How the “Opener” Spread to the Dodgers

PITTSBURGH — Dodgers reliever Scott Alexander had just finished his lunch and was walking down the 16th Street Mall in Denver last Friday when he received a text from Dodgers manager Dave Roberts.

“‘Hey, you’re getting your start today,”’ the text read, as Alexander remembers it. “‘One or two innings.’”

Alexander had not regularly started professional baseball games since he was in Rookie ball with the Royals in 2010.

The left-hander had watched with curiosity last month as Rays reliever Sergio Romo started back-to-back games for the Rays, ushering in a new label, “the opener,” and a new game strategy. And on that Friday at Coors Field, the movement spread to the Dodgers and the NL West, as Alexander pitched the first inning of an 11-8 win over the Rockies. The Dodgers employed the strategy again yesterday in Pittsburgh when Daniel Hudson started against the Pirates.

After learning of what the Rays were doing with Romo, Alexander approached Dodgers bullpen coach Mark Prior in the bullpen during a May 28 game at Dodger Stadium. There Alexander “half-jokingly” broached the idea with Prior, saying he would be open to “opening” for the Dodgers.

Alexander knew the Dodgers were hurting, with Clayton Kershaw (back) soon to be back on the disabled list and the combination of Rich Hill (back), Kenta Maeda (hip strain), and Hyun-Jin Ryu (groin) already housed there. He knew the Dodgers were short on starters. He knew they were leaning more and more on inexperienced arms, that they might want to shield their young starters from having to work through a lineup three or more times. He knew the Dodgers prided themselves on finding solutions, even if they were uncommon ones.

“I had never seen it before,” Alexander said of Romo starting. “I told [Prior] that I could do it if they needed me to. I knew that we were maybe thinking about experimenting and we were calling up some guys with the injuries… I didn’t think too much about it.”

Alexander may have not thought too much about his proposal, but Prior followed up their conversation by relaying it to other Dodgers personnel.

“I talked to [Roberts],” Prior told FanGraphs. “I said ‘Hey, [Alexander] is definitely open-minded.’”

Prior said it was brought up again during a coaches’ meeting.

“We brought it up there,” Prior said. “He’s a ground-ball pitcher, and we’re in Colorado… Everyone kind of kicked it around. ‘OK. Sounds good. Let’s go.’”

That the Dodgers are copy-catting a strategy more or less introduced by the Rays a couple weeks ago shows how quickly an idea can spread in Major League Baseball. It’s certainly not an isolated case. Consider how substantially hitting philosophy and the emphasis on launch angle has changed since Statcast started measuring it. Consider how quickly shifts proliferated before peaking last season. Teams are not only turning to their bullpens more often but are now moving away from traditional roles.

But it’s how this idea spread to Los Angeles that is of interest to this author.

“We weren’t thinking about it,” said Prior of the club considering using an “opener” up until that point. “We’ve always thought about [Alexander] as more than just a lefty specialist. We’ve thought about him going multiple innings because he can be efficient. It just so happened that we needed someone that day, and given Colorado’s lineup with the lefties at the top, it made sense to get him through the fourth or fifth hitter and then go to someone else.”

The spread of the opener to Los Angeles was not a top-down directive from an analytically minded front office; rather, it was player-driven. It was an idea that trickled from the bottom-up. What does that say about how communication is evolving within major-league teams?

“I kind of view it as more of a collaboration or partnership,” said Prior of interacting with players. “My specific job is to make them feel good, feel confident, to try and help them. I don’t think it’s the [role] of me, a coach, to tell a player what to do. That’s definitely changing in a lot of places, specifically here. ‘Let’s talk about it. Let’s come together and figure out a solution.’ With Scotty, we have open and honest communication where he feels comfortable enough to say that.”

The other lesson here is how Romo and Alexander adapted. Neither appears to have been affected by pitching in an unusual role or unfamiliar inning. Hudson opened with a scoreless frame on Thursday at PNC Park.

Alexander did alter some of his routine.

“I walked into the clubhouse and acted like I was telling Siri to play my starter playlist,” Alexander said. “I had fun with it.”

Some of his routine was the same. He went out for BP and stretched. But he warmed up as the Dodgers batted in the top of the first.

