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Pitching ‘openers’ will be among Twins’ 2019 game plans

September 28, 2018

The growing trend toward using one-inning “openers” instead of traditional starting pitchers has produced some marvelous trivia. When Gabriel Moya took the mound on Thursday, for instance, he became the first big-league pitcher to start four games against the same opponent over a 10-day span in almost exactly a century, since Grover Cleveland Lowdermilk of the St. Louis Browns repeatedly faced the Philadelphia A’s in 1918.

But if openers are providing intriguing searches of Elias Sports Bureau’s statistical database, it remains to be seen if they’re beneficial to a pitching staff, too. Moya, who has now faced the Tigers in nearly one-fourth of his 41 career games, allowed singles to the first two batters he faced Thursday, eventually allowing a run on Nicholas Castellanos’ sacrifice fly. It was only the second time in six “starts” that Moya has allowed a run, and the first time a Twins opener has been scored on since the Yankees got a run against Tyler Duffey on Sept. 11.

Thursday was the Twins’ final experiment with the nontraditional pitching format — at least until next season. Don’t be surprised, however, if the opener becomes a relatively frequent feature of Twins games in 2019.

“I still think we’re going to see it” for the foreseeable future, Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “I haven’t learned a ton, because it’s kind of how I thought it would be, for the most part. But it hasn’t lessened my intrigue about how it can help a team over the course of a season.”

That intrigue, however, may depend upon having the right pitchers to serve as openers, and starting pitchers whose preparations aren’t disrupted by entering a game an inning or two into it. The Twins have used only rookies as their “primary pitchers,” call-ups who experienced the skip-an-inning format at Class AAA Rochester. Kohl Stewart and Stephen Gonsalves in particular seemed to gain confidence as they gained experience during the September tryout; neither had allowed a run in their previous two appearances, totaling 21 innings. Then again, those four games were against the playing-out-the-season Tigers and Royals; against the Rangers, Astros and Yankees, the results were a lot more messy.

“One of the hard parts is to try to measure how much of Stewart’s success was tied to that concept. He pitched really well, but he might have pitched just as well from the beginning [of the game]. Or he might not have gone as deep,” Molitor said. “When he has a good outing, and he comes into the middle of the lineup and he’s rolling, you’re going to get 22, 23 hitters instead of 18 or [so] if you’re worried about the third time through the top of the order. … When it works, it lines up really nicely.”

But the manager sounded less inclined to try the concept with a veteran pitcher who hadn’t experienced it before. And as for training a reliever to pitch the first inning, Molitor believes he knows what to look for now.

“The player [has to] have an ability to look at it as another inning for him that might be [the equivalent of] a hold inning later in the game,” the manager said. “but the reality is, the first three outs are different. You want a guy who has fairly good left-right [balance], and you do look at matchups.”

The matchups have worked out reasonably well for the Twins. Moya, a lefthander who holds lefties to a .217 averaged and righties to .247, has a 3.86 ERA in his seven innings as the opener, even if the team overall has a 7.20 ERA. And the primary pitchers carried a 1.35 ERA in their outings, after relieving Moya or another reliever.

Molitor said offseason discussions with Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and General Manager Thad Levine will determine whether or how frequently openers are used in 2019. “I don’t have all the answers on the perfect way to try to use it, but I’m sure we’ll have a chance to discuss it,” Molitor said. “And again, until we know how it’s going to look personnelwise, it’s hard to say how it’s going be a part of what we do going forward.”

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