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Should Orioles adopt Rays’ radical pitching strategy?

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In a year where the Rays were thought to be in a full rebuild at the outset, they have caught the attention of baseball with their successful ‘opener’ pitching strategy.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There have to be numerous teams across baseball looking at the Tampa Bay Rays and wondering if they can apply the ‘opener’ pitching strategy for themselves. It involves starting a pitcher who is traditionally a bullpen reliever and allowing them to go through the opponent’s batting order one to two times before being replaced by a pitcher with some length who can eat up the middle innings.

The idea is that a pitcher loses his effectiveness the more times he goes through the opponent’s batting order. So by minimizing that risk, the Rays are able to more effectively handle an opponent’s best hitters at the top of the lineup night in and night out.

On Wednesday, September 19, the Rays were near the top of the league in several team pitching categories. They had the third best ERA is baseball (3.60), the second best batting average against (.227) and the second fewest total bases allowed (1,822).

The Orioles deployed a form of this ‘opener’ strategy on Wednesday night against the Blue Jays, whether by design or by desperation. And it worked.

One night prior, the Orioles did not have a scheduled starter listed for the following day’s game — it was the often seen ‘TBD’ listed on the schedule. They eventually decided on sending Jimmy Yacabonis to the mound, knowing full well that he would have a short leash. Yet he was highly effective in his four innings pitched.

At the point that he was lifted from the game, Yacabonis had thrown four scoreless innings with two hits, one walk and four strikeouts on 64 pitches. He retired the side in order the first three innings in a row.

He ran into some trouble in the fourth, allowing several baserunners, but was able to work out of the jam without allowing any runs. When his night ended, Yacabonis was three batters short of working through the Blue Jays’ order twice.

Mike Wright came on in relief and pitched two scoreless innings — not exactly the length you’re accustomed to seeing from, say, a Ray’s second pitcher — but effective nonetheless. And it was also pre-planned, with the Orioles knowing they would send Wright to the mound once Yacabonis’ night was finished.

After Wright, the Orioles mixed and matched three different pitchers who allowed one run over the final three innings. All said and done, the Orioles pitching staff only allowed one run in this game and got a 2-1 win. Yes, it’s just one game, but it was a glimpse at something similar to what the Rays have been doing successfully for most of the year.

Tampa Bay probably won’t make the playoffs this year while employing this strategy, but they’re still technically in contention. Tampa Bay has an outside chance, albeit unlikely, to snag the last wild card spot in the American League. They currently have an 85-66 record, sitting 5.5 games behind the Oakland A’s in the AL wild card race with 11 games left.

The Orioles, on the other hand, set the team record two nights ago for most losses in a season at 108. And the pitching has a lot to do with it. The O’s rank dead last in baseball in team ERA (5.16) and batting average against (.278). They have allowed the most total bases (2,493) and the second most home runs (218) in the majors.

With only 10 games left in their season, the Orioles are scrambling for healthy starting pitchers. Andrew Cashner is on the shelf with a knee injury and Alex Cobb is currently battling a blister issue. That’s two fifths of the rotation that may not pitch again in 2018, and with expanded rosters at this point of the year, the Orioles are carrying 16 pitchers at the moment (not counting Cashner and Cobb). If there’s any time to give the opener strategy a test run, now is probably it.

Now I’m not suggesting that emulating the Rays is some kind of magical elixir that will cure all of the Orioles’ woes. But it can’t be dismissed out of turn either. Maybe the ‘opener’ strategy will stick around for the long haul, or maybe it’s a fad like the wildcat offense in the NFL. Only time will tell.

At the very least, the Rays’ success with their pitching strategy shows the need for more outside the box thinking in baseball, which is not always welcomed in a sport staunched in tradition like America’s pastime.