While the concept of “the opener” is a curious idea, it could be of use to the Cincinnati Reds next season in place of a fifth starter.
While I’m sure the majority of Reds fans would despise the idea, using an opener rather than a fifth starter is an intriguing concept. With four of the five spots in the 2020 Cincinnati Reds starting rotation set, could the idea of an opener be in play?
Now look, I’m not the biggest fan of the idea either, but hear me out. The Reds, perhaps more than any other team, may be set up to utilize the opener. Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Anthony DeSclafani and Trevor Bauer are setup to be four of the five starters next season. But what if, instead of a fifth starter, the Reds went with an opener?
First, let’s unpack the idea of what an opener is. The Tampa Bay Rays were really the franchise that introduced the idea. Different from the concept of a bullpen game, using an opener would see a starting pitcher take the field, just not at the beginning of the game. That sounds strange. I know, but bear with me.
Essentially, a relief pitcher would begin the game on the hill, then, after facing the toughest hitters in the lineup, would give way to another pitcher, typically a starter. Confused yet? I thought so. How about an example using players currently on the Reds roster?
So, let’s assume the Reds were using an opener against the Milwaukee Brewers. With the likes of the left-handed hitting Christian Yelich and Mike Moustakas at the top of the Brewers lineup, perhaps the Reds would open the game with Amir Garrett. A lefty-on-lefty matchup usually favors the pitcher, so in theory, the Reds would be playing the percentages.
After what was hopefully a successful 1-2-3 inning from Garrett, Cincinnati could go to a pitcher like Tyler Mahle in the second inning. Why? Well, Garrett isn’t going to pitch to more than four or five batters, no different than any other relief appearance. Mahle, who’s typically a starter, could be plugged in to go four to five innings.
This thought process removes a starter from the the dreaded third time through the order and Mahle is the perfect example of a pitcher that could benefit from using an opener. The first time through the order, opposing batters were hitting .264 off Mahle. His numbers improved the second time though the order, with those same batters owning just a .227 batting average.
Now, look what happens when opponents face Mahle a third time. The right-hander gets torched to the tune of a .351 batting average. The opposing batters’ OPS dramatically increases from the first time (.772) they face Mahle to the third time (1.004).
The Tampa Bay Rays, who are heading towards a Game 5 showdown in the ALDS against the Houston Astros, have been the model franchise when it comes to using the opener. Diego Castillo set the tone on Tuesday night in Game 4, starting the game and going just 1.2 innings against the best in the Houston lineup. Castillo struck out three and allowed just one hit.
Again, I’m not saying that having an opener is the answer for the Cincinnati Reds. In fact, there’s not enough evidence at this point to suggest that the idea even works. That being said, it is intriguing option that could give the Reds an advantage in a game that is continually looking to find one.