In the past fortnight, the Tampa Bay Rays have taken to their latest strategical experiment -- the so-called "opener," a rearrangement of order that asks a middle reliever to pitch before the day's starter as a means of gaining advantageous matchups. The Rays will continue to employ the opener on Thursday, when Ryan Stanek takes the mound against the Oakland Athletics.
Whether or not the strategy works -- and works well enough to justify the hassle it presents to the pitchers involved and thus be emulated by other teams -- is to be determined at a later date. What is to be discussed in the present is a consequence of the strategy heretofore untouched: how does it impact statistics, and by extension, stats-tracking websites?
Though the opener strategy remains an infant, its already causing terrible-two levels of metric madness. The Rays have the majors' lowest pitches- (77) and innings-per-start (4.7) ratios -- no other team is below 85 or 5.0 per pop. Additionally, the Rays' 16 quality starts are the fewest in the American League -- a somewhat misleading ranking, considering the Rays don't intend for an their openers to last more than one inning, let alone the required six. To wit, career reliever Sergio Romo now ranks third among healthy Rays in starts. Romo has two successes (resulting in a total of 2 ⅓ innings) and two failures (resulting in first-inning departures). The days of James Shields tossing a guaranteed six innings every time out have past.
Nonetheless, those who run point at the internet's top baseball stats websites aren't concerned -- not yet, anyway. "The opener is not really an issue for us," said Sean Forman, president of Sports Reference LLC and creator of Baseball Reference. "We just treat them as starting pitchers and compute the stats in the normal way. If it becomes more widespread I suppose there is a possibility that we'd need to rework some of our sabermetric stats." Harry Pavlidis, the director of technology at Baseball Prospectus, agreed with Forman's sentiment.
For now, both sites will continue to treat the Rays' openers as traditional starters. That could change in time, however. Forman conceded Baseball Reference might tweak their leaderboards were Romo to end up among the league leaders in starts -- a possibility if the Rays continue to tap him two or three times a week the rest of the way. Pavlidis said BP could resort to redefining how it labels pitchers by basing it around their workload -- an opener who works an inning and leaves would be treated as a reliever, while a multi-inning "continuer" would fit in as a starter.
Another idea proposed in the baseball internet community was to create a new statistic designed to honor whoever threw the most innings in a game. Whatever the new metric would be called would essentially replace "starts." All of these measures are dependent on the opener proving to be a Sandy-Danny relationship -- or more than a summer fling. "This is going to come down to a question of magnitude, "Pavlidis said. "Is this truly a lasting change in pitching roles -- something more than a glut of bullpen games that, in the grand scheme, will be lost in the wash."
From an outsider's perspective, this season -- the one of Shohei Ohtani and now the opener -- would seem to be a most challenging one for data hounds and data presenters. But, as with a Romo start, not everything is as it appears. Forman divulged that switch-pitcher Pat Venditte (who, by the way, has resurfaced this year) presented a great challenge than either of this season's developments. Or, as Pavlidis put it: "MLB presents [B.S.] baseball every September and we don't freak out about that."