Between Shohei Ohtani, Andrelton Simmons and Mike Trout, the Angels have been more or less appointment viewing as of late. If you tuned in to either of their games against the Rays over the weekend (and you don't pledge allegiance to one team or the other), that's likely why you were there. But there was another compelling reason, as the Rays did something which could turn out to be of great import to baseball strategy going forward.
Whether or not you're a Giants or Tigers fan, you might be at least familiar-in-passing with Sergio Romo, who closed out San Francisco's 2012 World Series victory when he caught soon-to-be AL MVP Miguel Cabrera looking on a pitch that likely still haunts Miggy's dreams. While Romo was an important part of the Giants' homegrown core that won three World Series, he's not mentioned in the same breath as, say, Madison Bumgarner or Buster Posey, because he was a reliever, and not even the closer for the duration of their ring-heavy run. Prior to this weekend, Romo had appeared in 588 games, but had never started one. After this weekend, he has officially started two, and has brought the term "opener" into modern parlance.
If you aren't closely following the standings, you might think this is simply a gimmick by a team with nothing to lose, as the Rays play in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, who sport the best records in baseball. But the Rays are only 4.5 games out of a Wild Card spot right now, with almost 75% of the season left to play. This wasn't spring training (despite what Zack Cozart would have you believe). Nope, this was the Rays doing what they could with the cards they were given in order to increase their chances of winning a couple of baseball games.
The Rays' intended starters, true rookie LHP Ryan Yarbrough and second-year rookie LHP Anthony Banda, were going to have their innings limited no matter when they came in the game, thanks to the both their youth and the Rays' aggressive approach to the times-through-the-order penalty. The Rays have employed nine different starters so far, and are no stranger to bullpen games thanks to injuries and a lack of depth, but starting the game with a pitcher who is basically a right-handed specialist was still a bold move. With the lack of Ohtani in the batter's box over the weekend, though, the Angels' extremely righty-heavy lineup made it an all too-enticing opportunity for manager Kevin Cash and company to pass up.
In terms of results, it certainly worked out on Saturday, as Romo struck out the side, consisting of right-handed batters Cozart, Trout and Justin Upton. The Rays' offense spotted ostensible starter Yarbrough a four-run lead before he took the mound in the second inning and the Rays went on to win the game. Sunday's game against Ohtani ended in a loss, but Romo pitched a clean inning and a third, so it was far from a failure of methodology.
Given their budget limitations, the Rays walk a razor-thin margin and need every little advantage they can gain. With the Angels' righty-heavy top-of-the-lineup, a traditional opposing manager in Mike Scioscia and a player like Romo (with a .192 AVG and a .288 OBP allowed against right-handed hitters this season) to fill in for a few-plus hitters and give the Rays' starter one less go-around against the Angels' best hitters, the arguments against this come down solely to non-statistical issues.
Those issues aren't unimportant, though, because pitchers are creatures of habit and not every starter is going to be OK with starting the game in the second inning. When it doesn't work, the internet comments will be capitalized. But that last bit is hardly an argument against the "opener" as a concept. In regards to the particulars of pitchers' needs, each team will have to assess the individual circumstances. But I, for one, am pretty sure that goes hand-in-hand with the whole "managing" thing.
We've seen the import of pitchers' "titles" diminish over the past couple of seasons, due in no small part to the Indians' rewriting the rules in 2016. The Rays are no strangers to forward thinking, and there's no sign that they're going to stop. As more and more teams seem to assimilate into a front office mind meld when it comes to analytic strategy, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect the most adventurous of those offices to come up with creative ways to exploit even the tiniest advantages. We saw it happen this weekend, and it's pretty likely that we'll be seeing more of it in the future. All hail the opener.