In case you missed it the Tampa Bay Rays, an actual MLB organization, started a relief pitcher over the weekend...twice. They did it on purpose, in order to gain a competitive advantage over their opponent. It's been termed "the opener" (get it? not a closer).
Now the Rays have been experimenting with "bullpen games" this year, but "the opener" is something different entirely. The strategy is to use a good reliever to start the game. It could be your set up man, your closer, your Andrew Miller-esque fireman. Doesn't matter. This way you are ensuring a quality pitcher faces the other team's best hitters at the top of their order. "The opener" might only get three outs or he could go longer. Again, doesn't matter. More runs are scored in the first than in any other inning, so by using one of your best arms early on you are getting an edge.
So after 588 straight relief appearances Rays reliever Sergio Romo made his first career start on Saturday as Tampa's opener. Romo did well, striking out the side in a scoreless first inning. He did so well in fact that Rays manager Kevin Cash started him again on Sunday. This time he went 1 1/3 innings while striking out three and walking two. We've seen relievers be used on back-to-back days before. That's nothing new. The only difference is Romo was used in the first as opposed to the seventh or eighth.
Once "the opener" finishes his appearance a manager has two options. One, they could either go full blown bullpen game (could work here and there, definitely in the playoffs, but probably not over a full 162). The other option is to then put in a "starting pitcher". Instead of throwing innings 1-6 or 1-7 this pitcher throws innings 2-6 or 2-7 or 2-8. Here's what Saturday's box score looked like:
And here's Sunday:
Now, this whole idea of an opener will always be easier said than done. Baseball players are creatures of habit. It could be difficult for some starting pitchers to adjust to coming into the game in the second inning. There's already been some backlash. Angels third baseman Zack Cozart said what the Rays did with Romo is "bad for baseball". It won't be accepted by everyone right away, and maybe long term this can't work. People should be open to the idea though, the same way we had to get used to the idea of shifting.
Lastly I want to note that this strategy doesn't have to be used. Eventually, maybe. But right now there are still tons of good starting pitchers in baseball. If you have a great rotation like the Astros there's no need for a "gimmick" like this. I hope we see "the opener" used by more teams other than the Rays. In the right situation, with the right players, it could make you look really smart.