 playoffs, again to try to force a favorable platoon lineup or drain the Reds' bench early. The Brewers had Wade Miley face one batter to start a game in last year's NLCS under an identical rationale.

But that's not what we're talking about today. Those instances assumed the opposing team didn't know in advance that a switcheroo was in the offing and thus there was a method to the madness, whether it worked or not. The modern concept of an "opener" involves no attempt at deception at all, the other team is fully aware of what you're doing from the get-go. And it's stupid.

The Mariners have gone with an "opener" four times so far this season—not counting Yusei Kikuchi's scheduled short start, which was part of a plan to help him acclimate to the every-five-days schedule and unrelated to this nonsense—beginning with the June 3rd game vs. Houston, when Cory Gearrin pitched the first inning before giving way to "headliner" Wade LeBlanc. The usage in that game turned out to be such a spectacular failure that it boggles the mind that Scott Servais would do it again just a few days later: Gearrin, already known to be a bit unpredictable, served up three runs in his inning, putting LeBlanc in an immediate hole. Which was a shame, because LeBlanc was on that night and pitched one of his very best games, throwing eight innings in relief allowing just one run. The M's lost 4-2.

Some might argue that, rather than a spectacular failure, that game shows the advantage of an opener: LeBlanc, one might say, benefited by starting his night facing the 7-8-9 batters in the lineup rather than 1-2-3. Except, no, he faced those batters plenty anyway because he was so good he went the entirety of the rest of the game (those batters went 2-for-9 against LeBlanc, 1-for-2 with a walk and a triple against Gearrin). "But," one might say, "you can't count on a guy like LeBlanc being good for eight innings, so giving him a break against the top of the lineup isn't a bad idea." And one would be right in that you can't count on eight innings from your starter. That's true all the time. Moreover, you can't count on your "opener" to have a good inning. Especially if your team's relief corps is like Seattle's.

But that's not the only reason the opener is a dumb idea. Even when it "works" you risk trouble. Austin Adams was the opener in LeBlanc's next game, June 9th in Anaheim, and he was fine. One inning, three batters, two Ks. But now you've burned one of your better relievers right away. Wade was good again, going six innings and allowing two runs, and the M's were clobbering the Angels anyway, so it didn't much matter. But these days you can count on the M's to clobber a team far less than you can count on a quality start from someone like Wade LeBlanc, and if there were a tight spot in, say, the seventh or eighth inning and you needed a critical out, you're already a man down in the 'pen and your options are reduced to largely lesser arms.

And heaven forbid your game goes extra innings! June 6th, the second time Servais went with an opener, Adams gave up three in the first to the Astros. He didn't even get out of the inning, "headline" pitcher Tommy Milone came in with two out and a runner on in the first. The M's were immediately down 3-0 to Justin Verlander, not where any team wants to be. But against the odds, the Mariners clawed their way back, and by the eighth it was a tie game. They were on their fourth pitcher at that point, Milone having lasting through the sixth, but guess what? You're in the late innings of a tie game. You might well need to go several more innings, which is what happened—the M's took the game to the 14th, tied at 7-7, by which time seven Seattle pitchers had been used. Matt Festa, with all of 18 innings of Major League experience, was the best remaining option for the 14th because Adams had been burned early for no good reason. He might have been bad in the 14th just as he was in the first, or in a more customary late-game situation under different circumstances he might have pitched a clean inning. We'll never know, but I'd sure have rather had the option of Adams in the late innings of a five hour game.

The logic, such as it is, for using an opener appears to depend on the idea that the first inning is no less important than the ninth, and if you have a closer to shut the door in the ninth, a solid "opener" for a clean first inning is therefore just as useful. Except it isn't. When the Rays started this fad last season, they had some rationale for it; they were operating with only a few decent starting pitchers and were looking at a lot of bullpen games or games when the expected fourth and fifth starters in what passed for their rotation could only really go four, maybe five innings. Starting a game with one of their most effective short relievers in what was essentially going to be a bullpen game anyway made a modicum of sense. Doing it when you still figure on six-plus from your "headline" pitcher, burning one of your relief options at the start of things before the shape of the game has unfolded at all, has no benefit that I can see. None.

Suppose your "headliner" has no-hit stuff that day, but your "opener" slept funny the night before and didn't have it and gave up a few runs. Sorry, headline guy, instead of achieving baseball immortality you are a mere footnote in history, the guy who threw eight great innings in a no-decision that your team lost. Suppose your opener did great, K'd the side, but in the 13th inning you're in a jam and really need a strikeout—too bad that guy you pitched in the first isn't available anymore. Or, the other way, suppose your opener is great and your headliner stinks and gets tagged for eight runs. You're now in a lopsided game that you wouldn't waste one of your better relievers in, except you already did and now he's not rested for tomorrow.

Scott Servais is by no means the only manager to succumb to the opener fad. Maybe a third of Major League teams have tried it or are planning on trying it. But that doesn't mean it's worth doing.

Do you have a dissenting opinion? Sound off below!

"The Opener"

What do you think of teams using an "opener"?

Comments

  • Posted by S on July 11, 2019 (37 days ago)

    I hope the manager isn't getting the idea that the opener has actually helped LeBlanc and Milone pitch well. I don't know about Milone, but LeBlanc showed last year he can pitch just fine as a starter.

    I also don't like that the "starter" plan also separates "starting" pitchers into two groups. There are the real starters, like Gonzales and Leake, and there are the posers, who need help getting going. This does not give the pitchers or the team confidence.

    Let starters start!

  • Posted by Bill on June 14, 2019 (2 months ago)

    A bizarre and unintentional instance of an opener came in 1917 when BoSox starter Babe Ruth walked the first batter of the game, argued with the ump and got tossed, then Eddie Shore came in and retired 27 in a row. Combined no-hitter but not a perfect game.

    I'm stating the above from memory (not that I was alive then) so it could be a bit off.

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