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Don’t demonize the opener strategy just yet

The Twins have tried “the opener” twice with poor results, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been a bad experiment.

Minnesota Twins v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

I’m not going to pretend that I’m a savant, but I’ve had some good fortune come my way when I’ve played blackjack at the casinos. Though I haven’t gone recently, my dad and I would go a few times when I was younger. With $40 apiece - we always went big, you see - we’d seek out a couple empty seats at one of the $1 tables and settle in for an hour or two at Running Aces in Columbus.

My experience at Running Aces is that the dealers are typically helpful while you play. My dad’s theory is that they want to seem welcoming and aid you in winning a few hands so you’ll continue to play and make another visit or two sometime in the future. With the dealers’ advice and a little bit of luck, I’d eventually hit a hot streak and start winning hand after hand. By the time the two of us would call it quits, I’d typically be walking away with twice as much money as when I had started.

During one of our visits, I started my regular hot streak. However, the dealer chuckled as I placed my bet. “Why are you still betting $1?” he asked. I responded that when I had bet $2 earlier, I lost a couple hands in a row so I went back to betting $1. With a sly grin on his face, he retorted, “Just because you lost twice doesn’t mean you should stop trying.”

Call it the hot hand fallacy or that I was easily persuaded, but I switched to tossing two chips onto the table rather than one for the next few hands. While the change didn’t affect my winnings in the end, I still felt the dealer had made a good point. Don’t let a little bad luck affect your decisions, or perhaps the better takeaway was that my change in betting wasn’t to blame for my bad luck. As the title of this post suggests, I’m attributing the same thought to the Twins’ first two uses of “the opener.”

With expanded rosters in September and zero chance of earning a playoff spot, now seems like the right time to experiment with this new pitching strategy. With a relief pitcher starting the game with the intent of only throwing one or two innings and a standard starting pitcher (or “primary pitcher” as the Twins have dubbed the role) going four to six innings afterward, any worst case scenarios can be mitigated with the presence of additional pitchers on the roster.

Thus far, the results haven’t been the greatest for the Twins. This past Sunday, they took it for a whirl by having lefty Gabriel Moya open the game against the Texas Rangers, with prospect Zack Littell following as the primary pitcher. Then last night, Trevor May was given the opportunity to start while Kohl Stewart was next in line. In both games, the opening pitcher struggled in his lone inning of work (2 runs for Moya, 4 runs for May) while the primary pitchers pitched either adequately or well (4 IP, 2 ER for Littell, 5 IP, 0 R for Stewart).

But, like my story about not letting a little bad luck discourage me at the blackjack table, the Twins shouldn’t give up so fast on the opener plan. I already went in detail of the reasoning behind the strategy a few months ago, but I’ll summarize it again here.

  1. Starting pitchers, whether due to fatigue or familiarity with the opposing hitters, become less effective when they face an opposing lineup for the third time. This is a fact.
  2. Opposing teams typically stack their best hitters at the top of their lineup. Also a fact, unless you’re Ron Gardenhire and you have Matt Tolbert or Nick Punto on your active roster.
  3. The opener is a relief pitcher that should (in theory) excel against the best hitters at the top of the lineup so the primary pitcher can hopefully face the bottom half of the lineup three times rather than the top half.

Moya was asked to face Shin-Soo Choo, Rougned Odor, Elvis Andrus, and Nomar Mazara (three lefties and a righty) while May was supposed to retire George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Tyler White, and Yuli Gurriel (all righties). Considering lefthanded batters have mustered just a .192/.263/.333 triple-slash against Moya in the majors while May has been flat-out dominant this season, it seemed as though Paul Molitor had made good selections for his opening pitcher. Instead, it backfired both times.

As a teacher, I often try to encourage my struggling students by thinking about the process vs. results matrix. Students get so focused on the result (a good grade) that they often don’t think about the process that will get them there (studying, doing homework, asking questions, etc.). I even bring this up with those that succeed without doing much work, because I’ve encountered countless students that inevitably hit the wall when the content becomes too difficult to learn simply by auditory and visual absorption.

I’ve been frustrated that a lot of Twins fans seem to refuse to understand why the opener exists. Thus, they have or will attribute the struggles of Moya and May to the lower right corner; the Twins are trying something that’s never been done before this season and it predictably failed, therefore proving that over a hundred years of baseball history already knew how a pitching staff should run. Instead, I feel the Twins have been stuck in that upper right quadrant. There’s evidence and logic why the opener should work, the Rays have been successful with it for several months now, but the Twins struck out (pun not intended) twice in their first attempts. They selected two relievers that should have succeeded, and actually Moya did just fine against the lefties he was asked to face. He just happened to give up a home run to the lone righty in the mix. Meanwhile, May had less of an excuse other than he just faced one of the best offenses in baseball, and hindsight is 20/20 if your argument is that Stewart should have just started the game instead.

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions I’ve seen is that people think this is going to completely take over baseball, where we’ll rarely see traditional starting pitchers anymore. While I think most teams might employ an opener once or twice a week, I think any fears beyond that are overblown. The Twins will be utilizing the idea often this month because rosters have expanded in September, but also because they have three young, flawed starting pitchers in Littell, Stewart, and Stephen Gonsalves. Molitor and the front office have made it clear that established pitchers Kyle Gibson, Jose Berrios, and Jake Odorizzi won’t be used as primary hurlers, though Odorizzi’s numbers when facing a lineup the third time suggest he’d benefit from the change. There’s no guarantee that this proposal will continue in 2019, and if anything watching it fail will discourage the organization from trying it next year, anyway. I hope it’s successful because I find innovation fun, but frankly I’m disappointed that some fans instantly dislike it simply because it’s different.

We still have yet to see the opener tried with Gonsalves as the primary pitcher, but I’m sure that it’s just around the corner. With a couple more weeks left in the season, the team will continue experimenting with the scheme to see if it’s viable long-term. In theory it should be, but that will require the players to buy in to it as well, and thus far only Littell is on the record as being in favor of it. The players might decide that it’s not for them, but it’s worth a shot first rather than just automatically chalking it up as a dumb idea.