The Tampa Bay Rays are insane. I don’t think you’d see many people argue with that after they announced before the season that they were deliberately going to have a “bullpen day” in lieu of carrying a fifth starter for the rotation. Then they were given bad news when it turned out that flamethrower Nathan Eovaldi hadn’t fully recovered from his 2016 Tommy John surgery, but the Rays just shrugged and announced they would then do two bullpen days every turn through the rotation. They actually still used four standard starters for the beginning of the season, but in mid-May the team fully committed to the two bullpen days after rookie starter Yonny Chirinos hit the disabled list.
There is clear evidence for why a bullpen day is a better strategy than utilizing a regular starting pitcher. First is the third time through the order penalty. A pitcher performs worse against a lineup the more he faces them in a game, which is partially why starters don’t go beyond the 6th inning as much anymore, much to the chagrin of Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris. The second reason is related to the first; not only do pitchers suffer the more they face a lineup, but they are at their best the first time they face a batter. Finally, teams are doing a much better job at stacking their best hitters atop their lineups, so the hope is to use a reliever in the first inning to neutralize those top hitters, then the next pitcher can throw multiple innings and his manager can hope that his third time facing the hitters comes against the lesser players in the lineup.
In addition to the on-field benefits, an organization is completely messing with the money a player could make through arbitration. After compiling three full years of service time in the majors where he’s typically earning an amount at or near the league minimum salary, the next three years are spent going through arbitration. The player and his team submit salary figures and if they are unable to agree to an amount, an arbiter chooses either the player’s or the team’s salary for the upcoming season. However, since the three-person panel is often comprised of people with little to no knowledge of baseball, both sides are typically stuck using elementary and archaic stats to argue their case, such as innings pitched, wins, home runs, etc. By using bullpen days, a team could hand a bunch of starts to a cavalry of relievers and sabotage their innings accumulated, and the wins a traditional starter would earn may actually go to a different pitcher. Admittedly, this practice is financially terrible for the players and rather exploitative of the organization, hence why the Rays would find it appealing.
Thus far, I would think the Rays’ experiment has gone about as well as anyone could have expected, as they are currently 41-40 despite already jettisoning Denard Span, Brad Miller, and Alex Colome. It is not unusual to see a game where they start with a reliever pumping mid-90s gas into the zone, and then a long reliever such as Ryan Yarbrough, Matt Andriese, or Austin Pruitt follows with 2-4 innings in relief. It has also created some oddities, such as Jonny Venters and Sergio Romo getting their first major league starts after being strictly relievers for their entire careers, or Romo starting three consecutive games, or Ryne Stanek going nine consecutive starts without allowing a run (though he pitched just 13 2⁄3 innings).
Just a few days ago, the Twins started experimenting with this with Trevor May. Currently in the minor leagues working his way back from 2017 Tommy John surgery, he has been utilized as both a starter and reliever in his career and the same has been the case at Triple-A Rochester this summer. However, he made headlines when he replaced traditional starter Zach Littell as Rochester’s starting pitcher on Sunday, only to pitch just one inning before being replaced by Littell, who then threw 5 2⁄3 innings. Additionally, Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press noted that Paco Rodriguez had done the same thing twice for Double-A Chattanooga.
Ignoring the financial implications, I think the Twins are experimenting with this to see if it should be implemented at the major league level. I’m even willing to think that the organization is getting their minor league players used to it in order to use the strategy in the major leagues within the next couple years. It would make sense, as teams typically fill out the back end of their rotations with players that might be too good for Triple-A but aren’t quite good enough to succeed in the majors. We’ve seen that ourselves with Fernando Romero, Adalberto Mejia, Littell, Aaron Slegers, and Phil Hughes all making starts in the fifth rotation spot with mixed results.
Thus, what would this look like for the current Twins pitching staff? Like the Rays are currently doing, there still has to be a group of starting pitchers capable of taking the mound every fifth day. For the Rays, that’s Chris Archer, Blake Snell, and either Eovaldi or Jacob Faria. With Ervin Santana returning to the rotation on Wednesday, the team now has a full rotation in addition to Jake Odorizzi, Jose Berrios, Lance Lynn, and Kyle Gibson.
But, let’s say that Santana isn’t fully healthy after his finger surgery, so there’s still an open spot in the rotation. The aforementioned Romero, Littell, Mejia, and Slegers are no longer starting games and will instead enter in the 2nd or 3rd inning. The “openers,” as it appears we are dubbing the 1-2 inning starting pitcher around baseball, should be pitchers that excel in short stints and often against a particular type of hitter. For example, the Rays gave Romo starts because he was capable of shutting down righthanded hitters. However, they also have kept certain players as strict relievers, such as Jose Alvarado, Chaz Roe, Diego Castillo and (while he was still with the team) Colome. In this thought experiment, since Fernando Rodney is the closer, Zach Duke and Taylor Rogers are LOOGYs, Matt Magill is the current long reliever, and Matt Belisle has struggled against everyone, they all will be candidates to remain in the bullpen.
That would leave Ryan Pressly and Trevor Hildenberger to be the “openers,” and we’d have two solid pitchers in two completely different ways. Pressly is capable of overpowering hitters while Hildenberger generates weak contact with his funky sidearm delivery. Even better, Hildenberger’s change-up has allowed him to decimate lefthanded hitters in his career, while Pressly has been better against righties. Every fifth day, Paul Molitor could choose which of the two would start depending on the lineup the opposing team would trot out. Then, this pitcher would be followed by the flavor of the week between Mejia, Slegers, Romero, and Littell. With all those players having their options used this season, they could be shuttled back and forth from Triple-A at will with the 10-day waiting period for recalls after demotions being the only obstacle. Once those pitchers had tossed their multiple innings, the rest of the game would continue as normal.
There is the argument that the opposing team could rearrange its lineup so the opener would be burned on the weakest hitters, but we have yet to see that. A good example was when Romo faced the Angels two consecutive times so he could pitch to Ian Kinsler, Mike Trout, Justin Upton, and Albert Pujols, yet Angels manager Mike Scioscia made no attempt to juggle his lineup to take advantage of the one inning Romo was in the game. (Romo ended up with no hits allowed, 2 walks, and 6 strikeouts in 2 1⁄3 innings pitched against Los Angeles.)
Who knows if the Twins will even attempt the concept of the “opener” before the end of the season. However, with it sprouting up in Double-A and Triple-A, I bet we’ll see its first instance in a Twins uniform sometime within the next couple years.