On the one-year anniversary of the Tampa Bay Rays’ first use of a so-called opener, the Yankees copied the concept by having Chad Green, a reliever, start the game before handing off to another reliever, Nestor Cortes Jr.
The concept did not exactly work to perfection for the Yankees, with Green and Cortes combining to allow five runs over five and two-thirds innings. But holding their own without the help of a traditional starter, Green and Cortes kept things tied at 5-5 ahead of the Yankees’ bats exploding for a seven-run sixth inning.
The end result was a 13-5 victory, with the Yankees, who have won two series against Tampa Bay over the last week, claiming a half-game lead in the American League East.
For the Yankees, the adoption of the strategy, which Tampa Bay began with Sergio Romo on May 19, 2018, came as a result of an injury to James Paxton, who said he’ll need at least one more bullpen session before returning to a game.
The Yankees’ execution on Sunday was only “O.K.” in pitching coach Larry Rothschild’s assessment. But Rothschild saw the concept’s potential because of the staff’s volume of elite relievers matching Tampa Bay’s. Last year, the Rays allowed the fewest first-inning runs in the A.L. and, after the opener’s debut, ranked third in the majors with a 3.50 E.R.A., shaving nearly a run off the 4.43 mark it had to that point.
“What they did last year was brilliant, and the results were pretty amazing. You have to have the arms to do that,” Rothschild said, adding: “We have the arms, too.”
The idea is that having an elite reliever start the game helps mitigate the damage in the first inning while reducing the long man’s exposure in the sixth — traditionally, the two highest-scoring innings each season. That has changed somewhat this season, in part because of the opener’s influence.
The first inning traditionally provides that offensive bounty because a manager can stack his best hitters at the top of the batting order while some starting pitchers need time to settle. More runs were scored in the first inning than any other inning in 41 of the last 45 seasons, dating back to 1974, the start of Baseball Reference’s complete play-by-play data. Through a quarter of the 2019 season, the first inning ranks only fourth for runs, trailing the third, fourth and sixth.
The sixth is usually the next highest-scoring inning, marking the convergence of a tiring starter or a long reliever with the heart of the opponent’s order batting for the third time.
Rays Manager Kevin Cash publicly described the rationale behind the opener simply: “a way for us to win games.” But what was born out of necessity for the small-market club worked and has been mimicked by nearly half the league, including the moneyed elite. The Tigers, Rangers, Pirates and Yankees all deployed an opener for the first time this week.
“It’s probably something that every team is going to look at as a viable option,” said Rothschild.
The success of the opener, theorized Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder, generated some awareness and “maybe changed how a lot of traditional starting pitchers approached the first inning.”
Added Cash, “I know we’ve asked our pitchers, ‘Don’t conserve anything, just go out there and, when it’s time for you to come out, we’ll come get you out.’”
No matter their methods, the Rays and Yankees have been two of the stingiest in the first, yielding the third- and fourth-fewest in the majors this season. Green threw a scoreless first on Sunday, shutting down a Tampa Bay lineup that has been baseball’s most productive in that inning season. Kendrys Morales’s run-scoring single for the Yankees plated the only first-inning run of the series.
The results, though, have varied greatly for Yankees starters. Masahiro Tanaka, Domingo German and C.C. Sabathia collectively have allowed just two first-inning runs in 25 starts this season. But J.A. Happ has allowed a combined seven runs in the first innings of his nine starts and Paxton has given up six first-inning runs in seven starts.
Both Happ and Paxton lent credence to the notion that starting pitchers need time. Happ said he usually has “gotten better as the game went on.” Paxton’s average fastball velocity rises nearly two miles per hour over the course of a start, but he said that’s “not on purpose.”
Finding timing has not been an issue for Tampa Bay’s Ryan Stanek. Since May 19, 2018, the king of openers has started 41 times — a quarter of all Rays games in that span — allowing only 10 runs in those opening frames. That’s good for a 2.23 E.R.A. in the first, which is half of his 4.48 in all other innings. Stanek, though, says his preparation remains essentially the same.
“I feel like not as much changes as people think,” said Stanek, who on Sunday was wearing a custom T-shirt in Rays colors featuring a can opener and a soup tin bearing the label, “Openers are humans too.”