The 2018 season brought with it a number of unexpected developments. The Braves won their division! The Athletics were good! Max Muncy hit 35 home runs! But those sorts of developments are why we watch baseball: the unexpected and the fun. There was another development in the 2018 season, though: the return of the opener, a baseball strategy that isn’t novel, but had mostly fallen out of fashion. It started with Tampa Bay and Sergio Romo, then spread through the rest of the league. Even teams like the Dodgers, who always seem to have more competent starting pitchers than available rotation spots, employed the strategy. The Athletics even used an opener for their playoff game against the Yankees, though there it was borne more from necessity.
The baseball logic for the opener is pretty straightforward. We know that pitchers, especially starting pitchers, face a times-through-the-order penalty. In general, the more times a hitter faces the same pitcher in a game, the worse the results will be for the pitcher and the better the results will be for the hitter. This makes intuitive sense. Pitchers get tired; batters adjust. Pitchers make more mistakes when they get tired, and hitters gather more data the more they see of a pitcher’s repertoire. An opener can help mitigate that. Having a reliever, especially one with a handedness advantage, face the top of the order in the first inning means that the pitcher who comes in afterwards won’t face that third-time-through-the-order penalty – at least, in theory. A pitcher who begins his night by facing the middle of a team’s order instead of the top can go five innings and face the top of the order only once – again, in theory.
“[The opener is] really smart, but it’s also really bad for baseball,” Arizona starter Zack Greinke says. “It’s just a sideshow. There’s always ways to get a little advantage, but the main problem I have with it is you do it that way, then you’ll end up never paying any player what he’s worth because you’re not going to have guys starting, you’re not going to have guys throwing innings.
“You just keep shuffling guys in and out constantly so nobody will ever get paid. Someone’s going to make the money, either the owners or the players. You keep doing it that way, the players won’t make any money.”
Let’s take a look at what Greinke means by this, beginning with salary arbitration. Remember that in salary arbitration, the team and player each submit a proposed salary figure, and then a hearing is held before three arbitrators (not arbiters!) who select one figure or the other. Now, understand that salary arbitrators are typically randomly selected labor lawyers. And while some have a comprehensive knowledge of baseball, it isn’t their day job: arbitrators usually hear many different types of cases, with many different fact patterns. That means that a baseball salary arbitrator may well also arbitrate cases on entirely different matters.
Why does that matter? Because of which statistics end up being used in salary arbitration. The 2016 Collective Bargaining Agreement contains some procedural rules limiting the admissibility of statistics.
Only publicly available statistics shall be admissible. For purposes of this provision, publicly available statistics shall include data available through subscription-only websites (e.g., Baseball Prospectus). Statistics and data generated through the use of performance technology, wearable technology, or “STATCAST”, whether publicly available or not, shall not be admissible.
Many salary arbitrators aren’t well versed in sabermetrics or advanced analytics. As a result, the statistics being used tend to be basic – very basic. In developing their arbitration projection model, Matt Swartz and MLBTradeRumors noted as much.
Hitters are typically evaluated using batting average, home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases and plate appearances. There are some positional adjustments, but typically the added defensive value of a shortstop relative to a first baseman is not as important in arbitration hearings as it is on the free agent market. Hitters also can receive larger arbitration awards if they have unique accomplishments, such as winning an MVP award. Pitchers typically are evaluated using innings pitched and earned run average. Starting pitchers are rewarded for wins, and relievers are rewarded for saves and holds. Unique accomplishments, such as Cy Young Awards, matter for pitchers as well.
So Ryne Stanek and Ryan Yarbrough, for instance, are left in a sort of no-man’s-land when it comes to comparable players for the purposes of salary arbitration. Consider: Stanek’s underlying numbers are very good– a 30.8% K%, a 10.3% BB%, a 72 ERA-, and a 87 FIP-. By most measures, Stanek had an incredibly successful season. But he also only pitched 66.1 innings despite starting 29 games. And for a starter in arbitration, that’s an unacceptably low number. And should Stanek’s team market him as a one-inning reliever, his representatives have to contend with his lack of saves and paltry hold total.
Then there’s Ryan Yarbrough. He had a pretty good year, too, with 147.1 innings pitched, decent peripherals, a 94 ERA-, and sixteen wins. Except, those are pretty good numbers for a starter, and Yarbrough wasn’t that in 2018, starting only six games. And with no saves and no holds, his earning potential is suppressed even further.
