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Major League Baseball followers are certainly familiar with the various pitching roles — starter, long reliever, middle reliever, seventh-inning specialist, eighth-inning or set-up man and closer.
But professional baseball appears to be changing — in various directions.
The national pastime is already being recognized as a game of home runs, walks and strikeouts. That’s not a pleasing forecast.
But definitely attracting the ire of baseball purists and old-timers is the change in pitching trends.
The era of the “opener,” a term arguably coined by the Tampa Bay Rays, threatens to lessen the prominence of the game’s top starting pitchers.
Days could be numbered for the likes of Justin Verlander (Houston Astros), Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals), Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians), Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers), Madison Bumgarner (San Francisco Giants), Chris Sale (Boston Red Sox), Blake Snell (Tampa Bay) , Jake Odorizzi (Minnesota Twins), Stephen Strasburg (Washington Nationals), Charlie Morton (Tampa Bay) and others.
Complete games are practically extinct. Pitching six innings and allowing three earned runs or less is a quality start. The target number is 100 pitches — which are frequently reached in six innings. Less innings and less arm stress lengthen careers.
But, in a few years, the genuine starting pitcher could be obsolete.
Blame the opener.
His assignment is to work the first one to three innings.
Mike Petriello, an MLB.com analyst and host of the Statcast podcast, recently reported the opener was utilized in some 60 instances in 2018.
Credited with resorting to that tactic the majority of the time was, ironically, Tampa Bay, although possessing a trio of top-shelf starters in Snell, the 2018 Cy Young winner in the American League; Morton and Tyler Glasnow.
We’re told the opener is a recourse for teams not deep in starting pitchers.
Matchups are also involved and pitchers who would normally be starting would see hitters throughout the lineup one less time.
Another new tendency is that of preferring to not allow the starting pitcher to face the opposing team’s batting order a third time.
The game is fast becoming all about analytics, tendencies, statistics and technology.
The introduction of the opener spawns more new pitching terms — bulk reliever (hardly flattering) and/or primary pitcher (more appealing). And, oh, yes, there’s the swing guy.
The bulk reliever or primary pitcher follows the opener and is expected to work five or six effective innings. The swing guy may start the game one day and finish the game the next day.
The some 60 opener appearances of last season have already about been matched with the Rays being joined by the Oakland Athletics, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. Considering the experiment are the Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants.
It’s worrisome for a lot of us.
Celebrities at the most recent Wilson chapter of the Hot Stove League were asked their opinions.
Lonnie Chisenhall, who had just signed a deal with the Pirates, could see the value of the opener and expected its use to increase. However, from a hitter’s standpoint, Chisenhall, the featured speaker at the January banquet, admitted he was not looking forward to the prospect of facing as many as four pitchers just once during the course of the game.
Incidentally, Chisenhall has yet to play an inning with the Pirates, his new team. He started the season on the injured list because of a broken finger.
Chisenhall’s rehab assignment has been delayed because of a calf problem — a similar injury to the one that sidelined him most of the 2018 campaign. He was placed on the 60-day injured list on May 25 and, at best, will probably not be available until mid-August.
Frequent banquet visitor Butch Davis chose to spoke guardedly because of his position as the hitting coach for the Norfolk Tides, the Triple-A farm club of the Orioles.
“Maybe the teams didn’t have starting pitching,” Davis reasoned. “Maybe they had three starters. It may be a trend that will continue. If a pitcher can go three innings, he can go three innings.
“I’m old school. If you’ve got four good pitchers, let them take the ball and go as long as they can.
However, Davis warns that, with today’s technology, changers are inevitable.
Monty Montgomery, who pitched for the Kansas City Royals in the 1970s, was more outspoken. He didn’t sound like he would ever be a fan of the opener.
“We are looking at a trend right now that I hope doesn’t last,” Montgomery expressed. “I don’t like the concept of starting pitchers being limited to three innings or 60 pitches.”
However, Montgomery was prophetic with his statement: “As long as it works, more teams will be trying it.”
The opener concept has certainly worked for the Rays. Tampa Bay won 90 games in 2018 and nearly made the playoffs. The Rays have started 2019 as one of the major leagues’ best teams, currently contending in the American League East Division with a 41-26 record.
Montgomery is concerned about the overall state of baseball.
“Baseball has been such a magnificent sport,” he contended. “We need to stop somewhere; we have the potential to screw it up.”
Where can we turn?
“We have creataed the greatest game ever — such beauty, such symmetry,” Montgomery declared. “But with what we can do with hitting and defense and how we can continue to close games, God forbid.”
“I’m not going to lose my love for the game. I’m just going to be mighty disappointed.”