TORONTO – Like so many major-league teams, the Toronto Blue Jays have tried out the opener this season.
To this point, they’ve used the strategy selectively, in 12 of their 127 games. But with five weeks remaining in the regular season, their usage of openers is about to ramp up.
Their starting rotation is young – no one is older than 25 – and inexperienced – Trent Thornton leads the group with 25 career starts. The Blue Jays want to make the transition to the majors as smooth as possible for these pitchers, and using an opener helps on that front. There’s no problem getting buy-in from this staff, either.
Plus, it’s working. In those 12 games, the Blue Jays are 9-3. Their openers have combined for a 3.64 ERA in 17.1 innings of work, striking out 19 hitters while walking just six.
As the rest of the season unfolds, get used to watching openers on a regular basis.
"I do think there’s going to be more opportunities to use that strategy as we move forward," pitching coach Pete Walker said. "It’s only going to put us in a better position to win games. When you face one starter three times through, you get a good look at him, but the mix of looks and the different looks I think is important. If we have a good fit, we’ll do it. If it’s not a good fit we probably wouldn’t."
To this point in the season, the Blue Jays have used openers once every 10 days or so. From here on could we see them use openers a couple times per week?
"Maybe more," Walker replied. "It’s something we’re discussing internally."
"We’re going to use the opener as many times as we can with those guys," added manager Charlie Montoyo, who was on the Rays’ coaching staff when they popularized the strategy in 2018. "I think it’s a good idea and it’s working."
When Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley start, the Blue Jays will generally use openers. Jacob Waguespack will often pitch behind an opener when the Blue Jays face tough lineups like the Yankees or Astros. And once they add a fifth starter to their rotation – Zack Godley, perhaps – he’ll likely pitch after an opener, too.
Of course, once the Blue Jays start using openers more often, they’ll need a few options for that first-inning role. If Derek Law’s experience offers much indication, there won’t be a shortage of volunteers.
"Open to opening? I think we all are," Law said. "I think it’s one of the better jobs in baseball. You get three quick outs and you’re done for the rest of the day. You get to enjoy the game as a spectator for eight innings. It’s a little different vibe."
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Along with Law and Wilmer Font, Neil Ramirez and Buddy Boshers are candidates to open, according to Walker. But Font has easily been the Blue Jays’ most effective opener this season, often pitching two innings of relief before giving way to the “starter.” With a fastball that touches 97 m.p.h., he gives hitters a different look that prevents them from getting comfortable.
"There’s power," Walker said. "He throws strikes. He’s got good enough secondary stuff to get hitters out and I think early in the game when you’ve got that kind of power coming at you, especially against the top of the order, it can work in our favour."
Yet alongside the desire to prevent runs in the short-term, the Blue Jays are also hoping to develop pitchers for future seasons. So, while they used an opener when Waguespack faced the powerful Yankees lineup earlier this summer, Montoyo used him in a more traditional role against the Mariners Friday.
"I want to give Waguespack a chance," the manager said. "He’s pitched well since he’s been in the big leagues … that’s why we decided not to use an opener. See what he can do."
At the same time, pitching staffs are changing rapidly. As recently as 2018, the “opener” was truly disruptive. Barely a year later, Walker notes "it’s more abnormal not to utilize it at times."
"Obviously you’re not going to do it in Houston, you’re not going to do it if you have five established starters," he said. "It’s a different animal. When you have guys with limited major-league experience who are going through some growing pains, I think it makes sense."
So, while traditionalists might assume the likes of Waguespack and Reid-Foley must eventually learn how to work through a lineup three times, are we sure that’s the case for back-end starters? Or could four or five innings per turn be enough? A 200-inning workhorse would be ideal, of course, but the “opener” strategy doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. For the 2019 Blue Jays, at least, it’s here to stay.
"It’s been working really well," Walker said. "We’re winning ball games, putting some guys in positions for success. The guys who have opened have been very open to it, no pun intended. They’ve been excited about it. The guys who have followed have been on board and understand it. Bottom line, it’s putting guys in position to have success."