ARLINGTON -- The Twins are set to use the "opener" strategy for the first time this season, as lefty reliever Gabriel Moya is expected to start against the Rangers on Sunday, while right-hander Zack Littell will be recalled from Triple-A Rochester to serve as what manager Paul Molitor has dubbed the "primary pitcher" after Moya.
The Twins have been utilizing the strategy for months at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels, much like the Rays have done at the Major League level. The A's also employed it for the first time Saturday, starting reliever Liam Hendriks with Daniel Mengden behind him. Minnesota decided to push back right-hander Kyle Gibson's start back to try the strategy, especially because the Rangers have a lefty-leaning lineup up top with Shin-Soo Choo, Rougned Odor and Nomar Mazara.
"You don't want to do it on a whim," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "There's always going to be a risk, and then you try to decide in the game when it's worthwhile to try to find out if this is something that's going to be helpful to help your team win. You're looking for an advantage. When you look at runs scored in the first inning, runs scored in the fifth inning, some of the things that happen to pitchers numbers when they start seeing hitters, especially the good hitters, a third time, how their slugging percentage and wOBAs can jump dramatically."
As Molitor pointed out, much of the strategy is advised to keep the primary pitcher from facing the top of the lineup early and to be limited to two times through the order. The data shows starting pitchers have a higher ERA in the first inning and also have trouble with hitters a third time through an order.
"All of it make sense," said Littell, who has experience with the strategy at Triple-A. "Whether it's ERA for the first inning and the fifth inning, how ERA's improve when starters didn't face the third time through the lineup, the top three guys. It all made sense. The data is there. It's all designed to help the starter. I just think we're going to start seeing it more and more. Just going all out. It's just how it's going to be."
Twins Minor League pitchers were shown a PowerPoint demonstration to see the benefits of the strategy, while Molitor also held a meeting with his pitchers Saturday. Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi and Gibson were told they're expected to start as usual, as rookies such as Kohl Stewart and Stephen Gonsalves will mostly pitch after an "opener." They were also told that any primary pitcher will come into a clean inning instead of with runners on, which means there could be times when two relievers are used before the primary pitcher.
"I think the guys who will be exposed to it up here, a majority have had some experience with it," Molitor said. "I wanted to give a heads up the pitchers, talking to them as a whole. I think it was wise that we brought it up a few months back and began to shape if we wanted to do it, that it was a good place to start down there. I think the presentation those guys got was a little bit more thorough explanation and all the analytics behind it. I didn't want to get too deep on that, as much as just give them a general feel on the philosophy of the opener strategy."