ST. PETERSBURG – Mind you, this is something for which I am definitely not advocating. To even suggest the Yankees might want to copycat the Tampa Bay Rays’ “Opener” concept (or as I prefer calling it the “Bum of the Inning” plan) to navigate their way through the sudden death wild-card game against the Oakland A’s, would make me sound like a total hypocrite given my frequent and fervent criticism of this idea as making a travesty of baseball.
When the Yankees decided to use an “Opener” game against the Rays themselves Monday night, it raised a lot of eyebrows, especially after it resulted in a 4-1 victory, carved out by a flotilla of eight pitchers. After all, the idea itself is a product of the new analytic minds that have taken over most of the front offices in baseball these days, and Brian Cashman has made no secret of the fact that he is all in on analytics. But even before the game unfolded as at did, Yankee manager Aaron Boone made a point of saying this was a one-time only thing designed to give his starters an extra day’s rest and have his rotation in order for the postseason.
With no days off the rest of the season that certainly makes sense, especially since it worked.
What’s become problematic for the Yankees – and given rise to speculation Boone might want to re-think using an “Opener” in the wild-card – is that none of their starting pitchers, Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, Luis Severino or CC Sabathia, provides a “near sure thing” comfort level with the manager for turning in a shutdown performance for seven innings – see Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, Rick Porcello, Cory Kluber et al – in a winner-take-all game. Boone has not yet revealed who he’s going to start when they meet the A’s on October 3 for that very reason.
And using his bullpen for that one-game playoff would free Boone to use the starter of his choice for Game 1 of the ALDS in Boston.
But here’s the thing — in giving all his starters an extra day’s rest Monday, Boone ran through all his premium relievers for an inning apiece. That’s okay for now, but come postseason there’s going to be stress enough on the bullpen to start off using every one of them just to get through the wild-card game. There’s a pretty good chance at least three of them will see action in the wild-card game anyway because whomever Boone tabs to start the game will be on a very short leash, with all hands on deck.
Meanwhile, let’s be clear why the Rays started this whole “Opener” idea. It was because of injuries decimating their starting pitching, leaving them with gaping holes at the back of their rotation. They began using it May 19 and are 29-21 in “Opener” games since then. Moreover, Rays pitchers have the lowest ERA in the American League and second lowest in the majors since May 19.
“There’s no question the Rays started this and they’ve had a lot of success with it and it’s triggered a lot of conversation and people thinking this is an option,” Boone said. “I would say it’s had a big factor.”
And because of that, more teams are undoubtedly going to be copying it to different degrees next season, the Yankees included. But while the Rays may be taking bows for their short term success with the “Openers,” critics point out that they are not developing starting pitchers. The biggest beneficiary of the “Openers” has been lefthander Ryan Yarbrough, who set a Rays rookie record for wins (15) this year. But of those 15 wins, eight of them were achieved by pitching four innings or fewer, and Monday night when Yarbrough was summoned into the game in the fourth inning, with the idea of pitching into the eighth or ninth and notching another win, he was largely ineffective for five innings. And there is nothing to suggest he will ever be a legitimate quality starting pitcher.
In other words, the Rays’ implementation of the “Openers” was out of necessity. They don’t have enough quality starting pitchers. They also don’t have the kind of bullpen the Yankees have, which is why they rely so heavily on matchups from the fourth inning on in these games. Unfortunately, that’s becoming the case throughout baseball. Teams are simply not developing enough starting pitching, and after seeing what the Rays have done with a bunch of middle relievers disguised as starters, they’re realizing the economics of it all as well. Why pay $10-15 million a year to a starting pitcher to pitch 5-6 innings when you get the same result from a quartet of mediocre relievers making barely the major league minimum?
Trust me, this is the thinking behind all of this on the part of the baseball front offices. Starting pitchers are becoming an endangered species and they are all soon going to start feeling it in the pocket book.