“As a player, you do what you’re asked to do. It’s our job. In our situation, to help a team out… we don’t really second guess it. ‘OK, what do I have to do to get ready?’” Alexander said. “It wasn’t a real start. I wasn’t over-hyped. If anything, it was less adrenaline because I am used to pitching in the seventh or eighth, or extra innings, in close games. Pitching in the first inning, it almost felt like no one was paying attention… It felt more like a spring training.”

Alexander pitched into the second. He faced six batters, recorded four outs, allowed two hits and a run. Dennis Santana followed with 3.2 innings as the Dodgers employed six pitchers to cobble together a win.

The box-score evidence:

“[Romo opening] was different,” Alexander said. “I don’t think a lot of teams are going to start to doing it. In our case, we had Santana making his debut [last Friday] in a really difficult environment to pitch in… Sometimes you have to do different things in order to keep yourself in the game. It’s obviously not stupid, but it’s different.”

It is different. It is probably not stupid, at least in some situations. And “opening” has now spread to the Dodgers. We’ll have to wait and see how widespread the practice becomes, but how the idea is spreading might be as interesting as the idea itself.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Doug Lampertmember
5 years ago

The question really isn’t “can the opener do it”, he’s got an easier job than normal relief. It’s can the inning eater who follows him do it?

Santana is used to starting, which lets him know when he’ll come in and always start a clean inning. Having an opener changes his role in ways that make it slightly harder, OTOH, he got a win for 3.2 innings, which is not something that happens for starters, so it’s not all bad.

(Usual added comment: WAR for starters and relievers is increasingly broken, you need an adjustment for appearance length, not based on who “started” the game.)

5 years ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

I thought WAR was adjusted for the leverage, not simply for whether it is a starter or reliever?

Daniel Kingmember
5 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

No, WAR isn’t a situational stat. Fangraphs’ version is based on FIP.

5 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

WAR is not leverage adjusted; it is a context neutral statistic.

The expected performance levels that are replacement level ARE different, as its easier to pitch well in relief.

Sean Dolinarmember
5 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

There is a leverage factor for relief pitcher WAR:

Daniel Kingmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

I wouldn’t say it’s broken. WAR is based on an adjusted FIP and scaled to innings pitched. If you want to look at situational stats, that’s what WPA is for.

edit: didn’t know they used different replacement levels for starters vs relievers. You could do something different based on length, but until this is a widely used strategy I’m not sure it would be worth it.

5 years ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

Pitcher WAR is based on FIP and FIP does factor in appearance length (it’s the denominator for the entire calculation, other than the offset designed to make FIP look more like ERA). On the various Fangraphs pages you can split out starters and relievers (because “games started” is a stat that is tracked) but that’s no different than splitting out batting stats by position for multi-position players, or pinch-hitting vs starting, etc.

However, despite what a couple of people have said, TKDC is correct and pitcher WAR does incorporate leverage — for relievers. From that first link above:

Then we need to add in replacement level, which is different for starters and relievers. After that we scale the number based on innings pitched. For relievers, we also add a leverage component.

The leverage is “devalued” to some extent because relievers aren’t entirely responsible for the leverage (since they often inherit it from a meltdown by a previous pitcher): see this post by Dave Cameron (from a long time ago — and note the argument about “WAR doesn’t value relievers correctly” goes back pretty much to the beginning of WAR)

Doug Lampertmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Joser

Starters get a lower replacement FIP, a starter and reliever can produce identical results over an identical number of innings in a game with an average leverage, and the reliever gets (far) less WAR because the replacement levels differ. The replacement levels differ because it’s assumed that short appearances are easier than long ones.

Santana got less WAR for this than he’d have gotten if he started, even ignoring leverage, because he’s now a “reliever”, the opener got more WAR because as a “starter” he faces a lower replacement level.

5 years ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

I’d argue that an “opener” facing the opposition’s top of the lineup right out of the gate is at least as difficult as almost any other situation a reliever might encounter.

5 years ago
Reply to  BobbyJohn69

On paper it’s a lot harder. Speaking from experience though , the reduced pressure compared to late and close games does a lot for an athlete.

tramps like us
5 years ago
Reply to  BobbyJohn69

makes perfect sense, since the first inning, statistically, is THE single-highest scoring inning.