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.
Number of starting pitchers used by Dodgers:
2018: 11 (so far, including Daniel Hudson today)
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) June 7, 2018
“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.