Posted by Jonah Gardner on March 31, 2016
For most sports, their biggest day is the final one. While the NFL, NBA, and NHL all schedule marquee games for their season opener, the event itself pales in comparison to the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, or the Stanley Cup Finals. But baseball is somewhat different. While the World Series is obviously a huge event, Opening Day is, in and of itself, nearly as big a deal. Put it this way: the 2013 petition to make Opening Day a national holiday had over 100,000 signatures. Wikipedia's article about the first day of baseball season is just titled Opening Day. There's no need to clarify which sport we're talking about.
One of the best parts of Opening Day is the pageantry and build-up surrounding the selection of the Opening Day starter. In many ways, the choice of who gets the ball on Opening Day says a lot about where a team's mindset is at heading into the season. It's acknowledged as an honor, but not one that automatically goes to, on paper anyway, the "best" pitcher. For example, here's the 30 pitchers who started their team's opener last year:
That list includes some of the best pitchers in the league, but it also features a few young guns, long-standing veterans, flashy offseason acquisitions, and just plain odd picks. 3 of the top 5 finishers for the NL Cy Young Award (Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, and Gerrit Cole), including the Top 2 vote-getters, aren't on that list. The New York Mets, who would go on to win the NL pennant and play in the 2015 World Series, started a 42-year-old who would only pitch in relief in the postseason. The Toronto Blue Jays, who made it to the ALCS, started a pitcher who posted a 4.48 ERA the previous season.
The Opening Day Starter has become another fascinating, weird, and delightful baseball tradition, which, of course raises the question of who was the best Opening Day Starter of all-time. This question has 2 parts; you're looking for the pitcher who earned the honor of Opening Day Starter the most times while, at the same time, trying to sort through who performed the best in that role.
Fortunately, Baseball-Reference's Play Index (which, btw, you can try for free through April 15), specifically the Game Finder, gives us the tools to answer this question. Using the Play Index, I built a list showing what pitcher had the most Opening Day starts since 1913. That query also shows us each pitcher's total Win Probability Added.
WPA is a measure of how a player's performance affected the outcome of a game. Going into every play in a game, given the inning, score, and number of baserunners/outs, we can calculate what a team's probability of winning the game is. Then, depending on the result on the play, we can calculate how the win probability has changed. So if a pitcher strikes out a hitter, the pitcher's WPA goes up, and the hitter's goes down, because the pitcher has improved his team's chances of winning. If he gives up a HR, the reverse happens.
Baseball-Reference has complete WPA going back to 1974. It's also over 90% complete going back to 1951 and between 40-90% complete, depending on the year, to 1930. For this post, I took the total number of Opening Day starts made by a player and multiplied it by their WPA in order to create a number that rewards pitchers for starting more Opening Day games and for doing well in them. Let's call this number "adjusted starts" for simplicity's sake.
Two quick notes: I made sure every pitcher on this list had a WPA for every game, so someone like Bobo Newsom, who doesn't have WPAs for all his Opening Day starts, wasn't eligible. Also, I'm counting the team's first game of the year as an Opening Day game even if, like this year's Mets-Royals Sunday Night game, it's not happening on the officially declared Opening Day. Here's the 11 pitchers who scored the highest:
We had a 3-way tie for 9th, with each of these pitchers coming in at 9.6 adjusted starts. You can also see the different ways a person can crack this list. For Blyleven, it's by making 12 Opening Day starts for 5 different teams. The Hall-of-Famer went 9+ innings on 4 separate opening days, including a 10-inning complete game win in 1977.
Palmer, on the other hand, took the mound 6 times on Opening Day. Palmer went at least 7 innings in every start and won 5 out of the 6. Oh, and the one he lost? The same 1977 Blyleven start, where Palmer also went 10 innings and only gave up 2 runs.
As for Martinez, his teams went 3-5 in his Opening Day starts (3-4 in Boston and 0-1 with the Mets). Surprisingly, Pedro had the most strikeouts in the 2005 opener for the Mets, although by game score, his best opener was 2000, when he pitched 7 shutout innings and notched 11 strikeouts. That was good for an 82 in game score, which, impressive though it was, didn't even crack Pedro's Top 5 in 2000.
