O’s Built to Adopt “Opener” Strategy?

On May 19 of this past season, the Tampa Bay Rays shocked the baseball world when they took veteran right-handed reliever Sergio Romo and made him the starting pitcher against the Los Angeles Angels.

He didn’t proceed to pitch the game like a traditional starter, however. Instead, the right-hander pitched just the first inning against the top three of the Angels’ order – Zack Cozart, Mike Trout, and Justin Uptonstriking all three of them out. He was pulled after the first inning, with southpaw starting pitcher Ryan Yarbrough coming in relief. Yarbrough tossed 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball following Romo’s one-inning start, which set the tone for the game.

When it was Yarbrough’s next scheduled “start,” he came in relief after Romo yet again, against the Baltimore Orioles on May 24. Romo’s short outing wasn’t as good as the first one, giving up a run in 2/3 of an inning. However, Yarbrough came in relief to toss seven scoreless innings afterward. So, there’s a silver lining.

Did this new “opener” strategy work each time for the Rays in 2018?

No, but nothing is perfect. Prior to using an opener, the Rays had a team 4.45 ERA, which was ranked 22nd in Major League Baseball. However, from the moment they started utilizing the new strategy, the Rays owned a 3.50 ERA for the rest of the season, third-best in the majors.

This brings up a question for the rebuilding Orioles: Could executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde decide to give this method a try with the O’s current pitching staff?

It’s possible that the club will decide to still give scheduled starts to Dylan Bundy, Alex Cobb, and Andrew Cashner. Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash never took starts away from the guys he was most comfortable with – Blake Snell, Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi, and Tyler Glasnow. But, for the younger, underperforming starters, the opener served as a well-utilized advantage. Yarbrough, Jake Faria, and Yonny Chirinos each posted better a better ERA as a long reliever to an opener than they had as a starting pitcher in 2018.

Shortly after the Rays adopted the strategy in May, Eutaw Street Report writer Riley Blake presented his case for an Orioles opener, opining that Mychal Givens, Darren O’Day, and Yefry Ramirez could be potential candidates to start games. I agree with his stance that the O’s could be built for such strategy, but I believe the club is more equipped now than ever to adopt it. I wouldn’t exactly call former O’s skipper Buck Showalter a “new-school” manager, and the Elias-Hyde era is more likely to explore new ideas as opposed to sticking to the old-school mentality.

Like I said previously, it wouldn’t surprise me if Bundy, Cobb, and Cashner are still named starters every fifth day. But the Orioles have multiple young starting pitchers on the 40-man roster who profile as back of the rotation arms – like David Hess, Luis Ortiz, Josh Rogers, Dillon Tate, and multiple others. The Orioles could also get a look at other prospect arms like Hunter Harvey and Keegan Akin in 2019, so an aide of a successful opener could help them post better numbers and gain confidence at the big-league level.

In order to create the advantage from using an opener, you need the right arms to do the job of facing the top three or four of a lineup to start the game and set the tone.

Orioles pitcher Jimmy Yacabonis on the mound.

GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

As suggested by Blake, I also believe Givens could be a good option to open ball games. The right-hander had a bit of a setback season in 2018, posting a 3.99 ERA over 76 2/3 innings, after pitching to a 2.75 ERA in 78 2/3 frames the year prior. However, he did manage to finish this past season strong, recording a 1.45 ERA in his final 17 outings.

It would be extremely beneficial to start Givens against a right-handed heavy top of the order, as same-sided hitters are slashing a career .186/.262/.300 off the 28-year-old. Lefties have fared better, batting .249/.347/.391 off him in his career, although he kept them a little more in check in 2018, when they slashed .239/.331/.358. Also worth noting: some of the runs put up against Givens last season were a bit unlucky, as he gave up 26.3-percent hard-hit balls in 2018, which was the third-lowest rate by American League relievers.

Another option is hard-throwing southpaw Tanner Scott. In his first full season in the big leagues, his 5.40 ERA didn’t strike many people as promising. However, his ability to generate swing-and-misses is highly intriguing, as his 12.83 strikeouts per nine innings rate was eighth-highest among American League relievers. His blazing fastball and hard slider induce very little contact.

He keeps left-handed hitters off-balance and in a daze, but right-handed hitters have fared much better off him. Although right-handers still strike out plenty against Scott – 29.7 percent of the time in 2018, to be exact – they have hurt his numbers when they do make contact, as they slashed .295/.377/.500 off him this past year.

Scott could get the ball to open games against lefty-heavy top of the orders or, if there are switch-hitters who are weaker from the right side. On the other hand, if Scott shows more promise against right-handers, he could be a solid opening option no matter the handedness of opposing one-two-three hitters if he’s consistently showing the ability to strike out hitters who stand in either batter’s box.

My next candidate is an interesting one, Jimmy Yacabonis. The 26-year-old right-hander served as a starting pitcher – who never threw more than five innings – and a multiple-inning long reliever in 2018. He posted a 5.40 ERA, averaging 7.43 strikeouts per nine innings.

Yacabonis was used solely as a reliever in the Orioles minor leagues from the time he was drafted in 2013 through 2017. In that time, he had success in the Orioles farm system. Instead of further developing him into a solid relief option for the big-league club, the O’s – for some reason – decided to try him out as a starter for the first time in his professional career. He started 21 games for Triple-A Norfolk, posting a 4.26 ERA in 76 innings before being called back up.

His 7.43 strikeouts per nine innings isn’t bad for a starting pitcher, but he hasn’t exactly taken on the proper starter workload or even performed well enough to remain a starting pitcher. I’m interested to see his mid-90s two-seamer and his nasty slider in a short-outing relief or opener role.

There are also other options to open ball games for the Orioles in 2019, like Richard Bleier, Paul Fry, Miguel Castro, or many others on the 40-man roster, but my preference would be the relievers who can potentially miss bats and set the tone for games. If used correctly and successfully, this could help increase the productivity of the plethora of back-end-type starting pitchers the O’s have.

Is this strategy a proven success? No, but a rebuilding Orioles squad is the type of team that has time to try it out, as we know they have no season to risk. It’s possible that it could be a failure, but the possibility of success may be worth the exploration.

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