Royals

Why the Royals’ new look could be ‘opening’ soon in Kansas City (or on the road)

Royals manager Ned Yost on strides made by Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost spoke with reporters in the dugout at Comerica Park prior to the club's series opener against the Detroit Tigers in Detroit on Friday, May 3, 2019.
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Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost spoke with reporters in the dugout at Comerica Park prior to the club's series opener against the Detroit Tigers in Detroit on Friday, May 3, 2019.

The Royals’ pitching stinks, which isn’t a unique problem, either in their franchise’s history or baseball in general. The organization is guided by men who believe deeply in starting pitching, but who also built one of greatest accomplishments in modern baseball through relief pitching.

So they’re open to new ideas.

But this is extreme, even for them ... and especially for them.

They are in the process of joining the small but growing number of Major League Baseball teams to use a so-called opener — essentially a relief pitcher who starts, throws an inning or two, and hands off to a starter (who is then known as the headliner).

“If we all had our druthers, we’d have five legitimate starters and they’d go seven innings,” said J.J. Piccolo, Royals vice president of player personnel. “So you’re getting creative with your personnel.”

The Royals have been using their two most advanced pitching prospects as openers at Triple-A Omaha since the beginning of last month. The idea remains debated among club decision makers, and its implementation in the big leagues is uncertain.

But, at least at the moment, all signs are positive. And if the Royals use an opener in the season’s second half — they played their 81st game on Wednesday — it could be the most significant organizational development of the season outside the progress of foundational pieces like Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Brady Singer.

Club officials have identified starting pitching as the area that can be most improved when compared to the last rebuild. Some of that is their worldview — GM Dayton Moore grew up as an executive around the Atlanta Braves teams led by Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine — and some is a recognition of bigger money teams shifting priority from starters to relievers.

In a perfect world, Brad Keller, Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar and Kris Bubic reach their potential and give the Royals that rotation Piccolo referenced above.

But in reality, pitching prospects break. They get injured, or they lose their touch, or they simply hit a developmental ceiling. Someone with less talent will take their place, and they might need every edge that can be provided.

Here comes the opener.

The Royals studied the pitchers utilized in the role by other clubs, most notably (Blue Valley High grad) Ryne Stanek with the Rays. They saw a fit.

Josh Staumont and Kyle Zimmer each possess power arms with strikeout stuff and are often slowed by command issues. As an opener, the strikeout stuff plays well against the opposition’s best hitters. And in the first inning compared to the eighth or ninth, the pressure to not issue walks is lessened.

“It’s really helped those two guys,” Omaha manager Brian Poldberg said. “It takes a little bit of the late inning stress off them. They’re more relaxed. I’ve seen a big difference in both of them.”

The opener is one of these baseball things that’s been talked about more than it’s been utilized. According to a story by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello last month, only 12 teams had used an opener. Only six had done it more than once.

Staumont and Zimmer each have big-league talent, and so far the results have been encouraging. If the Royals transition them to Kansas City — and they have a lot of reasons to do it, which we’ll expand on below — they would quickly become one of the sport’s heavy users.

“We’ll see where it goes,” Moore said. “It’s something we’re exploring.”

In an era when seemingly everything in baseball can be measured, the impact of using an opener is still hard to figure.

The Rays’ team ERA has improved with its usage, but they have a lot of great pitchers. If you break it down by game, opponents have had a little more success against openers, but that’s skewed because (for instance) the Rays don’t use an opener for reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell.

But, whatever it’s worth: Zimmer and Staumont each have better ERAs with fewer baserunners allowed and similar strikeout rates as openers when compared to traditional relief appearances.

The potential benefits are fairly straightforward. The openers are given certainty and allowed to let it fly a bit more without the added late-inning stress. If opposing hitters tend to grow more comfortable in their plate appearances as games go on, here is one reason they have to adjust.

Plus, the headliner gets the benefit of “starting” against the opposition’s weakest hitters. That delays the third-time-through-the-order penalty another inning or two.

The potential challenges are also real. It’s great that the headliner can get a pass the first inning or two, but the uncertainty can mess with routine, which can result in diminished effectiveness. Additionally, if the headliner struggles, you have an unplanned bullpen game.

Logistically, the strategy requires a pool of pitchers with minor-league options. The Royals have that, but it’s still an additional factor to consider. Using an opener can be a tough sell with players, too, not just because of the change in routine, but (for now, at least) the unintended consequence of messing with contract bonuses and salary arbitration.

This is where the Royals are. Their record and timeline don’t just give the team the opportunity to experiment. Those realities serve as a virtual mandate to try something new.

The Royals have some interesting pieces, and the next year or two should be about figuring the best way to to make it all fit. If and when they join more sabermetrically focused clubs in using an opener, we’ll see the most obvious sign yet.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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