The Red Sox were spiraling downward.
It was Aug. 12, 2019, the day before Chris Sale would make his final start of the season, and the team found itself in Cleveland having lost 11 of its last 15 games.
The Red Sox rotation had dealt with a slew of injuries throughout the year, including those to Nate Eovaldi, David Price, and ultimately Sale. To make matters worse, Andrew Cashner, acquired a month earlier from the Orioles, had failed to live up to expectations.
After six appearances as a starter left Cashner with an 8.01 ERA, manager Alex Cora moved him to the bullpen, leaving yet another rotation spot vacant. The Sox had a pitching dilemma with more than a month of the season left. How could they navigate through this? Bullpenning — using only relievers to pitch the entire game — was an option, but that gave Cora some pause.
“It’s not that easy, bullpenning just to bullpen,” Cora said. “It’s a great concept, it’s a great word, but at the same time, if we are very limited, it will be hard to bullpen.”
Creativity became the Sox’ survival mode for the remainder of 2019. To stay afloat, they did have some bullpen games, and they also used an opener sometimes.
The opener approach was never fully labeled as such, or embraced. Yet this spring, the topic came up a bit more under new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, who was familiar with the practice from his tenure with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Sox again are facing a deficit in starting pitching, but this time it’s to start what will be a shortened season, and they likely will use an opener — or two — in their rotation.
What is an opener?
To understand the opener is to first know how it differs from bullpenning, because the two can be misconstrued.
Bullpen days consist of relievers covering a nine-inning contest.
Utilizing an opener is a bit more complex. A reliever — typically a power arm to face the top half of the order — pitches the first inning or two. The team then brings in someone to cover, ideally, innings two through six. The purpose is to protect the second pitcher — usually below average to average — from seeing batters three times through the order. The more times a lineup sees a pitcher, the better chance it has to do damage.
“One of the points behind the opener is you have a reliever facing the top half of the order and then when you bring in your bulk guys, the first three or four batters he faces are the bottom of the order,” Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush explained.
“You essentially flipped half the order over. Most teams are going to have their best hitters at the top half of the lineup.”
The origin story
The Rays were the first team to use an opener back in 2018 under Bloom and senior vice president of baseball operations Erik Neander. Eovaldi, who was then with Tampa Bay, went down with an injury, leaving the team with just three starters.
“It all started with the idea of not trying to shoehorn your pitchers into a structure that might not be best for you to win, so, you know, we had to figure out how to make that work over a 162-game season,” Bloom explained.
So, on May 19, Sergio Romo — the usual closer — started against the Angels, followed by Ryan Yarbrough, who went 6⅓ innings. The Rays beat the Angels, 5-3.
“We planned to have basically a bullpen day in our rotation, and then when Nate went down, we ended up with two bullpen days,” Bloom said. “And we had actually been doing bullpen days really from the time the season started, but it got a lot more attention after Sergio started a game in Anaheim.”
The A’s were in Toronto playing the Blue Jays at that time. Inside the clubhouse, Oakland players watched in disbelief as Romo started the game. Little did they know they would be in a similar situation later in the season.
The A’s were in the hunt for a wild-card playoff spot in 2018. They were doing it with a below-average rotation. And when lefthanded starter Sean Manaea went down for the season with a shoulder injury in late August, A’s executive vice president Billy Beane and his staff decided to give the opener a shot.
“It tells me all about matchups and numbers,” said Beane. “If done properly, it’s a pretty successful strategy.”
There was pushback from some players. Like Tampa Bay, the A’s are an analytics-driven team working with a small budget, so both clubs are obliged to find wins within the margins. The A’s used the opener as a means of staying in the playoff hunt. Players had little time to digest the tactic. The Rays had a different experience.
“I think we were better prepared for it more than any other organization probably at that time,” Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said. “And what it is that we had done and how we had managed our pitchers in Triple A in both 2016 and ’17, almost taking advantage of the fact that we weren’t at full strength. You look at the pitchers that we had within our staff on that given day, then we figured out the best way to deploy them.”
The A’s in fact earned a wild-card spot and got bolder during their wild-card game against the Yankees. They left every starter off the roster with the exception of Edwin Jackson for emergency relief. Liam Hendriks started and surrendered a two-run homer by Aaron Judge in the first inning. The A’s lost, 7-2.
Was it their game plan that failed them?
