Where our spout offs about sports are spot on!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No More No-Hitters?

My father has an idea.

Dad's been around baseball a long time, he was a player and a manager in city leagues back when there were city leagues. More recently he's been a high school baseball coach, retiring from that only a few years ago. And he's been a fan forever; currently he's an Atlanta Braves fan, I think primarily because he gets all their games on television thanks to his satellite dish.

Dad's idea? A new baseball pitching role: the "opener", or maybe call it the "establisher" to avoid confusions with "Opening Day" or "Home Opener". But it's the opposite of the closing pitcher, or "Closer".

He mentioned this to me while I was visiting him over Labor Day this year. We were watching the first football game of the season for Auburn University on Saturday, September 1st. My son is a freshman there and he was at the game. We never spotted him in the sea of orange shirts in the Auburn stands, but he enjoyed his inaugural college football game. (Auburn defeated Kansas State in dramatic fashion, scoring two touchdowns in the final three minutes.)

As we watched, ESPN2 started interrupting with updates from the Red Sox / Orioles major league baseball game. A rookie, Clay Buchholz, was pacing toward throwing a no-hitter in only his second career start. This is a pretty big event, covered everywhere including the blogosphere. A no-hitter has always been a rare event, but in this age of protecting pitchers' arms and maximizing winning percentages even "complete games" are pretty rare and getting more so. Managers are quick to pull starting pitchers who stumble, early or late in a game and even pitchers enjoying a shut-out are often pulled for as little reason as that their pitch count is climbing beyond their normal range. No more are pitchers heroes-on-the-mound, giving up their bodies for their team and because its their game.

Depending on when a "starting pitcher" is pulled determines which role will come on in relief. There's middle-relievers, short-relievers and closers. It's not uncommon to see all four types in one game, and sometimes more than one of the relievers if the situation calls for a left-hander when a right-hander is in the game. But through the years of the rise of the relievers, the Starter has still been something of a sacrosanct role. A prime statistic for a starter was his number of complete games, but as the shame of leaving a game before all nine innings were in the book diminished, the new statistic of "quality starts" gained prominence.

Well my dad would shove quality starts into the dust bin of history as well by beginning each game, or important ones at least, with a team's ace opener, a pitcher that can come out hot and establish dominance at the dawn of the game the way a closer can vanquish the last hopes of the opposing team in the twilight innings.

Dad's thought was that the Opener might only face 2 or 3 batters, just like a Closer. I wondered if the Opener might run all the way through the line-up once, getting 7 or 8 outs before any batter gets a second look at his stuff. Of course once the taboo of starting with Starters is lifted, managers will find what works best with the rest of their style -- maybe the Opener would just pitch until he faces a strong opposite-handed batter. Starters might not even be called Starters anymore, they could be called "Gamers" or something.

The key is to break that taboo of starting pitchers and sticking with them deep into the game. Establish dominance early with a system that includes Openers and works with the bullpen you've built. A pioneering manager could earn a spot in Cooperstown with success and have a lot of fun watching the other clubs try to catch up.

I know my father would like to see an Opening Pitcher in practice. He didn't get the chance to try this idea with his own teams, but ask him sometime about "two platooning" his pitchers one year in city league -- he'd do a mid-inning triple swap among his catcher, pitcher and short-stop to keep an opposite-handed pitcher facing key batters. You bet the umpires loved it. Who'd love Opening Pitchers? Fans would, if their winners. Remember you saw it here first.

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