Evaluating the Minnesota Twins’ success with the opener strategy
By Matt Smith
So, was this experiment worthwhile? Possibly. Let’s take a look at some cumulative stats to try to get a better idea of how the team fared. First, stats from the opener in each of the 8 games-
There’s a little bit of mixed results there, but I’m content overall. It wasn’t a perfect experiment, but the only way to find out if something works is to try it out, and I think these 8 games showed the potential value of using an opener. May didn’t fare well in his only shot at opening a game, though he would later find himself settling nicely in the 9th inning/closer role, perhaps giving the Twins their top in-house choice for their 2019 closer.
Duffey likewise only got one attempt at acting as opener, giving the Minnesota Twins a solid but not perfect result. I would have liked to see Duffey get more opportunities at opening games. He is a former starter with experience pitching in the first inning, and his results this year as a traditional reliever left some to be desired, so I wonder if an opener role is something he would succeed at. But, it was Moya who settled in as the go-to opener for the Twins, getting 6 of the 8 chances, and he thrived in the role.
Moya’s first outing was by far his worst as opener, giving up 2 runs in the first inning. After that game, however, he was lights out, getting 5 more opportunities for a total of 6 innings, 1 hit, 1 run, and 2 walks to 3 strikeouts. Perhaps Moya found himself a new role with the Minnesota Twins. If the opener strategy is deemed worthwhile by the team, Moya has made a strong argument for him to be the opener of choice.
Lets turn our attention to the primary pitchers. Here are their cumulative stats during opener games-
That’s pretty darn good! For a bit more context, 7 earned runs across 36.2 innings combines for a stellar 1.74 ERA. There’s certainly still room for improvement, as 20 hits isn’t spectacular, and 19 walks is high, but remember that all 3 of these pitchers are young and still getting acclimated to the MLB. But… all 3 of these pitchers are still young and getting acclimated to the MLB! A 1.74 ERA from our primary pitchers in games using an opener would be phenomenal for veterans, but none of these guys have more than 40 career innings pitched in the MLB! That alone speaks volumes about the worth of a opener/primary combo.
Not sold yet? Consider both Gonsalves’ and Stewart’s MLB numbers with and without an opener. Here are their season game logs and totals in games without an opener-
Gonsalves without opener
Stewart without opener
And here’s their numbers in games utilizing an opener-
Gonsalves with opener
Stewart with opener
Look at that! It’s night and day. Gonsalves’ ERA in starts without an opener is 11.90. With an opener? 1.48. Stewart’s ERA without an opener is 6.70, compared to just 1.34 with an opener. Incredible! Furthermore, the duo’s combined record without openers was a winless 0-3. With an opener? A perfect 4-0.
Now, part of this may just simply be attributed to the fact that both Gonsalves and Stewart were young, rookie pitchers that struggled early on in their MLB stints before making some adjustments and calming things down, and no, this isn’t the largest sample size we’ve ever seen. But that significant of a different between starts with an opener and starts without is just too much to ignore, and I find it hard to believe that pitchers as new to the league as they are would make changes that so significantly transform their numbers that quickly. That’s not to mention that it seems too convenient that both pitchers were so bad without openers, but then instantly became completely different pitchers as soon as they were given openers. Something more is at play here than just standard tweaks and improvements.
Now, some may point to the Minnesota Twins’ 4-4 record in games using openers and ask why, if the opener/primary combo worked so well, don’t we at least have a winning record. Fair question. At the end of the day, team wins and losses are, of course, all that matter. To answer that question, I present two pieces of the team we’ve largely ignored in this piece- The bullpen and the bats. The bullpen gave up more runs than the opener and primary pitcher did in 4 of the 8 opener games. In those 4 games, the Twins went 1-3. That’s where a big chunk of the losses come from.
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As for the bats, here I point at opener games 2 (2-5 loss to the Astros), 4 (4-6 loss to the Royals), and 7 (2-4 loss to the Tigers). None of these games are too egregious, nothing like a 0-1 loss where the bats just didn’t give us anything, but in those borderline games, the best teams have bats that will give their team a shot to win even when their pitchers aren’t fully on. You can’t expect to win games that you only score 2 runs in, and even games where you put up 4 runs are not automatic wins in today’s MLB. But my bottom line point here is that the opener and primary pitchers were not the biggest reasons for the 4 losses of those 8 games.
While the opener strategy has been subject to a lot of criticism by fans across the country, the stats show great results for the Twins. After several of their young starters struggled early on in their time in the MLB, namely Stephen Gonsalves and Kohl Stewart, the Minnesota Twins tried giving them an opener to see if that would provide better results. It did, completely turning around Gonsalves’ and Stewart’s results this year.
While it is a big shift from what we are used to seeing, and some may gripe about the slower pace of game in opener days due to more pitching changes being required early on, the Twins would be wise to not toss out the opener strategy. The stats speak for themselves. Gonsalves and Stewart looked like completely different pitchers with and without an opener. Why, exactly is that so? Who knows. It could be not having to pitch to an opponent’s best hitters to start off a game, it could be calmer nerves entering a game that has already begun instead of being the one to kick it off, or it could be something else entirely. It’s tough to say.
At the end of the day, the opener/primary combination worked wonders for the Minnesota Twins. The bullpen spoiled a few good outings, and the bats didn’t always do enough to win games, but the results speak for themselves. For teams like the Twins that don’t have the luxury of being able to sign any free agent they want year in and year our, much of their success comes from in-house talent adapting and finding success at the major league level. Imagine how much better the team would be today if both Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano had immediately met their potential instead of having several years of struggles to start their careers. With this in mind, the Twins need to keep catering to methods that get the most out of their young players. In the case of both Gonsalves and Stewart, giving them an opener immediately resulted in amazingly better results than when either player acted as a traditional starter.
After a period of nearly 10 years that saw the Twins consistently struggling to win games, it shouldn’t matter how the job gets done. The opener strategy has given the team better opportunities to win games this year. Why exactly that is the case is hard to say, but it shouldn’t matter. If it works, it works. Why go away from that? The 2018 opener experiment turned out to be completely worthwhile, and the Minnesota Twins should be pleased with the results.