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Photo Credit: Gene Wang, Getty Images

What the Blue Jays’ signing of Shun Yamaguchi tells us about their stance on openers

Let’s face it, Shun Yamaguchi — the Japanese forkballer who reportedly landed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Blue Jays Tuesday  — is not going to be the superfluous addition that puts the team over the hump of contention in 2020 and beyond.

Yes, it’s exciting that the Blue Jays have, for the first time ever, seriously forayed into the Japanese market, and yes, seeing a pitcher with Yamaguchi’s makeup is cause for excitement, but the team still needs numerous pieces and then some to be considered serious contenders, as you’ve no doubt heard hundreds of times.

Yamaguchi’s signing is hardly a controversial one. His contract appears reasonable and it’s easy to recognize the upside the front office sees in him. What’s even more interesting is that Yamaguchi can be used as both a starter and reliever, as team president Mark Shapiro mentioned on Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid Wednesday.

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So, where will he end up? And, most importantly, why does the team keep signing pitchers with relatively low, yet solidly consistent, ceilings?

In an observant and perhaps sarcastic tweet, Nick Dika, a contributor to Fangraphs (and bass player for the smashing Canadian alt-rock band Arkells), pondered that the Blue Jays could be signing so many “back of the rotation starters” because they’re going to be investing in and relying so heavily on openers in 2020.

Though the organization’s targeting of middling starters has become somewhat of a joke at this point (see: Wade Miley), Dika could, in a sneakily strategic way, have a point. Is it possible that the team plans to focus on their opening rotation rather than their starting rotation? And, does the Yamaguchi signing indicate that they’re going to be more inclined to go in that direction?

For starters (pun intended), Yamaguchi could conceivably be the perfect pitcher to follow an opener, having averaged just over 6.1 innings pitched per outing last season with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Central League. Similar to last year’s unfortunately unsuccessful duo of Clay Buccholz and Clayton Richard, Yamaguchi can, at the very least, eat innings and confuse opposing hitters should he enter in the second or third inning.

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But, the concern still remains: do the Blue Jays even have competent openers? Or, do they have the means to acquire pitchers who could slot in as openers?

First, it’s useful to establish what exactly qualifies as an opener, or rather, who qualifies as an opener.

Richard Justice of MLB.com sums up the idea that, generally, an opener is a pitcher who (a) pitches an inning (or two) per outing, (b) throws hard, and (c) induces high swing-and-miss numbers, ultimately leading to (d) high strikeout totals. Preferably, this pitcher empties the tank early and often in order to eliminate the fright induced by a team’s top three or four hitters.

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Simply put, you need a pitcher who throws fast, strikes guys out, and makes the first inning the quickest inning of the ballgame, as statistics suggest that teams score more runs in the first inning than in any other.

In a vacuum, recent examples of openers at work (Ryne Stanek, Taylor Cole,  Chad Green, etc…) serve to support this definition, especially on teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays who use the opener almost as often as they use traditional starting pitchers.

At this point, the Blue Jays’ roster composition certainly does not justify the notion that openers will be a significant part of their strategy, seeing as only Wilmer Font and Anthony Bass appear even remotely qualified to step into that role, even if Font did perform somewhat admirably in that spot in 2019.

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So, it’s hard to imagine the front office building a staff around players that aren’t yet in the organization, unless T.J. Zeuch or Anthony Kay are undergoing the starter-to-reliever transition process as we speak.

But, even though the team doesn’t have the openers necessary to take advantage of the strategy, the “back of the rotation starters” that Dika references — Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson, and now Yamaguchi — all are perfect candidates to follow the opener. They pitch a lot of innings, can stay healthy, and have a pitch or two that is unusual or tailored to throw hitters off (Roark’s hard sinker, Anderson’s looping curve, and Yamaguchi’s forkball).

Now, one must simply locate under-the-radar names on the free agent market that could slot in to pitch ahead of one of the aforementioned three names. Here are a few that, spectaculatively speaking, could work:

  • Juan Minaya: career 9.96 K/9; average fastball velocity: 93.4 mph; some experience as a closer (10 career saves);
  • Tyler Thornburg: career 9.11 K/9; average fastball velocity: 93.7 mph; solid zone % in 2019;
  • Blake Parker: career 10.11 K/9; average zone swing %, zone %; deceptive splitter;
  • Addison Reed: career 9.20 K/9; career 2.34 BB/9.

Of course, the team’s decision to go after Yamaguchi doesn’t alone suggest that they’ll lean towards using openers in 2020, but the combination of the free agents they’ve signed thus far hints that maybe the bulk of their rotation’s bite could come not from the “starters” themselves, but how they fit within the context of a certain game.

Given Charlie Montoyo’s Tampa Bay-bred baseball mind, and the increasing reliance on strategic bullpen use (especially in the AL East), it’s not outrageous to suggest that stocking up on a reliever (or three) could benefit the team more than signing another mediocre starter.

Still, the heavy lifting required to fortify the team’s pitching staff has yet to be done, and none of the aforementioned names, should they be signed, will be pressed on fans’ jerseys come 2020. Though it appears that we’ve been doing a lot of it lately, we’ll just have to wait and see.