September 10, 2018

The Red Sox Are Not Using An "Opener" When Chris Sale Starts On Tuesday

The Tampa Bay Rays have experimented this season with having one of their relievers pitch the first (and sometimes the second) inning, before switching to a pitcher more accustomed to working for many innings. People have taken to calling these repurposed reliever "openers" - the opposite of a "closer".

Teams score in the first inning more often than any subsequent inning, since a team is guaranteed (assuming its manager fills out a fairly traditional lineup card) to send its best hitters to the plate. The "opener" strategy allows the reliever to face a lineup's heavy hitters right away, giving the next guy (probably a starter) an advantage on his third time through the lineup. Also, a team will not pinch-hit at the start of a game to gain a platoon advantage.

During NESN's Red Sox broadcast on September 4, Dave O'Brien mentioned the "opener" phenomenon and stated that several teams have begun doing it. He said Chris Sale wanted to be referred to as the "opener" when he makes an abbreviated start on Tuesday and O'Brien subsequently began referring to him in that way.
Saw Tampa Bay won again today. They've won nine of their last 10. .. That whole 'opener' thing? That a lot of people said, Ahhh, it'll never catch on. Guess what it's doing? Teams are beginning to use it.
Both of O'Brien's statements are wrong.

Cliff Corcoran of The Athletic, in looking closely at what the Rays are doing, states that a team uses an opener when they begin "a game with a short outing by a pitcher who typically works in relief".

Chris Sale does not typically work out of the bullpen. Every single one of his appearances dating back to May 12, 2012, has been as a starting pitcher. That's 198 games. Tuesday night at Fenway Park against the Blue Jays will be no different. Sale is coming back from an injury, so he will be limited to only two innings or 40 pitches. But he remains a starting pitcher who is starting a game.

What about O'Brien's claim that this strategy is "catching on" with other teams? I'll let you be the judge. As of Saturday, in 2018:

I don't think I made a note about this, but O'Brien - perhaps on September 4, perhaps during another game - named a player who came up with the term "opener" this season. That is also wrong. Bryan Grosnick of Beyond The Box Score used the term "opener" in November 2013.

I shouldn't be surprised. Moneyball (written, of course, by Billy Beane) was published in 2003 and many announcers still - more than 15 years later - exhibit no knowledge of what the philosophy behind the title means.

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