White Sox finally make the opener strategy work for them

Gio Gonzalez’s line from Saturday evening’s victory over the Cubs didn’t look much different from his three previous starts, at least in terms of overall effectiveness. He didn’t match the thrills of his 10 strikeouts against Detroit on Monday, but otherwise you might be hard-pressed to pick it out of a police lineup.

DateIPHRERBBKGScr
Aug. 13.25003654
Aug. 64.18543329
Aug. 114.26221245
Aug. 174.262221052
Aug. 223.21003258

In practice, Gonzalez’s trademarked inefficiency had a much different effect. In his four previous outings, his innings totals indicate the inning he pitched into, and nothing more. When he ran out of gas, he left at least half a ballgame for the rest of his staff to cover, no matter his effectiveness.

On Saturday, when David Bote caught a González changeup off the end of his bat and flew out to medium-deep left field for the final out of González’s 3⅔ innings, it also marked the end of the seventh. González finally got the game to the back end of the White Sox bullpen, which sealed his first win for the White Sox some 16 years after they drafted him.

He just had to stand on Reynaldo López’s shoulders to make it happen.

* * * * * * * * *

That’s no slight of González. It’s praise for Rick Renteria, who finally successfully leveraged the heart of the opener strategy, even he didn’t deploy an opener in the classic sense.

An opener usually pitches for one or two innings, depending on when the bottom of the order arrives. After that, the second pitcher — a starter or long reliever who is usually punished by TTOP — enters the game facing the opponent’s weakest hitters in a lineup that is often tailored to face the handedness of the opener. By ducking the top or heart of the order, that second pitcher gets an opportunity to buy an extra inning, since the part of the lineup that resurfaces first is the part of the lineup the opposing manager is trying to hide.

López doesn’t meet the textbook definition of an opener. His outing was a rehab start, just one that took place in the majors because the minor leagues aren’t a thing this year. He threw exactly 50 pitches, which seems like an appropriate pitch count for a starter returning from shoulder soreness. Instead of throwing those 50 pitches in front of a few thousand fans in North Carolina, he had to face major-league hitters in front of zero fans in Chicago.

What’s most important is that when Renteria pulled López after the starter retired Willson Contreras to start the fourth. Contreras, a righty, hit fifth for David Ross in the Cubs lineup. When González entered the game, these are the first four batters he saw.

  • Jason Heyward, a lefty
  • Victor Caratini, a switch-hitter stronger against righties
  • Jason Kipnis, a lefty
  • David Bote, a righty

That’s not the lineup Ross would have batted one through four had González started for the Sox, but that’s effectively the unoptimized lineup González got to face coming out of the bullpen.

González didn’t pitch any better out of the pen than he did as a starter, but his approach was in a better position to work. He walked Heyward to start his evening, but it didn’t matter. He faced the Cubs’ true leadoff hitter (Ian Happ) with one out in the fifth, and when he singled, González erased him with a double play off the bat of lefty Anthony Rizzo. In the sixth, González walked Javier Báez after getting ahead 0-2, but a double play from lefty Kyle Schwarber made it moot.

The recipe was only threatened at the end of Gonzalez’s night, when he walked Jason Kipnis with three straight uncompetitive pitches after getting ahead 1-2. That brought the righty Bote to the plate. A PO’d Gio spiraled in rage at his unforced error as Renteria came to the mound…

… but Renteria left him in. And while that felt like an unnecessary risk — Matt Foster was warm — it wasn’t that big a deal. The tying run might’ve been on base, but the go-ahead run coming to the plate was the ninth hitter, and a ninth hitter whom González had only faced once before. He had two outs in the seventh inning, but his pitch count was only in the 50s. He was dealing with seventh-inning leverage, but Gonzalez’s night was only in the fourth.

Sure enough, Bote flied out to left on a swing that looked scarier than the contact it generated (87.2 mph), and González recorded his first win as a member of the White Sox after coming just outs in short in previous tries.

* * * * * * * * *

The opener has been a pet cause of mine because it’s worked incredibly well for baseball’s smallest markets (Tampa Bay, Oakland, Milwaukee) and biggest spenders (Yankees). It’s probably not a great Plan A since Major League Baseball made it harder to replenish bullpens by increasing the minimum injured list stay from 10 to 15 days, but it’s a fine Plan B for the times a manager can’t turn to anybody else for a decent five innings.

Renteria has been loath to use it for whatever reason. He only gave it an earnest shot once last year, and because Carson Fulmer was the guy he tried it with, he didn’t go back to that well. Other games without a designated starter take the shape of bullpen games. The most recent one featured one hard-throwing righty after another, which doesn’t create the lineup incongruities that the opener strategy foists on the opposing manager.

I’m not sure why Renteria and the Sox have considered themselves above it, and sure enough, Renteria was cagey about leveraging González in such a fashion for the future.

It makes some sense to not tip a hand if only because the White Sox have two off days this week. Beyond scheduling quirks, if López can always throw three innings instead of one, cool. And if an opportunity opens for López to go further without damaging the state of the game, it might make sense to pursue it. The threat of López as a traditional starter will encourage the other dugout to tailor its lineup for López, rather than assuming a lefty is going to jump into the fray for more of the game.

But as long as López is topping out at 96 instead of 98 and getting zero swinging strikes on his fastball, it doesn’t make sense for Renteria to expect much better than what López showed on Saturday. And if González is comfortable and effective enough coming out of the bullpen, it makes all the sense for Renteria to use that to his advantage. Between López and Dunning, he’s got two fine right-handed counterparts for González’s lefty arsenal. And with Ross Detwiler theoretically able to cover multiple innings, González won’t be needed if Dylan Cease or any other White Sox starter gets bombed out of a start early.

My hope is that Renteria is merely deferring on the idea of openers, piggybacking or tandem starters as something to explain after it happens, rather than reducing incentives for a rehabbing starter to get back to full strength. I have the feeling that González’s perfectly leveraged outing wasn’t an accident. Maybe that makes me an optimist, but I’ve been more bullish on Renteria’s impact than most, and seven consecutive wins should make believers out of even hardened skeptics, even if only for a weekend.

(Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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Brett R. Bobysud

When is the next time that the Sox are going to need to use a 5th starter?

With them having an off-day on Monday, I would guess Giolito starts against the Pirates on Tuesday.

roke1960

Probably Sept 1 against the Twins.

roke1960

Though they might want to use one against the Royals the weekend before and send Giolito, Keuchel and Cease against the Twins.

Brett R. Bobysud

That was my thought as well.

Can they bring Dunning back up for the Sunday game against KC on the 30th, or do they have to wait longer to bring him back?

roke1960

I think it’s 10 days, so he should be available for the 30th.

Brett R. Bobysud

I bet (hope) that’s what they do then.

lil jimmy

Before the season began, I thought Lopez/ Gonzalez would be a great combo. The opposition sets the line up for the Starter and then they have face a totally different pitcher. I’d love to see it again.

Michael Kenny

I noticed last night that Gio wears “Gonzalez” on his back without the accent over the A (the “Americanized” version, if you will).

karkovice squad

Seeing them tailor roles/expectations to player talent instead of forcing square pegs into round holes is a welcome development.

MrStealYoBase

This is really the theme of Tampa/Oakland’s success. Willingness to use their pitchers in untraditional ways and heavy use of platoons to mask the weaknesses of their rosters.