The opener. One of the trendier and more polarizing subjects around baseball right now.
The concept was made famous by the Tampa Bay Rays last season due to an injury-stricken rotation forcing them to get creative.
Instead of going the conventional route of starting the pitcher that you intend to throw the most innings, you start with a reliever. They then pitch one or two innings, before handing the ball off to a pitcher who attempts to go deep into the game.
The concept now continues to grow in popularity around the league. We even saw the Milwaukee Brewers use an opener against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday night as Adrian Houser opened the game for Freddy Peralta.
The Brewers used the opener to try and get Peralta to avoid the first inning, where he has had his struggles this year, but there are plenty of other reasons that teams use it.
There’s one reason in particular that could benefit Nationals starter, Jeremy Hellickson.
The right-hander has been a great find for the Nationals since he signed during Spring Training last season.
In 25 games over two years for the Nats, he’s posted a 7-3 record with a 3.88 ERA, becoming a dependable arm at the back of the rotation.
“I’ve known Jeremy for a long time,” manager Dave Martinez said of Hellickson back in April. “I know that he’s an unbelievable competitor and he’s very smart out there, he really is, and he knows how to get outs.”
“He’s not worried about striking guys out, he’s just out there trying to get outs, and that’s what he does really well.”
The key to Hellickson’s success with the Nationals has originated from restricting his exposure to the opposition’s lineup a third time through. He only faced 50 hitters for a third time last season, the least since his abbreviated first season in the majors.
In his career, opposing hitters have slashed .278/.341/.505 against Hellickson when facing him a third time as a starter. Significantly higher than the .236/.284/.387 and .241/.306/.420 slash lines the first and second time through respectively.
That's where the opener comes in. Say the opener pitches the first inning for the Nationals and ends up facing four hitters. Then, Hellickson enters in the second inning facing the opponent’s fifth hitter.
When the time comes to start facing the lineup a third time, he’ll do so in the middle of the order instead of the top of the order where the team's best hitters are.
The Nats could then feel better about leaving the right-hander in to face the weaker hitters in the lineup a third time.
An example of when this could’ve been beneficial to the team was Hellickson’s recent outing in Philadelphia.
He was absolutely dealing, allowing just two runs on four hits while striking out nine and had thrown just 79 pitches.
But with Bryce Harper due up for a third time, after he smoked a double off of Hellickson in his previous at-bat, Martinez pulled his starter for a left-handed reliever in Dan Jennings.
“He got us through the five innings and pitched well,” Martinez said following the game. “He had 80-something pitches, and I thought at that particular moment we had the guys to hold them right there.”
In the grand scheme of things, given his struggles the third go around the lineup and given the man at the plate, it was the right call by Martinez. But that doesn’t mean Hellickson was overly happy about the decision.
“There’s going to be games where that’s probably the right move,” Hellickson said following the game. “The way I was going today I think that was my inning. I thought I should have got a chance to get out of there.”
This would be exactly where the opener would help extend Hellickson further into games. He could then face the bottom-half of the lineup again given how well he was pitching, not needing to turn it over to the ever-shaky bullpen.
In the Phillies example, given how he was rolling, if he gets to 79 pitches and Nick Williams is the man he has to face a third time, it would be fine to stick with Hellickson in that situation.
Obviously, there are likely to be several things to keep in mind before the Nationals were to actually start using this.
First off, any pitchers involved would need to be willing to go along with it. Pitchers are notorious creatures of habit and some of them may feel uncomfortable with this slightly unorthodox strategy.
The Nats do have a bunch of former starters currently in the bullpen that may be open to being an opener. Joe Ross and Wander Suero make sense as former starters, or perhaps Matt Grace if the top of the order is lefty-heavy to get a platoon advantage.
While it’s hard to speak for Hellickson and what he thinks of the concept, he could be open to the idea given that it could allow him to extend his outings when he’s pitching well, just as he wanted to do against the Phillies.
The Nats would also need to consider other variables such as the opposing lineup and whether their designated opener suits the role. They can’t just go around using it every single start if the circumstances aren’t right.
The opener would need a relatively different arsenal to Hellickson so that the opposition needs to prepare for two different pitching styles. And if the lineup is so deep that the Nats may only buy an extra hitter or two, it might not be worth using the opener either.
But on the whole, it’s a concept that could put Hellickson in a position to succeed deeper into games, it could allow the opener to succeed by just letting loose in the first inning, and it could give the Nationals less of a bridge to closer Sean Doolittle towards the end of a game.
The opener is far from a flawless strategy, but it could be time for the Nationals to get weird and embrace it in Hellickson’s starts.