Last Saturday, by some miracle, the Toronto Blue Jays allowed starting pitcher Anthony Kay to make his MLB debut as a…wait for it…a starter.
Based on how the Jays handled T.J. Zeuch’s first major league outing, following opener extraordinaire Wilmer Font, I thought maybe this would be the formula going forward.
Just to be clear, I have no problems with the opener. I’m not against it in any way. I actually think it’s a smart strategy…when it makes sense.
But using an opener for a starting pitcher making his major league debut in an evaluation season? Well that just makes zero sense.
The Jays simply overthought this one. And by all accounts, it appears they’ve realized this fact. Because, unless something changes, Zeuch is scheduled to start tonight’s game vs. the Red Sox.
This is how it should be for the remaining weeks of the season and into next year as the Jays continue to call up starters. And here’s why.
Let’s see what they’re made of
It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is an evaluation year for the Jays.
The front office is looking for answers to a number of questions. Who are the core players? Who can be traded for starting pitching and bats? Who should be stashed away as depth?
It’s also a year when highly-touted prospects like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette can get some valuable reps at the major league level.
In other words, wins in 2019 are clearly secondary.
All the more reason why using an opener for T.J. Zeuch made no sense.
Teams employ the opener strategy to help them win ballgames.
The Tampa Bay Rays have used it consistently throughout the year. But they’re desperately trying to win games as they gun for a Wild Card spot. And with a large portion of their rotation decimated by injuries, they’ve had no choice but to employ the opener strategy.
For the Jays, however, winning isn’t their primary objective, especially as the team heads into the final weeks of the season. Evaluation is.
And, in terms of evaluation, we already know what Wilmer Font can do. We’ve seen it many times before. He’s an effective opener. Check.
What we don’t know, however, is whether or not Zeuch can be a major league starter.
Maybe he does need an opener. Maybe he doesn’t. We won’t know until we actually see him start.
So let’s take the fucking training wheels off and see what this kid can do.
A position to succeed
Another point of the opener is to put the pitcher in the best position to succeed.
Great. But Zeuch is a starter. So how is asking him to pitch in an unfamiliar role putting him in the best position to succeed?
Zeuch likely already had so many things on his mind — this being one of the biggest moments of his life and all. You’d think the Jays would want to limit the things he had to think about.
The only thing on his mind should’ve been see glove, hit glove. Not when he may or may not be entering the game.
Baseball players tend to be creatures of habit and routine. Any disruption in a starting pitcher’s routine could throw him off his game.
A starter goes through his pre-game warmups then takes a stroll to the mound. He doesn’t normally sit on his hands for a couple innings, waiting for the phone to ring.
Secondly, Zeuch had no clue when he was entering the game. It all depended on how Font faired. It could’ve been the 2nd or 3rd inning.
Thirdly, I can imagine waiting to enter the game played with Zeuch’s nerves. How could it not?
As he was waiting to finally do what he’d worked his whole life to do, those butterflies were probably fluttering like crazy, wild with anticipation.
No one would mistake me for being a professional athlete, so all I have to go on his doing stand-up comedy.
The most nerve-racking part isn’t being alone on stage, attempting to make a room full of strangers laugh while also trying not fuck up. It’s the waiting for my turn to go up that kills me.
Confidence breeds confidence
Pitching in the highest league in the world isn’t just about velocity or stuff. Confidence is just as vital.
A club showing a lack of confidence in a pitcher, especially a young pitcher just starting out, can easily cause him to doubt himself. And once doubt creeps in, it likes to set up residence.
Nothing screams “We have no confidence in your abilities” more than letting someone else start the game for you.
Yeah, we don’t think you can pitch to the top of a major league lineup or go through it three times. But, um. Good luck out there.
Now if Montoyo put the ball in Zeuch’s glove to start the game, directed him to the mound and said, “Have at ‘em,” that’s likely to give a guy boundless confidence.
It was almost over before it started
Prior to opening for Zeuch’s debut, Font had been pretty dominant in this role. But that doesn’t mean he’d continue to be effective.
And as it happened, for this particular game, he wasn’t.
By the time Zeuch entered the game in the 2nd inning, the Jays were already down 2–0. And it could’ve been a lot worse.
It was very much in the realm of possibility that Zeuch could’ve entered down 7–0 or even 10–0, already putting the game far out of reach before he even threw his first major league pitch.
Why would you want to put a pitcher making his debut in that position?
Also, how much can you evaluate a pitcher who enters the game down 10 runs vs. the score being 0–0?
Not your grandfather’s bullpen role
I’ve heard the argument that starters making their big club debuts out of the bullpen all the time.
This is true. Aaron Sanchez, for instance, began his major league career in the bullpen. As did David Price.
Teams often do this as a way to ease starters into the majors, limit their innings or fill a position of need.
But I’d argue, coming in as the “bulk guy” isn’t your typical bullpen role. In fact, “bulk guy” is just one of the 20+ names being tossed around right now. The name of this role is as elusive as the role itself.
If, however, before the game, Montoyo told Zeuch, I’m using you as my 7th inning guy, then it’s different. That’s a defined role he can prepare for. Still not ideal because he’s a starter. But at least he knows what to expect.
As a bulk guy, maybe you enter in the 2nd. Maybe it’s the 3rd. And if things really go off the rails, which they almost did with Font, maybe you take the mound in the middle of an inning.
Instead, how about making their first appearance in the majors as smooth as possible by letting them do what they’ve done their entire lives. Start games.
How about just letting the kids pitch.
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