I’m not going to waste any time here — I’m not a huge fan of using the Opener. Although I do like seeing teams push the envelope when it comes to conventional thinking in baseball, I feel like this type of strategy should be locked behind a glass case with “Only Use In Case Of Emergency” emblazoned in red letters on the front-facing surface of the case. Personally, I think it should always be utilized as either a last resort for a normal team or a way for a team with “limited” financial resources (or as limited as you can be in an era where every team except for the one in Miami is worth at least $1 billion) to get a leg up on the competition. For the Braves, if they were to consider going towards using an Opener then they’d be falling into “last resort” territory.
I still don’t think that the Braves are necessarily close to having to lean on Openers. Both Sean Newcomb and (especially) Touki Toussaint have had promising starts in their most recent appearances and it would be fantastic if they (and Kyle Wright) can step their game up massively and help mitigate the massive loss of Mike Soroka for all of this season and possibly some of next season as well. If they can make that happen, then the Braves won’t even have to think about utilizing the Opener and that would also have some great ramifications for Atlanta’s pitching staff going forward. The best case scenario is that the younger pitchers can prove why they’re getting these chances and the Braves can be comfortable with their starting rotation.
Still, you have to account for worst-case scenarios and every starter outside of Max Fried being bad-to-mediocre here in 2020 would result in the Braves’ starting pitching situation being a complete disaster zone. If all of the other starters end up suffering from the same pratfalls that have tripped these guys up on numerous occasions, then Brian Snitker might have to go from “considering” using an Opener to actually utilizing the strategy.
If the Braves do end up going down that route, they’d actually be well equipped to take on the task. Obviously, the first thing you need in order to be prepared to have relievers opening up games is a strong bullpen. When the Rays found themselves with barely any starters back in 2018, they had a bullpen that was up to the task. The unit finished with a cumulative WAR of 6.5 — good enough to put them in the Top 5 in all of MLB that season, but WAR also has to be taken with a pretty big grain of salt when considering that Tampa Bay’s bullpen ended up tossing 824.1 innings (according to FanGraphs) in 2018. For comparison’s sake, the 2018 Oakland A’s saw their bullpen pitch the second most innings that year at 641.1 innings. That discrepancy between a normal bullpen and a team using the Opener strategy should tell you how tall of a task that it is to completely turn things over to the bullpen.
The relievers that the Braves currently have could definitely be up to the task. Going into this season, the Braves surely felt good about the back end of the rotation and we’ve already seen that in action with the likes of Mark Melancon, Chris Martin, and Shane Greene being brought in to bolster that part of the bullpen last season. With Will Smith finally coming back into the fold, those are four pitchers who you can at least feel confident in knowing that they can come into a game and keep the metaphorical house from burning down in high-leverage situations.
Elsewhere, the re-emergence of A.J. Minter could also be a huge development if the Braves decide to let their bullpen carry them through games. The A.J. Minter of 2020 already looks absolutely nothing like the A.J. Minter of 2019 and if this version of Minter has actually fixed whatever was ailing him last season, then that’s a huge help for the Braves in normal situations and a massive boon to them in a scenario where they’re giving games to the bullpen at extremely early junctures of the game. I’d imagine that we’d see him getting some middle inning action with the likes of Darren O’Day, Luke Jackson and the suddenly-emerging Tyler Matzek.
Josh Tomlin also seems like a perfect fit to do some early-inning work as well. He’s already got some experience when it comes to entering games where a starter has exited early and he’s got plenty of experience of eating innings from his days of actually being a starter. Outside of anything strategic, there’s just something strangely comforting as a fan about seeing a pitcher who is so, so, so averse to giving up walks. That’s a bit of a digression on my part, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Tomlin would be a great fit for this strategy.
As far as guys like Touki and Newcomb, they could just go back to being relievers themselves. They could even continue to start games, but they could at least go to the mound under this strategy knowing that all they’d need to do is give the Braves just three, maybe four good innings and then pass the baton to the bullpen. This goes for any other starter who the Braves would call up who would be a starter during ideal times. This could also be a good way to ease those guys in without being saddled with the expectations that normally come with being a starter. Instead of having to deal with the pressure there, the innings load could be spread across the bullpen and this would be a case of the Braves absolutely leaning on one of their strengths for the time being.
The obvious drawback would be the the potential for the bullpen eventually getting exhausted and flaming out once the latter stages of the seasons occur. We’ve seen the Braves fall victims to overuse in the past — the “O’Ventbrel” days come to mind, which is when Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel formed a fearsome trio that Fredi Gonzalez used as often as he possibly could. If you were around back then, you don’t need me to tell you how 2011 and 2012 ended. That was just a result of the strain that was placed on three pitchers. There would have to be some trust in Brian Snitker to do a good job of managing the bullpen and knowing who to bring in for certain situations. As long as the manager sees this as something that the entire bullpen has to be involved with and not just a select few, then this could work should the Braves decide to do it. Otherwise, this is going to lead to tired arms getting hit hard once the big games roll around.
I’m going to reiterate that I don’t necessarily want to see the Braves use this strategy, since going to the Opener on a regular basis would mean that the current starters for the Braves would have completely fallen off of a cliff and can’t be trusted for this season. However, the good news is that this is a short season where the Braves are already looking real good to make it to the playoffs. As long as they continue to keep up this current pace or even if they slow down just a little bit, the Braves may end up waltzing into the expanded postseason. With that pressure lifted, the Braves probably won’t need to turn to using the Opener since they can afford to let their young starters continue to develop. That would be preferable to just smashing the emergency glass and pulling out the Opener strategy.
So while it wouldn’t be an ideal strategy for the Braves and it’s something that should be seen as a last resort for a team with their talent level and resources, this is still an intriguing option for the Braves to go with if the circumstances dictate it. It would be making the best of one bad situation within the team and putting the spotlight squarely on a relief corps that’s primed to flourish in the spotlight.