8. Roy Halladay (10 starts, 1.0 WPA)
Doc Halladay started every Blue Jays' opener from 2003-09, as well as the following 3 seasons of Phillies' openers. Excluding the 2003 game, Halladay never walked more than 2 hitters on Opening Day. In that 2003 game, he also gave up 5 unearned runs which (along with Josh Beckett on the same day) is the last time a pitcher did that on Opening Day. Doc saved his best for last, though. In 2012, Halladay's final Opening Day start, he pitched 8 shutout innings against the Pirates with just a single run of support.
7. Wes Ferrell (6 starts, 1.8 WPA)
Wes Ferrell had 6 Opening Day starts and got the Win in all 6, trailing only Jimmy Key who went 7-0. So why is Ferrell's WPA 2 times better than Key's (1.8 vs 0.9)? Because every Opening Day start by Ferrell was a complete game, including a monster 11-inning outing in 1932.
6. Greg Maddux (8 starts, 1.7 WPA)
The only surprise here is that Greg Maddux isn't higher. In 8 Opening Day starts, 7 for Atlanta and 1 for Chicago, Maddux's teams went 7-1, with the only loss coming in 2003 when he gave up 4 runs in the 1st inning to the Expos. His best start was his first for the Braves, ironically against the Cubs, when Maddux pitched a shutout for 8 1/3 innings. And, since I know you're asking, he never had an Opening Day Maddux.
5. Juan Marichal (10 starts, 1.4 WPA)
4. Fergie Jenkins (11 starts, 1.3 WPA)
Fergie Jenkins got his first Opening Day start for the Cubs in 1967. 16 years and 4 Presidents later, he was still getting the Opening Day call on the North Side. Jenkins' career included Opening Day starts alongside both Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg. Oh, and he never gave up more than 2 walks, and only allowed more than 2 ER in 2 of his 11 Opening Day starts.
3. Felix Hernandez (8 starts, 2.1 WPA)
The youngest pitcher on this list, King Felix will make it 9 Opening Day starts on Monday when he takes the mound against the Texas Rangers. The Mariners are 8-0 when Felix starts on Opening Day, and Hernandez himself has a 6-0 record and a 1.49 ERA on opening day. To put that in comparison, that's a better Opening Day ERA than Walter Johnson post-1913.
2. Tom Seaver (16 starts, 1.4 WPA)
Before adjusting for performance, Seaver is the leader, starting a whopping 16 Opening Day games from 1968-1986. When Tom Seaver made his first Opening Day start, Star Trek: The Original Series was on the air. He made his final one the year before The Next Generation debuted.
Seaver was also characteristically dominant in these games. He had 4 starts with a game score over 70 and 12 with a game score over 50. He gave up more than 3 ER just 3 times and never walked more than 4 batters. His teams were 11-5 in these starts and one of them, as you might recall, went on to win the World Series.
1. Randy Johnson (14 starts, 1.9 WPA)
However, if you adjust for WPA, Randy Johnson has the edge over Seaver. His 14 Opening Day starts are tied with Jack Morris and Steve Carlton for 2nd most since 1913, however, only Felix and Rip Sewell had a higher WPA in their starts than the Big Unit had in his.
In 9 of Johnson's 14 starts, he gave up 2 or fewer ER and in all but 2, he had at least 5 strikeouts. His best start was in 2002, when he pitched an 8-strikeout, 1-walk complete-game shutout.
Lastly, here are some Opening Day pitching odds and ends (all records since 1913):
Most Opening Day Walks:
Career: Jack Morris - 39
Most Opening Day Strikeouts:
Career: Randy Johnson - 107
Most IP on Opening Day:
Career: Walter Johnson - 107.0 (and keep in mind that doesn't include his pre-1913 starts)
Best Opening Day ERA (min. 5 starts): Rick Mahler - 0.92