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A case against the “opener”

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Maybe it will end up being good for baseball, but will it be good for the players?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Farhan Zaidi suggested that the Giants were interested in trying out the concept of the “opener” going forward. If you aren’t familiar, that is when a relief pitcher starts the game and usually goes about an inning or so, then the traditional starting pitcher comes in.

There are many people for whom that doesn’t sit well with, and not for baseball reasons. I like and respect Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area a lot, but he posted something last night that bothered me:

I get the point he is making, and agree that the addition of this practice will likely have little impact on the game in the short-term, but I don’t agree that people who take issue with this are simply upset because it’s new and different.

It is intriguing to see the Giants interested in moving forward in the trends in baseball rather than stagnating in the past. Maybe it will even work out better and change the game, who knows?

That said, the issue that most people seem to take with the concept is that it feels a lot like they’re trying to diminish the role, and thus the value, of starting pitchers so that they don’t make as much money. If this seems at all cynical or implausible, well... (/gestures vaguely at the world around us)... it shouldn’t.

Who usually makes the most money in free agency? Starting pitchers! Who doesn’t like to spend money on the employees who make them rich? Businesses! And baseball is a particularly nasty business when it comes to screwing over their workforce.

“But Sami,” some of you may exclaim, “the players are overpaid and make millions of dollars even after they stop being good, why should we be sympathetic towards them?”

Great question, hypothetical reader. Baseball players play a lot (if not all) of their very short careers in the minor leagues, where they are basically paid in peanuts. Then, if they are lucky enough to succeed and make the majors, they usually spend the majority of their most productive years under team control, meaning they are often the biggest contributors to the success of the team while making the least amount of money.

And I know that some will complain about how even league minimum salary is a lot more than most people make in a year, but consider that the window of a baseball career is incredibly short compared to the average lifespan of a human.

Imagine working your whole life to get an opportunity to work in your chosen field, then having only 10-15 years to go from being an unpaid intern to as high as you can get in a company (that only after six years do you even get to choose) before having to start over from scratch, likely without a college degree or any other professional skills.

So, that system is not good, but it was working out for the lucky few to make it out of their arbitration years because eventually free agency arrived, and with it, their first and maybe only opportunity for a big paycheck, freedom to choose where they want to play, and hopefully some life stability in terms of achieving a long term arrangement that would hopefully see them through their older, declining years.

We all knew that they weren’t going to be “worth” the money under the years of those contracts, in terms of the ways we value players’ worth. But that was the only way baseball players made any substantial money so it was hard to justify complaining about it unless you want to overhaul the entire system. Which I do, but MLB does not.

Now we’ve been seeing a trend over the last two off-seasons where there has been a kind of freeze on big paydays for older free agents (or any payday at all, in some cases). The logic would be reasonable (they aren’t worth the money based on the metrics) if all players were receiving pay based on their value throughout their career. They are not.

If they want to start paying minor league players a living wage, and then pay all major league players based on their mathematical value to the team (thus allowing them to earn the majority of their money during their prime years even if they are under team control), then maybe this devaluation of expensive free agents will become the new way of things and not seem like yet another grifting attempt by the owners.

This brings me back to my issue with the concept of the openers. As Bryan wrote about last night, Zaidi said he doesn’t believe it’s an attempt to devalue starting pitchers, but more that “there’s a perceived scarcity and that’s leading teams to pursue alternatives.”

That sounds like a lot of BS to me. I don’t mean to imply that Zaidi is spouting BS, I think he’s got the right read on the situation. But I think that the “perceived scarcity” is only there to drive down the value of the most expensive players. Sure, starting pitchers are scarce if you don’t want to pay to acquire or keep the best of them, and a new system that increases pitching specialists guarantees the development of fewer quality starters.

The idea of the “opener” itself has potential merit for baseball reasons. For a team with a questionable rotation and shaky overall depth, I can see the upside of limiting innings and pressure during the grind of the season.

But I can’t help but think it will be used for nefarious purposes in the long run, in terms of driving down the cost of quality starting pitching by decreasing the metrics that make those starting pitchers so valuable. Things like starts, innings pitched, etc. When you hear about teams “experimenting”, it doesn’t just mean in terms of what we see on the field.

Relief pitchers, even used as “openers,” are cheaper than starting pitchers. So using them to eat up some innings from a starter would, it stands to reason, decrease the value of said starter. Which would reduce the free agency paycheck starting pitchers can expect to receive. Which would allow teams to pocket more money rather than pay the workers, who earned that money for them, a fair share of it.

This isn’t exactly a league that is known for being generous and supportive of their players getting paid fairly. They hire lobbyists to donate money to candidates (from both parties) who will support their causes, including continuing to not-pay minor league players a living wage. They manipulate the playing time of young players to keep them under team control for as long as possible. The owners were found guilty of collusion in the eighties and have been accused of colluding multiple times ever since.

There is no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this.