Lindbergh: The rise of the opener isn’t just changing baseball, it’s changing how we analyze the game

From SABR member Ben Lindbergh at The Ringer on March 25, 2019:

Tampa Bay Ray Ryan Yarbrough had a strong rookie season in 2018, throwing 147 1/3 innings, recording an ERA well below the league average, and finishing fifth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. He also had a strange rookie season, making only six starts—the fewest for a pitcher with as many innings pitched since 1986. Yarbrough was a “bulk guy,” a term he helped coin. When the Rays used an opener, Yarbrough was often the arm tasked with taking the ball second and delivering a lead to the late-inning relievers. In 20 of his 32 appearances out of the pen, Yarbrough entered in the third inning or earlier, and in 18 of 32, he lasted at least four innings.

In the first year of the opener, multiple writers, as well as Diamondbacks starter Zack Greinke, suggested that the strategy might save teams money by transferring innings from well-compensated starters to interchangeable relievers. That may not be true on a long-term or across-the-board basis: If teams value openers and bulk guys, they’ll probably pay more to employ them on an inning-per-inning basis. But in the short term, it could cost some individual pitchers, particularly those in their arbitration years, whose salaries depend on a process that relies largely on comparisons to past players and—because arbitrators tend not to be well-versed in sabermetric measures—typically depends on basic statistical benchmarks like games started. Yarbrough won’t be eligible for arbitration until after 2020, but he’s already felt the financial effects of his unorthodox stat line.

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Originally published: March 25, 2019. Last Updated: March 25, 2019.