This season the Tampa Bay Rays have been using what is commonly known as ‘The Opener’. By that I mean they have been using an individual who is usually a reliever by trade to start the game for them and then pitch somewhere between 1 and 2 innings before being replaced. That is in comparison to the more tradition approach of having a starting pitcher go as far as they can, 90 to 100 pitches through 5+ innings, before relieving them.
The reason behind this approach was the Rays picked up some injuries preseason and were in a difficult position of how best to pitch their games without having 5 fit starters good enough to pitch at the top level. The second part of that statement is key, they obviously had starters in their AAA, AA system but they determined moving them up to the majors would be detrimental in the long run. Recently teams have been doing bullpen days where the whole 9 innings need to be completed by the bullpen but the Rays knew this was probably going to be a season long issue and wanted to develop this further.
This approach, like most other new methods in baseball, is incredibly polarising. For some this will ruin the foundations of baseball itself and for others it is great way for a small team to utilise its players best to give them a higher chance of winning. I would love to write an article about how this is doing but there simply hasn’t been enough games using the opener yet to determine anything statistically significant. But what can talk about is the way which it is already breaking records and set to break more and maybe even the arbitration process. Along the way I hope to dispel some of the myths about the opener and why the win is a useless statistic, all data in this article is accurate as of the end of the games on 26/08/18.
The Rays are on course to have the most innings pitched by relievers in a MLB season ever, in fact they are already second on that list with 638.1 innings even though they have 20% of the season left. The Rockies relievers pitcher 657 innings in 2012 and the Rays are currently projected to have 793 innings pitch by relievers come the end the season. But they aren’t using more relievers than the other teams, they are averaging 3.23 relievers for this season which 15th most in the MLB this year. They aren’t using more pitchers than average while utilising this approach they are just pitching longer, averaging 1.51 innings pitched per reliever which is the most by any team since 1992. And as you might have guessed this also means they are on for the lowest amount of innings pitched by starters in 162 season and the lowest ever average number of innings pitched by starters, currently at 4.05.
They are also on track to pick up the most wins by relievers ever, currently at (41-20) by the 2016 Rangers. The Rays have already tied that mark being at 41-31 so far and are projected a further 9 wins before the end of the season. They may also pick up the most losses as well but are currently projected for 38 which would put them two behind the 2013 Astros (14-40) record.
One of the reasons for this is the definition for a win is actually more complicated than you might think, the standard part is that a pitcher receives a win when he is the pitcher of record when his team takes the lead for good. But there are two exceptions to this rule.
Firstly, a starting pitcher must pitch at least five innings to qualify for the win. If he does not, the official scorer awards the win to the most effective relief pitcher. And secondly the official scorer can deem a relief pitcher’s appearance “brief and ineffective” and not award them the win. Which relief pitcher earns the win specifically is also up to the judgment of the official scorer.
So for the Rays there is one individual who has taken advantage of this the most and that is the rookie Ryan Yarbrough. He has started 6 games and come on as a reliever 26 times. He currently is on a record of (12-5) with 10 of those wins coming from relief appearances, that puts him joint 16th overall for wins this season. And sorry Rays fans but he is most definitely not one of the top pitchers in baseball right now.
But he is on for setting some pretty interesting numbers for a Rookie, his 10 wins puts him joint 15th all time for wins from a rookie reliever. If he makes it to 12 he will have equalled the most since 1986, when Mark Eichhorn recorded 14 wins in 69 relief appearances. His yearly innings pitcher per game in relief is 3.39 which is 6th overall and 2nd for a Rookie, for players with 10 or more appearances. And finally he is currently has a win rate in relief of 38.5% which is the highest by any relief pitcher ever with 10 or more appearances in a season.
There is a second rookie who is also potentially going break records this year. Ryne Stanek has been the player used as the opener most, he has started 21 games and pitched a total of 31 2/3 innings. Unsurprisingly his 1.486 innings pitched per start is the lowest ever but the better record he stands the chance of breaking is the following. At 21 starts he has past the record, of 15 starts, for the most starts in season without earning a win, he will need to not pick up a win in his remaining game which is very likely based on the fact he won’t pitch 5 innings.
Now what makes this interesting is that although the importance placed on wins, and losses, has decreased among statisticians and baseball fans in the past few decades, the one area it is still used is in salary arbitration. This is a murky part of baseball where the full goings on never sees the light of day but may players have talked about how many of the old stats are used to help determine the salary value. So this potentially means that Ryan Yarbrough is playing his way into a better future contract because of the opener method.
So, hopefully from reading this you have realised that the win is a pointless statistic for gauging a pitchers worth not only because it is relies on the performance of the offence around them but the fact that it can be arbitrarily be determined by the official scorer. And that the Rays are breaking baseball