The first two times the Minnesota Twins have used an “opener,” it didn’t go well. Still, manager Paul Molitor feels that the concept is worth trying out as the season comes to a close.
Gabriel Moya gave up two runs on one hit as the opener on Sept. 2 vs. the Texas Rangers, and Zack Littell gave up two earned runs in four innings as the “primary pitcher” in what became an 18-4 blowout in Arlington. Two days later Trevor May opened up for Kohl Stewart in Houston. May gave up four earned runs in the first inning against the Astros, but Stewart pitched five scoreless innings.
“You have to trust it a little bit,” he said before Tuesday’s game. “Sometimes it’s gonna work, and sometimes it doesn’t, and it can do that whether it’s your opener, your primary or a guy just taking the ball on his regular turn.”
Tyler Duffey opened for Stewart on Tuesday against the New York Yankees. Duffey did his part, giving up only one run in two innings. But Stewart struggled with command and gave up three runs while walking five. It did, however, lead to his first-ever major league win.
“It didn’t change much,” he said when asked about the difference between starting and being the primary pitcher. “I kinda mimicked everything that I normally do. The run in is obviously different, but once you’re on the mound everything’s the same.”
“I understand it, yes. It feels different,” said Duffey. “There’s no way around it. A starter coming out of the bullpen, a reliever starting the game, it goes against what we’re used to doing, basically. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying it’s different.”
Molitor is being patient and open-minded about the whole process. That should come as no surprise, he’s been patient and open-minded when it comes to just about anything — player development, outfield shifts, advanced analytics, etc. It’s what has allowed him to work with Derek Falvey and Thad Levine, the team’s young executives, who manage the team with modern baseball techniques in mind.
“Well, old school, new school — you take it on as it’s brought [to you]. I couldn’t help but pay attention to Tampa’s success,” said Molitor, who spoke with Twins pitching analyst Josh Kalk, who previously worked for the Tampa Bay Rays organization. “Derek, Thad and I and our pitching guys have talked about it at length throughout the year and have kind of watched fairly closely to how it’s unfolded in our system.
“The more you look at the data, I think it’s easy to support.”
He says that the players have to buy into it if it’s going to work. Many of the younger primary pitchers already had openers in the minor leagues, and for relievers it opens up another role that could potentially pay more than the league minimum, in addition to the closer and setup man.
“For the most part, people understand it,” said Molitor. “I’m glad we had some people down below that experienced it, and saw it be successful.
“It’s just not something that we’re flippantly trying to experiment with. We think it has merit, we’re trying to see how it plays out.”
Molitor insists that he’s not embracing the opener concept, or any other similar baseball trends, because he’s worried about his job security. The Hall of Famer, who grew up in St. Paul, attended the University of Minnesota and spent the last three of his 21 years in the major leagues with the Twins is secure in his legacy.
“It’s more of that reality thing, you deal with what’s current,” he said, echoing his sentiment about many aspects of modern baseball. “As the game has transcended in a lot of different ways in 40 years of being around it, it’s part of the challenge, to try to keep yourself up to date on things, on philosophies.”
His sentiment about the game is less common among older players, who tend to believe that the game has changed too much recently.
“A lot of people have different opinions about the best ways to give your team a chance to win on a given day, or over the course of a season. I’m not being open-minded just because if I don’t — the downside,” he added, implying that if he wasn’t on board with Falvey and Levine’s new methods, he could be fired.
“I think it’s wise to try to realize as players change and rosters change, and what people can do change, and what we can analyze changes, that we have to at least figure out how best to implement that knowledge if we can.”
He has mixed and matched his openers and primary pitchers so far. The opener has been a high-leverage reliever, Moya, or a former starter, May and Duffey.
“Moya was first, and just he was a guy that, especially last year more than this year, was kind of a reverse-split guy, got righties out better than he got out lefties,” said Molitor. “Slider’s gotten better, and the mix has gotten more neutral, if you will.
“Trevor May, obviously with four pitches, and the starter’s history, is a good candidate against any lineup.”
The primary pitcher is likely to be a young aspiring starter — Littell (22), Stewart (23) and likely Stephen Gonsalves (24) — who could benefit from getting far into games by avoiding the top of an opponent’s lineup early in games.
“They’ve seen it down below,” said Molitor, referring to the minor leagues. “Part of the challenge with those guys is trying not to have their confidence shaken as a starter. That, ‘Hey, we need to open for you because we’re a little worried about how you’re going to do the third time facing the lineup.’
“The mental component of trying to get them to get past that and just do what they do. To just land more on the side of we’re trying to give them the best chance to have a successful outing, regardless of when it begins and when it ends.”
Molitor says that he’s not sure what a fair sample size is, and it’s unlikely the Twins will have enough data on the concept from the final month of the season to make a decision on whether or not they will use it next season.
“I don’t think you can put a number on it, mainly because if you decide, regardless of how it goes, how many times we do it this month, chances are you’re looking at different people next year,” he said.
“We think we have some people that are candidates, but we’re kinda finding that out too. I don’t really know that there’s a number that’s gonna give us a really good feel. We might run it out there seven, eight times this month, and maybe more than one works out. But we just don’t know, and I don’t think it’s gonna deter us from at least considering it in the mix as we move forward.”
There are a lot of unknowns with the opener-primary pitcher method, including who is slotted into each role, who actually starts and whether it actually works with the Twins personnel. There’s also the question as to whether Molitor will be retained as the manager after another losing season. The strongest case for him, however, is that he’s open to implementing modern baseball techniques, and patient enough to see if they actually work.