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Everything you want to know about The Opener but are too afraid to ask

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Tonight, the Giants will turn the deepest, darkest nightmare of every season ticket holder into reality.

San Francisco Giants v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

Following yesterday’s announcement that the Giants would be deploying Nick Vincent to pitch the first inning of tonight’s game, my inbox was flooded with a bunch of angry dads who’ve watched baseball all their lives and couldn’t believe that the Giants were resorting to the latest sabermetric “fad” that has somehow ruined the game of baseball.

The Giants have allowed 42 runs in the first inning this season. They’ve scored all of 3 5 runs themselves. The intent of an Opener or The Opener is to give the team using the strategy a fighting chance to win a baseball game. Playing from behind from the start is never a good position for a team to be in.

Now, these same dads or white-haired season ticket holders might note that the Giants have been a lot better against bullpens this season than opposing starters, so what does it matter if they use an opener? Why not just play the game the normal way and hope for the best?

That’s where I come in. The Opener is the result of practical imagination. “Why not play the game the way it has always been played, but just find better players and/or hope for the best?” is a fantasy at this point. There are numbers and then there are wishes. Wishing the Giants had five capable starters capable of pitching innings 1-5 without getting rocked is the best we can do at this point.

The reality is that outside of Madison Bumgarner and maybe Drew Pomeranz on a good night, the Giants don’t have much going for them in the rotation. So, since they’re probably going to wind up using Nick Vincent for a couple of innings to bail out a starting pitcher anyway, why not do it right up front and see if he can holding the opposing lineup scoreless?

Because it’s different and I don’t like different! seems to be the prevailing argument. There are plenty of people — perhaps the majority of Giants fans — who will never, ever accept The Opener as a useful strategy. And Bill James help the Giants if Nick Vincent gives up 4 runs in the first inning tonight. That will set back sabr-civilian relations by 100 years.

But for those of you who might be on the fence — try-curious or just more interested in watching the Giants win by any means necessary rather than lose by doing what they’ve always done — here’s a fact sheet about The Opener if you want to learn more:

The Opener...

Does

Improve a team’s chances of winning any given game. It does this by lessening a would-be starting pitcher’s burden and limiting their exposure to the best hitters on the opposing team (once or maybe twice in a game) by putting one of the team’s de facto better pitchers into the game first against what’s assured to be some of the best hitters in a given lineup.

Does not

Guarantee the team a win. Yeah, the opener could come in because he’s not used to pitching in the first inning or just because he’s normally a reliever and relievers are highly volatile and give up 3-5 runs, just as a bad starter would. Or, the opener could do his job and then Tyler Beede could give up 4 runs in the second inning and it wouldn’t matter.

Does not

Ruin the bullpen. Nick Vincent was probably going to pitch in tonight’s game anyway, if Tyler Beede’s previous appearances tell us anything. He was either going to pitch the 4th and 5th innings or the 3rd and 4th innings, so what difference does it make if he pitches the 1st and/or 2nd? The Giants are still going to need innings out of their bullpen if Beede can only go 1-3 innings. On the other hand, The Opener

Does

Make it easier to get to the very best of the bullpen late in the game. The platonic ideal of The Opener strategy is The Opener pitching the first two innings, the former starting pitcher (“bulk guy”) going the next 4-5 and then best of the bullpen finishing things off. This obviates the need for multiple pitching changes and complicated matchup options. How many times have we seen a starter struggle earlier only to settle in?

Why does that starter usually struggle? Because he’s facing the best hitters right up top. He’s throwing 20-30 pitches in the first inning because the leadoff man and the #2 hitter worked the count, fouled off pitches, drew walks, and setup the middle of the order to hit doubles. With an opener, that starting pitcher is coming in to face either the #4-#6 hitters with no one on base and quickly gets to face the pitcher. It’s a recipe for a calm start to the game, to build confidence heading into a matchup the following inning with the best of the opposing lineup.

Does

Make Dad angry because this is not how baseball is played. In his day, starting pitchers were men who threw 12 innings in a 9-inning game, throw some ice on their shoulder, and go back out there to pitch 10 more innings the following day.

Does not

Signal the end of baseball as we know it. We’ve already seen the Giants use an opener. Just unofficially:

Does

Mean that the nerds have won. There was literally an academic research paper written about The Opener strategy. That began as a look at limiting a home team’s historical advantage in the first inning in terms of runs scored. The Giants will be looking to use The Opener tonight just to give their team a fighting chance of hanging in the game and not relying on a six-run rally late in the game.

Does not

Make devout nerds of sabermetric thought more interesting or better people. Gloating about favorable probabilities and dunking on people who are angry about a strategy change doesn’t actually make them the Michael Jordan of anything. Nobody is a good or bad person because they embrace or reject The Opener strategy.

Does

Suggest that the Giants are in the endgame when it comes to Farhan Zaidi gaining total control of the team. Culture changes are usually the last thing to happen, and like a coup or party swap, the transition is messy, loud, and replete with public displays of buffoonery, but after that, the real change can begin.

The Giants need to play to their strengths. Their bullpen is their greatest strength. Why not see more of it early and often?