Backlash growing among players over use of openers

As the trend of “openers” spreads around baseball, more players like the Astros’ Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander are coming out against it.

While the analytically-minded front offices around baseball harp about the benefits of “openers,” some players are beginning to hit back and insist there is still room in the game for conventional starters.

Houston Astros’ starting pitchers Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander are the latest players to come out against the expanding use of openers. For Cole, it’s a matter of fan enjoyment of the game.

“There’s a human element here you start to lose when you start rattling off the best mathematical equation to get the out. I certainly wouldn’t pay for a ticket to watch a math equation,” he said on Friday at Astros Spring Training in West Palm Beach, Florida. “There are guys that are really good at this and have been doing this for a long time. I think they should be left alone.”

The concept of an opener, a pitcher who starts the game but usually only lasts one or two innings, began with the Tampa Bay Rays last season. Rays manager Kevin Cash started using relief pitchers like Sergio Romo and Ryne Stanek to open games instead of in the later innings when they would normally be used. Stanek ended up starting 29 games in 2018, never lasting beyond the second inning in any of them. The Rays went 44-34 last year when using an opener, finishing the year ranked sixth in the Major Leagues in team ERA.

For the Rays, the use of an opener was borne out of necessity. At one point in July after trading Chris Archer and Cy Young winner Blake Snell went on the disabled list, they had no starting pitchers listed on their depth chart. Other teams, however, soon caught on to the trend. The Oakland Athletics and Milwaukee Brewers even employed the strategy in the postseason; the Brewers started Wade Miley in Game 5 of the NLCS, pulled him after one batter, then started him again in Game 6.

Verlander, however, says a team using their pitchers like that for an entire season isn’t sustainable. “You can really burn guys over the course of the season, and you get to the playoffs and you have a handful of guys in your bullpen you really want to go to,” he said. “You’ve been going to them all year and you really overuse them in the playoffs because that style of play. That’s how you get beat.”

The likes of Cole and Verlander, players who are used to starting games and going deep into them, are reacting against a growing trend in the game that threatens to make the concept of a starting pitcher obsolete. They aren’t alone.

When Farhan Zaidi, president of baseball operations for the San Francisco Giants, suggested at the Winter Meeting in December the team might use openers in 2019, staff ace Madison Bumgarner sent manager Bruce Bochy a text message that showed he was strongly against the idea. “If you’re using an opener in my game, I’m walking right out of the ballpark,” Bumgarner wrote.

The expansion of the opener is being driven by the proliferation of analytics in baseball decision-making. Teams look at the numbers and realize pitchers fare far worse the latter into games they go. In 2018 batters facing a pitcher for the first time hit .239. In the third time through the order, the average jumped to .265. Last season only the Cleveland Indians had starters go more than six innings per game; just five years ago 16 teams averaged six innings per start. Thirteen pitchers in 2018 pitched more than 200 innings, including Cole and Verlander. In 2013 there were 34.

Not surprisingly, Rays starters went less than four innings a game, fewest in the league.

The trend across the game is going in one direction. Managers see the benefit of preventing hitters from seeing their pitchers more often and having their bullpen arms, more of whom throw 100 mph than ever, face the top of the batting order. Players like Bumgarner, Cole and Verlander have to realize the days of an ace starting and finishing a game are long gone. Just don’t expect them to be happy about it.

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