“That’s like taking an anecdotal event and applying some permanence to it,” Beane said the following spring. “Like saying, ‘Oh, well, if he was the traditional starter he would have went eight innings and given up one hit.’ That’s asinine. Judge has hit a lot of homers, by the way.”
Nothing has changed.
“We would have been foolish not to go into the game and break up that game and use our bullpen,” Beane said. “Those were the best pitchers on our staff.”
Following an opener
In his first five starts with the Blue Jays last season, Jackson struggled, posting an 11.90 ERA. In his next outing, against the Orioles, Jackson had an opener in the first inning and he covered innings two through six, allowing four hits and two runs, to pick up his first win.
Jackson, a 17-year veteran, comes from the traditional starter era. He acknowledged it was “different” when he first saw the opener tactic being employed, but when it was used in one of his outings, he took a measured and realistic approach.
“I was struggling,” Jackson said. “And they came to switch it up. [My thinking] was from a different perspective. If I had pitched well and they had done it, I don’t know how I would have felt. I would have still wanted the ball from the start.”
Implementing the opener
Bush is in his first season as Red Sox pitching coach and has been given the reins of creativity. If the Sox go the opener route, it will be a collaborative effort, with Bush and manager Ron Roenicke implementing it.
Bush doesn’t envision the planning being much different than if it were a normal starter to begin the game.
“When you’re doing an opener, it’s typically a reliever, and a short-end reliever is going to go one, one-plus maybe, and then your bulk guy is going to come in after that, so the main part of our game plan would still revolve around the guy who’s going to get the most outs,” Bush said.
There’s a risk, though. The planning is based on the assumption that the reliever who begins the game gets out of his inning unscathed. If he struggles, that can rock the boat, because the more arms you use, the more you risk one of those guys having a bad day.
“No doubt about it, that’s always a concern,” Bush said. “I guess it’s true with a regular traditional starter, if your regular starter gets knocked out in the first or second inning. Now you’re covering seven-plus innings, which is always challenging.
“But yes, that’s always a concern when you’re shuffling guys around.”
The hitter’s perspective
Much of hitting is routine and knowing your opposition, and many players scour the starting pitcher’s scouting report. But when a team employs an opener, that could mean five different arms in nine innings. By the time you get used to one pitcher, the next one is in.
“For me, it’s extremely hard,” Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said. “We do a real good job of preparing for the starter each night. When you have an opener, it’s an open-ended game plan. I don’t feel we’re as precise with our game-planning. It’s a challenge to our lineup if we’re not really familiar with a pitching staff.”
The key, Hyers said, is tacking on runs early to try to offset the plan. A’s first baseman Matt Olson agrees.
“You want to get ahead on the guy,” Olson said. “I think it’s a big advantage if a starter is coming into the game without a clean slate. If the starter is coming in after the opener and they’re down, 2-0, or whatever it may be, that’s a big advantage just because it’s something they’re not fully accustomed to.”
The more he sees the tactic, Olson added, the better the hitter can adjust.
“It’s one of those scenarios where you kind of know what you’re dealing with and you have to take what they’re giving you,” Olson said.
Like the Rays in ’18, the Red Sox have a depleted starting rotation.
“I think obviously if you have five horses, five front-rotation guys, I don’t think you want to get too cute with those guys,” Bloom said. “That’s a world everybody would love to be in.”
Said Bush: “Really, it’s strictly about what our personnel is. If we have an Eduardo Rodriguez, Eovaldi, and [Martin] Perez, they’re traditional starters, so it’s really not about getting guys to buy into it. It’s not this magic formula or magic pill that’s going to make everyone better.”
Bloom made it clear at every step that he and his coaching staff aren’t in the business of public approval. Instead they have elected to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with what they deem necessary to win and are prepared for fan criticism.
Beane has faced his share of critical feedback.
“I remember one year, we led off Jeremy Giambi,” Beane said. “We were ridiculed because he didn’t ‘look’ like a leadoff hitter. He wasn’t a speed guy. But he had a .400 on-base percentage.”
An increased roster of 30 players for the 2020 season may play a role in how the Red Sox go about implementing their strategy.
“I think that’s going to be a really interesting thing to watch play across the league,” said Bloom, “because we’re so conditioned to basically feel like once September comes, you can kind of exhale. You can have as many guys as you need.
“Well, you have a slightly extended roster now, but it’s still not that big, so that’s going to change how seasons are played and how things look when we’re coming down the wire.”