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‘Opener’ elicits curiosity and concern from former Blue Jays greats

TORONTO — Mention the opener to any baseball person and their eyes seem to open a bit wider. You can just about see the wheels of thought in motion when a conversation turns to the polarizing subject that captivated the sport in 2018.

“You call it the opener,” says retired reliever Duane Ward with a laugh. “I call it screwing up the game of baseball.”

The Tampa Bay Rays, out of sheer desperation caused by injuries, began to use relievers as starters early last season, pitching them for one or two innings before turning the game over to traditional starting pitchers. Just like that, a trend was born. Teams across MLB, including the Toronto Blue Jays at one point, began implementing the strategy to much success.

The opener perfectly illustrates the willingness of today’s organizations to obliterate tradition. As a result, players from previous eras are left to watch in awe as the sport is turned on its head. Sportsnet caught up with four such pitchers, each a Blue Jays alumnus, last weekend during Winter Fest at Rogers Centre to get their thoughts on the opener and the changing roles of major-league pitchers. Here’s what they had to say.

NOTE: The following interviews were edited for length and clarity.

Jack Morris, Hall of Fame starting pitcher: The opener is something I think is going to be around here for a while. I don’t think it’s going away. Especially with teams that have a stronger bullpen. It’s hard to pay good starting pitchers. They demand a lot of money. You can probably get a bullpen to be good quicker than you can a starting staff.

Duane Ward, former Blue Jays closer: I don’t think it’s a gimmick, because teams are doing it. And Tampa may end up doing it again this year.

Jason Frasor, 12-year MLB reliever: [It leans] more towards gimmicky. I don’t think this is going to be part of Tampa’s plan forever, but certain teams may use it for months at a time. Even for a season. But I don’t see it lasting.

Pat Hentgen, 1996 AL Cy Young winner: It’s so tough to find starting pitchers who are effective three times through the lineup that teams are starting to use this opener strategy and I’m having a little tough time swallowing it. But I understand how it works for short spurts.

Morris: There’s going to be a day down the road where a starting pitcher probably doesn’t go through the lineup more than once. That’s coming.

Frasor: [Initially] I thought it was a joke. But amazingly enough, the Rays were winning and winning and winning. And why would you change it when you’re winning? I root for the Rays a little bit because of the manager [Kevin Cash]. I played with him [in Toronto] and now he lives right down the street from me, too. Kevin’s kind of an old-school guy. It’s funny he’s the manager who implements this. But you do what you gotta do when your payroll is that low.

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There’s little doubt the opener worked for the Rays, whose 3.75 ERA tied for second in the American League, helping the club to a 90-72 record that ensured it was involved in the latter stages of the wild-card race. Part of the reason the Rays were able to execute it to perfection was the presence of 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell. He was the starter every fifth day and often pitched deep into games, which kept relievers fresh and ready for whenever they were needed.

Morris: Thank God there’s Blake Snell. I’m old school enough to remember when I was a kid, I went to the ballpark to see two starting pitchers. I wanted them to go nine innings and I wanted it to be a battle. I never had any intention of seeing 14 guys on the mound and to this day, it drives me nuts.

Frasor: If you have the Houston Astros’ starting rotation, you don’t need to [use the opener], but if you’re a little sketchy with the five-man rotation, boy, the game’s adapting, isn’t it? The game is evolving.

Ward: It’s more detrimental to the starting pitchers than it is to the reliever. Because relievers are going to do the same thing they’ve always done — one to three innings or even a few batters. Starters are going to have to make that big adjustment.

Hentgen: You’re giving low expectations. I think that you could push yourself a lot more than [the five or six innings typically seen from today’s starters]. For me, as a starting pitcher, sometimes my best innings were innings three through six. In the opener era, I may have never got to those innings.

Morris: It’s the worst thing about it, because they’re never challenged to go through the wall. They know that whenever they get in trouble, there’s help for you. And so, guess what? Knowing that there’s always help, how are you ever going to get me to do better?

Hentgen: I think it’s critical to develop pitchers with the mentality to go as long as you can, as hard as you can.

Ward: The starter’s job, I felt coming up in the time I did, was to go out there and try to go nine. And you conditioned yourself to go out there and go nine. If you got into trouble, boom, that’s where you have the horses out in the bullpen who would go out there and get the game over and done with. For me, it’s always been starters go out there and go nine. Go as hard and as long as you can.

Morris: I was trying to get efficient outs. I knew that I had to pace myself and I would throw a lot of fastballs early in the game, sinkers, run the ball in under the hands. Just trying not to show them the kitchen sink because I had to try to trick them the fourth and fifth time through the lineup.

Hentgen: You have to really make good pitches to good spots. They’ve seen your stuff, but it’s starting to slip a little during the course of the day and your location becomes even more critical that third time through the lineup. Especially keeping the ball in the ballpark late in the game when the home run stings.

Ward: Is it going to come to the point where starters cannot get wins? Relievers are the only ones who can get the wins now, because they are the pitcher of record after the fifth inning — OK, but how do you start paying them? Do you pay starters $20 to $30 million a year and not pay the relievers that? It’s a can of worms.

Frasor: I like traditional numbers and how that skews arbitration and stuff like that. How it looks on the back of a baseball card. It’s all messed up now — you need an asterisk on it.

Morris: I look at it this way: There’s always going to be starting pitchers or primary pitchers who have to eat up innings and get the majority of outs. And they’re going to get paid the most.

Hentgen: At the end of the day, when you’re looking at your overall pitching staff, you would want your best pitchers getting the bulk of the outs. It’s just a mathematical fact … I don’t know how this opener thing is going to work. I know that somebody’s gotta pitch the innings, somebody’s gotta get the outs. And what you tend to see is the best pitchers get the most outs.

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