Jays Should Utilize ‘Opener’ To Limit Sanchez’s Innings

Aaron Sanchez is having a Cy Young type of season for the Toronto Blue Jays. He is 11-1 with a 2.71 ERA, but he has already logged a career-high 139.1-innings. Due to the increase in workload, the Blue Jays have debated whether or not to move him to the bullpen at some point during the season.

There will always be debate surrounding inning limits on a pitcher coming off surgery or projected to go way over their prior seasons total, but there is little evidence on either side of the ledger to provide; I solution.

Team President Mark Shapiro was a guest on MLB Network Radio and said, “What we want to do is be respectful and continue to involve everyone in the decision.”

His statement, along with Manager John Gibbons answer to the question of Sanchez’s future asked by a reporter on Wednesday night saying “nothing is set in stone” may have foreshadowed what transpired today.

Jays’ GM Ross Atkins flew into Houston on Thursday and held meetings with coaches and players before announcing that the Jays’ immediate plan with Sanchez is to limit his innings by going to a six-man rotation.

Atkins told reporters, including MLB.com’s Gregor Chisholm that there were many factors that played in the decision, “The fact that we’re getting closer to September helps. The fact that we will have a player or two with options helps. The fact that our bullpen has corrected itself and is pitching better, guys are settling into roles, helps. Francisco’s [Liriano] openness helps. We’ll be able to skip starts, we’ll be able to do even more creative things when we get into September.”

The decision to keep Sanchez in the rotation does give him an extra days rest and limits his innings. Mentally, it helps that he’ll still feel as if he’s a starting pitcher. One has to ask if this move could have a negative impact on the rest of staff.

It is well known that athletes are creatures of habit. It’s possible that the most habitual of all athletes is the major league starting pitcher whose routines and preparation for a start are crafted over a number of years. It will not be the easiest task for the remaining five starters to alter their approach. Their words may suggest a willingness to do so, but what goes on between the ears may have more of an impact on their bottom line.

I would prefer to see the Blue Jays take a different approach to the Sanchez dilemma. Rather than go to a six man rotation which impacts five of the starting pitchers. Why not maximize the flexibility mentioned by Atkins earlier and use a reliever to start the game?

The term “opener” was coined by Bryan Grosnick of Beyond The Boxscore. He first discussed it in his 2013 article Replacing Setup Men With “Openers” and revisited the idea in his 2015 article Which Teams Could Best Use An Opener?

According to Grosnick, “The opener would be the first pitcher to start a game, effectively replacing the starting pitcher for the first frame of a baseball game. After this reliever, ideally a strong setup guy and one of the best relievers on the team, eliminates the first three or four batters of the game, the team’s “starter” comes in beginning in the second inning and runs his normal course.”

What if…..the Blue Jays used the opener strategy but rather than have the reliever pitch one frame what if the opener were to be able to go two innings? Could Sanchez then enter the game in the third inning and work four to five innings before turning the ball over to the Jays ‘pen?

Wouldn’t this strategy have much of the same effect that the six-man rotation would have but would impact a far greater number of the starting staff?

Going back to Atkins statement, “We’ll be able to do even more creative things when we get into September.” One has to wonder if one of the creative things that the Jays’ may consider in September is going to a modified-opener strategy. Stay tuned, I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of dialogue about what to do with Sanchez as the pennant race heats up.