There are plenty of reasons not to like the opener. If you don’t want the Giants or any other team to use the opener, I totally get it.
For the aesthetes out there, the opener removes the battle between starters. When I was a kid, I would count out games to find when Shawn Estes or Russ Ortiz or Jason Schmidt was pitching because they were my guys. I’m sure there other kids counting out when Tom Glavine or Kevin Brown started because they were that other kids guys. Every game, my guy and their guy would lock into gladiatorial combat like so many Beyblades. Games were won or lost because of what the starting pitcher did.
But an opener is no one’s guy. He’s just another pitcher. The starter that comes after him is also just another pitcher. No one is marking days on their calendar to figure out when Ryne Stanek or Liam Hendriks will open a game next. You couldn’t count them even if you wanted to.
Not to mention the opener removes the possibility of a complete game shutout not to mention the no-hitter or perfect game.
Individual pitcher feats are becoming rarer and rarer without universal adoption of the opener, but the opener has labor implications as well. Ben Lindbergh of the Ringer wrote about the case of Ryan Yarbrough. Yarbrough made just six starts last season despite throwing 147 1/3 innings, and this threatened to eat into his earnings in a few ways.
Like a lot of players, Yarbrough is sponsored by an equipment company that supplies some of the tools of his trade and pays him end-of-year bonuses based on playing time. One of those sponsors offers modest payouts per start. Because Yarbrough made only six starts, he stood to lose thousands of dollars compared with pitchers logging similar innings totals, which wasn’t insignificant for a first-year player making the major league minimum.
Yarbrough’s agent, Jim Munsey, convinced the sponsor to pay based on innings rather than starts, so this shows that some aspects of the market can adapt. Before these adaptations are made, there will be some growing pains with figuring out how to equitably compensate openers or “bulk” guys, whether on the free agent market or in arbitration.
Arbitration panels generally trail behind analytics, but they don’t just look at wins and RBI either. WAR is often brought up in hearings, but the problem as Lindbergh and Joshua Morgan of DRaysBay pointed out is that Yarbrough is undervalued by WAR.
WAR is calculated differently for starters than it is for relievers, and the tl;dr is that relievers get less credit for the same quality of pitching. Until WAR accurately reflects a player’s value, it could adversely affect a player’s earning in arbitration.
There’s also the case of free agent starters who have escalators in their contracts that will pay them more based on how many starts they make. If the Giants were to use an opener in front of Drew Pomeranz twice, it could cost him $100,000. You would hope that the Giants wouldn’t do that in good faith, but it definitely looks like they sidelined Pomeranz with a fake injury to have him skip a start.
There are certainly problems with the opener, but none seem insurmountable. The value of the starting pitcher is diminishing anyway, and as the practice of using an opener becomes more prevalent, the market will catch up.
In front of pitchers who don’t have start-based incentives, it can have strategical value. For a team that’s had some major starting pitching problems, doing anything to help should be considered.
There are two basic benefits to using the opener: it can get a better pitcher in the first inning, and it can help the starter or “bulk” guy face more batters.
The first inning is the highest leverage inning until the eighth. The game is always tied, and the best hitters are guaranteed to bat. For that first inning, it’s best to have a more capable pitcher, and for the Giants, the capable pitchers tend to reside in the bullpen.
On the season, the Giants have been outscored 40-3 in the first inning. An opener isn’t going to do anything to help them score in the first, but hoo boy, giving up 40 runs in 39 innings is rough. Something needs to change and so far, the changes have been optioning Dereck Rodríguez to Triple-A, phantom IL-ing guys, and swapping Derek Holland to the bullpen. The last two have apparently ruffled some feathers.
Having an opener face the top of the order would mean that the starter would begin their outing facing the middle of the order. For instance, If Trevor Gott could face five batters, that would mean that Tyler Beede could start against the sixth-place hitter, and his times through the order penalty wouldn’t kick in until he got back to the sixth-place hitter.
This would make it easier for Beede to face more batters beyond twice through the order. That dreaded third time through the order generally starts from the top with the team’s best hitters, but if the third time is coming against the 6, 7, 8 hitters, then Beede would have an easier time starting his third trip through the order. A starter facing 21 batters instead of just 18 saves an inning from the bullpen.
The opener isn’t without its problems when it comes to compensation, and perhaps it doesn’t make for the best spectator experience once the novelty wears off. But adjustments will be made sooner if more teams use an opener, and you know what else doesn’t make for a great spectator experience? Giving up four runs in the first inning of every game.