It gets worse for players in positions like this. Under the CBA, the arbitrators are given a list of criteria upon which to base their decisions.
The criteria will be the quality of the Player’s contribution to his Club during the past season (including but not limited to his overall performance, special qualities of leadership and public appeal), the length and consistency of his career contribution, the record of the Player’s past compensation, comparative baseball salaries (see paragraph (11) below for confidential salary data), the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the Player, and the recent performance record of the Club including but not limited to its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance….
There are no real comparable players for Stanek or Yarbrough, because the opener is a newly resurgent phenomenon, one the arbitration system has relatively little experience evaluating. That means Tampa Bay can safely compare Stanek to other starting pitchers and Yarbrough to other relievers, and in so doing, likely obtain smaller arbitration salaries. And the opener strategy has other effects as well. Closers and starters get more recognition from casual fans, for good or ill. Had Yarbrough won sixteen games as a full time starter this year, he would have received more buzz than he did as a long reliever, though being in a Rays uniform may have put a damper on his star wattage regardless of the innings he threw. Stanek’s numbers are worthy of the high leverage part of a bullpen, and arguably more impressive given that he faced the top of the order in so many of his appearances. And yet, he’s virtually unknown. That, too, holds down salaries, as teams argue that openers aren’t draws.
Bill Baer talked about this issue for HardballTalk back in May, noting that “[t]eams will use whatever information they can to avoid having to pay a player more money.” And he’s right, of course. But this is an issue that goes beyond arbitration. To show why, let’s use Ernesto Frieri’s 2015 contract with Tampa, which included significant incentives based on games finished, as an example. If the Rays had, in 2015, opted to use Frieri as an opener instead, he wouldn’t have been able to obtain those bonuses irrespective of his performance; he could have pitched the whole season without allowing a run and still not seen a dime of his games-finished bonus money.
Now, you may be wondering why teams don’t just provide different bonuses. If starts-made bonuses are going the way of the dinosaur, let’s give Yarbrough and Happ a wins-based bonus, for example. Except that Major League Rule 3(b)(5) says this:
No Major League Uniform Player’s Contract or Minor League Uniform Player Contract shall be approved if it contains a bonus for playing, pitching or batting skill or if it provides for the payment of a bonus contingent on the standing of the signing Club at the end of the championship season.
So our wins-based bonus is out. Teams are prohibited from giving Stanek a bonus based on strikeouts per nine innings or earned run average. Now, there still are some options. J.A. Happ’s new Yankees contract, for example, contains an incentive that triggers a vesting option after 27 games started or 165 innings pitched in 2019. That innings-pitched language was likely included by his agents in an attempt to anticipate the range of possible ways the Yankees might use the left-hander. But the problem remains that for the openers, such insurance is hard to come by. Given which bonuses are permissible — such as innings pitched and starts made for starters and games finished for relievers — the opener carries with it the possibility of manipulation. In other words, the opener seems like it could be an effective way for teams to limit pitcher salaries. And given the “baseball reasons” teams can provide for decisions that impact bonuses, it seems as if it would be difficult for a player to effectively argue bad faith on the part of the team, especially given the plausible baseball reasons for the opener.
So what’s the solution for players? The current structure of salary arbitration, and its attendant imperfections, deserves a post all its own, so I won’t address that here. But the MLBPA does seem to have been caught flatfooted by the resurgence of this particular innovation. For all the talk of banning shifts, the opener seems a much more appropriate subject for discussion when we consider what sort of game it is we want to have. And as for incentives, additional language in the next CBA concerning protections for player bonuses makes a lot of sense.
But part of this is also how we talk about the strategy. As we praise the Rays for ushering in a new era of pitching strategy, it’s worth taking a second look at why teams are so eager to adopt the opener, and ask some questions. Not every team is equipped with the right personnel, or will have the buy-in necessary, to successfully implement the opener over the course of an entire season, but some are. The Rays’ rotation was beset with injuries, as was the A’s; both teams operate on scant budgets and turned to strategy to address a pressing need. But that wasn’t true of every team that made use of the opener in 2018. Are teams using the strategy because it improves their chances of winning, or are them employing it because it presents another opportunity to hem in payroll? Or is it some combination of the two? The opener makes for engaging, innovative baseball. It can help teams win. But that’s not all it might do.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.