Necessity can be the mother of all inventions. In 2018, with an ERA ranking 22nd in the majors and ninth in the American League, Tampa Bay needed a spark. Especially given injuries to Jake Faria and Nathan Eovaldi . In an effort to cobble together innings, the Rays introduced the “Opener” on May 19th. From this date forward, Tampa Bay ranked third in the majors in ERA and second in the American League. 

Before delving into the ramifications for fantasy, it’s worth noting the average start last year dropped to just over 5 and one-third innings for the second straight season. In 2014, there were 89 qualified starting pitchers. This number cratered to only 58 pitchers reached the required innings as a qualified starter in 2018 with only a slight increase to 60 last year. With innings logged by starting pitchers in decline, along with analytics suggesting limiting high leverage plate appearances versus a pitcher, will the the opener strategy stick?

Tampa Bay used the opener strategy 55 times in 2018, generally exposing the reliever as a starter to face three-to-nine batters. As a franchise, the Rays finished the year with an American League best 3.61 ERA in the first inning. They went 46 - 38 with a traditional starting pitcher and 44 - 34 with the openers. Starters on the Rays worked three innings or fewer in 71 games. While this situation proved to be an anomaly in 2019, Tampa Bay still used Ryne Stanek as an opener prior to his trade to Miami 27 times. He worked a total of 43 innings as the opener with a 2.09 ERA, a 49:14 K:BB, .190/.254/.314 batting average against and a 1.00 WHIP.

Within the same division, New York tread water with Chad Green making 15 appearances as an opener while three starting pitchers spent time on the injured list in 2019. Green logged 19.1 innings over these outings with a 3.72 ERA, 32:8 K:BB and 1.34 WHIP. However, the Yankees won 11 of 15 contests using a bridge to their high leverage bullpen, a team strength. This could be a strategy for San Diego to imitate.

Armed with a stocked farm system of young pitching talent and a bullpen built for shortening games, if MacKenzie Gore , Adrian Morejon or Luis Patino ascend to the majors, shortening their outings via an opener makes sense. Newly acquired Drew Pomeranz owns experience as a starting pitcher and could be very effective over the first inning or recording the first few outs of a game. Also, Emilio Pagán or Craig Stammen could also fill this role. If Dinelson Lamet cannot work deep enough into games as the season ensues, his outings could also be enhanced by an opener giving him a better chance to win games.

While traditional rotisserie leagues still use wins, saves, strikeouts and ratio statistics within its scoring system, the opener does not make too much of an overall impact. However, in leagues which count quality starts, if more teams deploy an opener, will it create scarcity?

According to statistics from The Ringer, in 2018, the average starting pitcher faced 23 hitters a game (not including the Rays starters). Last year, this number fell to 22 using the total batters faced on Fangraphs divided by games started. This roughly equates to two and a half times through the batting order. Deploying an opener limits the amount of time a starter faces the heart of the batting order. It closes the gap between maximizing innings and allows teams to determine which hitters they expose their pitcher working after the opener face. Using the third time through the order numbers as a guide, here’s some teams and pitchers which could benefit from using an opener in 2020:

Atlanta Braves

Atlanta added to its bullpen at the trade deadline and owns a bevy of strong starting pitching prospects. However, note two starters who struggled the third time through the order last season:

Varying results between these two, but with Shane Greene , Chris Martin , Will Smith and Mark Melancon anchoring the bullpen, the Braves can shorten games to limit exposure a third time through the lineup for each of these pitchers. No guarantee, but something to note.

Miami Marlins

This situation gets more difficult since the Marlins do not possess a deep bullpen to benefit their young pitching staff. However, knowing Stanek’s familiarity with opening games, perhaps the team explores the strategy as the season progresses?

New York Yankees

Injuries forced the Yankees to deploy Green as an opener, but perhaps they should not abandon the thought in 2020:

Not only would using an opener help Tanaka win more games as a bulk pitcher, it could keep him fresh extending his strong second half runs. German will enter the rotation later in the season due to suspension but Jordan Montgomery would also benefit from an opener if he wins a spot in the rotation.

Oakland Athletics

Liam Hendriks sowed the seeds of his 2019 breakout as an opener in September of 2018, No team other than the Rays maximizes roles than Oakland. With Jesús Luzardo , A.J. Puk and Chris Bassitt involved with innings caps and perhaps a six-man rotation, maybe the A’s use an opener in some of their outings this year. It definitely would help Bassitt:

San Diego Padres

Active once again in the off-season, San Diego added to its already stacked bullpen signing Drew Pomeranz and trading for Emilio Pagán . They join Kirby Yates , flamethrowing Andres Muñoz, Craig Stammen and Matt Strahm . Flexibility and ability to match-up in high leverage and to protect the starting staff makes for an intriguing team to mix in an opener strategy. For reference:

Of any of the starters with an xFIP above five in this research, Paddack’s the only one with a WHIP below one. Plus, with improved conditioning and a tweak, he could fully breakout this year:



His change-up along with an adjusted curve grip near the end of the season may be enough to overcome the third time through the order struggles. However, Dinelson Lamet could benefit from an opener along with Lucchesi. Plus, MacKenzie Gore and others loom on the periphery of the Padres staff if they make a run towards the play-offs.

Some stand alone names include Madison Bumgarner , Zack Wheeler and Reynaldo López . It’s sort of shocking the Dodgers never used this strategy but with the addition of Brusdar Graterol and Blake Treinen to the bullpen, they may manage innings with Julio Urías along with Dustin May moving up in the pecking order. Heck, Alex Wood could also benefit from working as a bulk innings guy rather than in a traditional starting role.

With so many issues facing fantasy owners, targeting aces earlier in drafts continues to move to the forefront of hot topics making it a new strategy to employ. For now, the opener theory remains in the evolutionary phase, but it needs to be accounted for. Teams will be looking to maximize performance. Plus, at a time when owners try to suppress salary, less innings by starting pitchers would translate into less money. Only 15 starters surpassed 200 innings in 2019. It will be very intriguing to see how teams handle the opener in response to the recent trends.


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