Handbook Sampler: How the Twins Opened Their Minds to the Opener
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA TODAY SportsStatistically speaking, starting pitchers deteriorate over the course of a game. Perhaps due to familiarity or simply having their stuff wear down in the later innings, the advantage swings drastically to the hitter his third time facing a pitcher.
From 2013 to 2017, the first time facing a pitcher, hitters posted a .249/.310/.396 (.706 OPS) batting line. That means every hitter the first time through is like Oakland’s Marcus Siemen, who posted a .706 OPS in 2018. By the third time facing a pitcher, however, hitters posted a .271/.333/.443 (.776 OPS), which means now everyone is Houston’s All-Star George Springer.
Teams can combat that by swapping out the starter for a reliever, thus avoiding the dreaded third time through. After all, batters have hit .243/.317/.384 (.700 OPS) against relievers the first time facing them (hello, Cincinnati’s Tucker Barnhart).
Using the opener also has the secondary purpose of protecting the primary pitcher — the pitcher who follows the opener — from a lineup’s top of the order, where most of the best hitters reside. With an opener in place, if a team does opt to allow the primary pitcher to go through a third time, chances are they're avoiding the top and middle parts of the order in that go round.
In short, The Opener strategy: (1) limits a starter’s exposure to a third time through the order, (2) protects them against facing the team’s better hitters more than once, and (3) allows a manager to align a relief pitcher whose strengths better neutralize a lineup's top three hitters.
“Can’t deny the logic,” Twins director of player personnel Mike Radcliff says regarding the strategy. Baseball is a boat race to 27 outs and, on paper, the opener concept could yield favorable results.
While the Tampa Bay Rays were first to deploy the strategy, the Twins say they weren’t copycats. In fact, the discussion dates back to last offseason in Fort Myers. And it is likely no coincidence that one key figure in this discussion used to be employed by the Rays.
Josh Kalk’s reputation for maximizing pitching results looms large within the game. In the early PitchF/X era, Kalk was a renowned data wizard, dissecting arms, arsenals and strategies, then posting his findings publicly at The Hardball Times. The forward-thinking, budget-ballin’ Rays scooped him up. Kalk’s work has become so highly respected that reportedly 10 teams were vying for his services last winter when he left the Rays organization. The Twins were geeked when they landed him.
“He’s clearly an impact guy,” Falvey said of the Kalk hiring. “We had him down at our org meetings, meeting with our pitching coaches and staff. We feel like that's an area he has a certain level of expertise.”
It was at those org meetings at the Fort Myers facilities — one dubbed the pitching summit — where the discussion of using a pitcher as a one-inning opener first began, according to Radcliff. At the core of the meetings, per Falvey, was answering the question: How do we get our young pitchers better.
“We were wide-open to everything and anything,” Radcliff said of the organization. “We went in with the mindset that we are not afraid to try anything.”
Among contributors in the room were guys like Kalk sitting next to former players like LaTroy Hawkins and Bob McClure, new major-league pitching coach Garvin Alston, and minor-league pitching guys like Pete Maki and JP Martinez. Different eras and different viewpoints were represented.
The idea of the opener concept was floated, discussed, debated, argued and vetted. It seemed almost too simple — you protect your young pitchers by limiting their exposure as well as controlling the inning allotment. Minimize the risk and maximize the reward.
Not all of the ideas shared were unanimously embraced and the use of the opener strategy was one. In general, the difference of opinions during the summit did not faze Falvey. In reflecting on it, he viewed what transpired as healthy.
“We're never going to agree completely,” he said. “If we do, that just means we are saying yes to one idea. If we can disagree and actually, genuinely, talk about different perspectives, we've got a chance to make up ground and be better.”
Ultimately the parties walked out of the room with an organizational pitching development strategy going forward, and the idea of the opener was back-pocketed.
It wouldn’t take long to see the strategy in action. On May 19th the Rays started closer Sergio Romo, allowing him to get the first three outs in front of their primary pitcher, Ryan Yarbrough. Tampa would use the strategy a total of 55 times in 2018.
The results were decent enough for the Rays and their young pitchers — especially Yarbrough. Tampa would win 90 games and the 26-year-old rookie would finish the year 16-6, throwing over 140 innings despite making just six traditional starts. In either capacity — starting or primarying — Yarbrough faced the same hitter thrice on a given day just 83 times, one of the lowest totals of anyone who amassed 100 innings in 2018.
The Twins watched from afar as the Rays paired their young pitchers with one-inning openers. Unlike the Rays, the Twins were giving starts to veteran pitchers, such as Lance Lynn, Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Jose Berrios and a little Phil Hughes while waiting for Ervin Santana to heal. But injuries and ineffectiveness exposed cracks in that facade.
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