Should the Royals employ an ‘Opener’ full time? (And is Zimmer the guy to do it?)

The Royals lost 4-3 in game two of their four game series against the Tigers on Tuesday, and it was a difficult one to stomach. Whit Merrifield continued to show why he is the Royals’ most valuable player, as he went yard for a three-run home run in the third inning that made Royals fans hopeful it was going to be another offensive explosion like in game one on Monday night.

However, that highlight proved to be high point for the Royals, as rookie Tyler Zuber struggled against the Tigers lineup, giving up a couple of two-run home runs which gave the Tigers the lead for good. Yes, the bullpen held serve and held the Tigers scoreless after Zuber’s rough inning in the bottom of the third. But despite manager Mike Matheny employing seven pitchers on this “bullpen” day, the Royals couldn’t take advantage of the bullpen’s solid performance (sans Zuber) on the offensive end.

Even though the Royals couldn’t come out of game two in Detroit with a win, an interesting development may be in the works: the Royals could benefit from employing an “Opener” full time, with Kyle Zimmer being the main candidate for the spot in 2020.

Zimmer is no stranger to the “Opener” spot, as he “Opened” 12 games in 2019 with the Storm Chasers in Omaha along with Josh Staumont. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, essentially an “Opener” is a hard-throwing reliever who starts the game, but only goes 1-2 innings, much like a closer in the 8th and 9th innings. The “Opener” has often been employed by many “analytically” inclined team, with the Tampa Bay Rays being the culprit who popularized “Opener” usage in 2018 due to starting pitcher injury issues. Since then, over the past couple of years, teams such as the Athletics and even Yankees have utilized the “Opener” to varying degrees of success.

The Royals under former manager Ned Yost would have never used an “Opener”, mostly because Ned, for all his good intentions is a baseball “traditionalist” at heart. He likes his infielders playing in one spot for most of the game. He likes his two hitter being a slightly slower leadoff man. And he likes his pitchers going five or six innings, even if those five or six innings are not good (i.e. Jorge Lopez and Glenn Sparkman a year ago).

But Ned isn’t the manager of the Royals anymore: Matheny is and it’s obvious that Matheny is fully embracing and incorporating the analytical movement in Kansas City in 2020. He’s employing regular infield shifts that proved to be successful on numerous occasions during Tuesday’s game (Whit’s grab to end the second inning was due to an infield shift). And even though Matheny has Lopez and Sparkman on the roster, Matheny decided to go with an “Opener”, even though traditional baseball manager wisdom would have dictated Lopez or Sparkman to start and let them try to go five or six (which would have most likely been unsuccessful). Granted, this incorporation of this strategy is mostly due to a plethora of injury and COVID issues on the staff, as not only are Keller and Junis out, but Mike Montgomery and Foster Griffin hit the IL today, which leaves the Royals’ starting pitching options to Danny Duffy and Brad Singer at this point.

Thus, it’s no surprise that Matheny has to be creative when it comes to finding guys to “begin” games. He is desperate to find anything to keep them in games, and the “Opener” gives the Royals the best chance to win with all things considered roster-wise.

That being said, the “Opener” may be not just a strategy to get the Royals through this recent pitcher “shortage”, but could also be something to pursue full time. After all, Zimmer and Staumont have been used as “Openers” before in Omaha, and Zimmer seems to fit the role perfectly considering his experience as a starting pitcher early in his Minor League career. Royals Farm Report made sure to make a mention of this during the game in a Tweet:

In many ways, a good “Opener” has many of the same qualities as a good closer, and Zimmer fits that bill. He possesses high velocity stuff, and though his FB is a couple of MPH lower than last year, he seems to have displayed better command and movement on it so far in 2020. In addition, the Royals putting him in a lower leverage situation at the beginning of the game may be a better fit for him, especially since he seems to struggle with runners on (hitters posted a .469 wOBA in 2019 on him when he pitched with runners on base).

Today in the role? Zimmer had a 1-2-3 inning in the first, and only allowed 1 hit and 1 walk with 1 strikeout in two innings of work (though he did face one batter, Jacoby Jones in the top of the third, whom he hit; thus, that’s why he’s credited a run). Considering Zimmer was expected to begin the season at T-Bones stadium with the taxi squad (thanks to the additional Minor League option he was given this year due to injury), this performance was a surprise and could give Matheny and perhaps Royals fans in general hope that this may be the role Zimmer could embrace at the Major League level.

After all, many have noted that when healthy, Zimmer has been one of the more impressive pitchers in the Royals organization, as he carries a lot of confidence and doesn’t shy away from hitters with his fastball (he threw it 61.1 percent of the time last year, according to Statcast data). That being said, Zimmer is showing a different approach on the mound this year, complementing his fastball more with a slider, which he has thrown 38.1 percent of the time, an almost 13 percent increase from 2019. It will be interesting to see how this new pitch repertoire will benefit Zimmer down the road and how hitters will adjust over the course of the season. He can leave his slider up a little in the zone at times (which is what happened on Cameron Maybin’s double), but his new pitching mix shows that Zimmer has matured a bit as a pitcher since last year. In 2019, he was pretty much the kind of guy who just reared back and fired (often to lackluster success). Now he’s developing a feel for his off-speed stuff and is painting the corners with more success. And thus, it’s not as surprise that Royals fans on Twitter are taking notice:

Will he be the front line starter that the Royals hoped he would be when he was drafted fifth overall? Absolutely not. It’s safe to say that the window of Zimmer being a possible no. 1 or 2 starter (which was the hope when he was drafted) has been long closed. But considering the injuries, surgeries and time of recovery Zimmer has had to deal with in his professional career, I think the Royals and Royals fans in general would be okay with Zimmer being the “Opener” the Royals employ when they aren’t trotting Duffy, Singer, Junis, or Montgomery (if he’s healthy) to the mound.

For now, it seems like Matheny will be tabbing Zimmer primarily as the Royals’ “Opener” and he hasn’t really implied that anyone else will be moving into that role. That being said, even if Zimmer regresses and can’t handle the spot in the future, it’s plausible that Staumont or even Ronald Bolanos could step up in terms of “Opening” games for the Royals in 2020. They both fit the mold as well, as they both possess that electric, high-heat stuff a team would need in an efficient “Opener” (Bolanos also has experience as a starter with the Padres, which could help in this role transition). Furthermore, with Trevor Rosenthal, Greg Holland, Scott Barlow, and Ian Kennedy in control of the late innings at this point, it would make sense to give Staumont and Bolanos a chance in the role should Zimmer not be able to maintain his hot start.

Yes, it may be gimmicky to some baseball “traditionalists” to trot out an “Opener” every five days. However, it would be better for the Royals to employ this strategy full-time than rely on a failed starter for innings like Lopez or Sparkman, who have proved over the course of 2018 and 2019 that they aren’t MLB-caliber starting pitchers (with Lopez perhaps proving he may not be a MLB-caliber pitcher in general). The Royals have the candidates and horses to employ an “Opener”, and they even have middle relief options who could handle things after the “Opener” exits (Sparkman seems like he would be a much better fit in this role). With a 60-game season, which could end if another outbreak happens, Matheny should continue to let this experiment endure over the full season even when the Royals starting pitchers return, with Zimmer, Staumont, and Bolanos being the three pitchers to hold the role in some kind of capacity.

But for now, after his performance tonight, Zimmer deserves a decent look in the Royals “Opener” role.

And if he thrives as the Royals’ “Opener” in 2020, it will be intriguing to see if Matheny will continue to employ Zimmer in such an uncanny pitching role over a 162 games in 2021.

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