Evaluating the Minnesota Twins’ success with the opener strategy
By Matt Smith
Late in the season, the Minnesota Twins tried out a new MLB fad, the opener strategy. Was it successful? Read to find out! Hint- the numbers are staggering.
Late in the season, the Minnesota Twins decided to test out one of the rising strategies in the MLB- an opener. In this strategy, an “opener”, typically a reliever, starts the game and pitches 1 or 2 innings before giving way to the “primary” pitcher, typically a starter who is expected to go several innings after that. The idea behind it is that some starting pitchers do better when they can avoid the top of an opponent’s batting order to start off the game. Teams place a reliever who they feel can better shut down the top of the lineup in for the first inning. They then put in the primary who will ideally get into a groove and pitch 4, 5, or 6 innings after that.
The Tampa Bay Rays were one of the first teams to test out this idea, and they found great success. Before implementing an opener, their team pitching ERA sat at 4.45 on May 19th, ranking in the bottom third of the league. After utilizing an opener, their team ERA was 2.87 over the next month or so, best in the MLB over that span. For a team without many notable pitcher behind 2018 Cy Young contender Blake Snell, this was a huge accomplishment. It was far from a traditional approach to winning games, but for the Rays, it worked.
Other teams took notice and curiously began testing it out. The Minnesota Twins didn’t give in to the fad until September, but by my count, they used an opener for 8 games. Today we’ll take a look at each of those starts to see how the opener/primary combination worked, and then look at the bigger picture and try to decide if an opener is a strategy that’s worth keeping in the back pocket or not.
For each game, I’ll show the full pitching box score, but I really want to focus in on just the stats from the opener and the primary pitcher for each game. Those two pitchers are what we’re most interested in, as the bullpen usage in opener games tends to be fairly consistent with usage in non-opener games, other than a reliever throwing an inning or two to start the game. We’ll look quickly at the pitching box score for each game, provide a quick game summary, and then do some work after looking at each opener game to determine if using the strategy was worthwhile for the Twins or not. Let’s jump into it.