Openers and Aces

May 9, 2014

                How often does a team’s opening day starter turn out to be actually the best pitcher on the team?  That was the question that got me started on this:  Do most opening-day starters actually turn out to be the best pitchers on their team, or not?   What percentage of the time would you guess a team’s opening day starter turns out to be the team’s best starting pitcher:

                a)  14%

                b)  34%

                c)  54%

                d)  74%

 

                While figuring that, of course, I developed 10,000 other factoids, a few of which might be interesting enough to pass along. . .or not; I can never tell.

                Most opening-day starts, 1960 to the present, not including 2014:

 

First

Last

Starts

 

First

Last

Starts

Tom

Seaver

16

 

Phil

Niekro

9

Randy

Johnson

14

 

Gaylord

Perry

9

Steve

Carlton

14

 

Mark

Buehrle

9

Jack

Morris

14

 

Nolan

Ryan

9

Roger

Clemens

13

 

Livan

Hernandez

9

Bert

Blyleven

12

 

Don

Sutton

9

Ferguson

Jenkins

11

 

Steve

Rogers

9

Dennis

Martinez

11

 

Rick

Sutcliffe

9

Roy

Halladay

10

 

Brad

Radke

9

Bob

Gibson

10

       

CC

Sabathia

10

       

Juan

Marichal

10

       

 

 

                Most years as his team’s best pitcher, 1960 to the present:

 

First

Last

Years

 

First

Last

Years

Bert

Blyleven

15

 

Ferguson

Jenkins

9

Tom

Seaver

14

 

Roy

Halladay

9

Phil

Niekro

14

 

Pedro

Martinez

9

Randy

Johnson

12

 

Curt

Schilling

9

Roger

Clemens

12

 

Bob

Gibson

8

Greg

Maddux

12

 

Gaylord

Perry

8

Steve

Carlton

11

 

Mark

Langston

8

Mike

Mussina

10

 

Kevin

Brown

8

Rick

Reuschel

10

 

Jim

Palmer

8

       

Johan

Santana

8

       

Dave

Stieb

8

       

 

 

 

 

                There’s a fact for you:  Bert Blyleven had almost twice as many years as his team’s #1 starting pitcher as Bob Gibson did, 15 to 8.  Gibson, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972; Blyleven, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1985, 1986 (Twins),  1976, 1977 (Rangers),  1978, 1979 (Pirates),  1981, 1984, 1985 (Indians),  1989 (Angels).  In 1976 Blyleven split the season between the Rangers and the Twins and was by far the best pitcher on either team, so he gets to count one team, but not both.

                Tom Seaver had twelve seasons in which he was both his team’s best pitcher and their opening day starter:

 

First

Last

Combo Seasons

 

First

Last

Combo Seasons

Tom

Seaver

12

 

Phil

Niekro

6

Randy

Johnson

10

 

Greg

Maddux

6

Bert

Blyleven

9

 

Jack

Morris

6

Steve

Carlton

9

 

Mike

Mussina

6

Roger

Clemens

8

 

CC

Sabathia

6

Roy

Halladay

8

 

Dennis

Martinez

6

Pedro

Martinez

7

 

Juan

Marichal

6

Gaylord

Perry

7

       

 

 

                Seaver, then, had four seasons in which he was his team’s opening day starter but not their best pitcher, two seasons in which he was a team’s best pitcher but not their opening day starter, and 12 seasons in which he was both:

 

First

Last

OD

Best

Both

Pts

 

First

Last

OD

Best

Both

Pts

Tom

Seaver

16

14

12

68

 

Mark

Buehrle

9

7

5

33

Bert

Blyleven

12

15

9

60

 

Mark

Langston

7

8

5

33

Randy

Johnson

14

12

10

58

 

Livan

Hernandez

9

7

5

33

Steve

Carlton

14

11

9

54

 

Kevin

Brown

7

8

5

33

Roger

Clemens

13

12

8

53

 

Rick

Reuschel

7

10

3

33

Phil

Niekro

9

14

6

49

 

Johan

Santana

6

8

5

32

Roy

Halladay

10

9

8

44

 

Charlie

Hough

8

7

5

32

Greg

Maddux

8

12

6

44

 

Steve

Rogers

9

6

5

31

Pedro

Martinez

8

9

7

40

 

Kevin

Appier

8

6

5

30

Jack

Morris

14

7

6

40

 

Don

Sutton

9

6

4

29

Gaylord

Perry

9

8

7

39

 

Nolan

Ryan

9

7

3

29

Mike

Mussina

7

10

6

39

 

Roy

Oswalt

8

6

4

28

Ferguson

Jenkins

11

9

5

39

 

Jim

Palmer

6

8

3

28

Dennis

Martinez

11

7

6

37

 

Mickey

Lolich

7

6

4

27

CC

Sabathia

10

7

6

36

 

Justin

Verlander

6

6

4

26

Juan

Marichal

10

7

6

36

 

Bartolo

Colon

6

7

3

26

Bob

Gibson

10

8

5

36

 

Ben

Sheets

7

5

4

25

Curt

Schilling

7

9

5

35

 

Ron

Guidry

7

6

3

25

 

 

                There’s a little formula for "Staff ace points" there—1 point for being the Opening Day Starter but not the team’s best pitcher, 2 points for being the team’s best pitcher but not their Opening Day Starter, 5 points for being both.  Tom Seaver, Bert Blyleven, Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton are the top staff aces of the last 50 years.   Dennis Martinez does surprisingly well here. ..better than Gibson or Marichal or Schilling.

                I should have saved a note as to who was a team’s worst opening day starter, but I failed to do that.   While I was doing this, it was pretty easy to figure pitcher records on opening day assignments.  The best pitcher in the group in Opening Day games was:   Rick Mahler.  Seriously.  Mahler pitched Opening Day for the Braves in 1982, at San Diego, pitched a 2-hit shutout.  He didn’t draw the Opening Day assignment again until 1985 in Philadelphia, opened at Philadelphia in 1983, against Steve Carlton:  7 shutout innings, 3 hits.  Against Montreal in Atlanta, 1986, he pitched a 5-hit shutout.  Against Philadelphia in 1987, a 3-hit shutout.  Four Opening Day starts, 4 wins, 34 innings, only 13 hits, no runs (earned or un-earned), 0.00 ERA.

                Jack Morris won the most Opening-Day starts (8); Steve Carlton lost the most (9).   Phil Niekro was 0-7 on Opening Days, 7.31 ERA.  These are the Opening Day records of pitchers with 8 or more Opening Day starts, or with five or more and notably good or bad performance:

First

Last

GS

W

L

ERA

Tom

Seaver

16

7

2

3.13

           

Randy

Johnson

14

7

2

2.49

Jack

Morris

14

8

6

3.39

Steve

Carlton

14

3

9

4.30

           

Roger

Clemens

13

6

3

4.08

           

Bert

Blyleven

12

3

3

3.21

           

Ferguson

Jenkins

11

3

4

2.58

Dennis

Martinez

11

2

5

3.65

           

Juan

Marichal

10

6

2

1.73

Bob

Gibson

10

2

2

3.00

Roy

Halladay

10

5

3

3.31

CC

Sabathia

10

1

2

5.80

           

Don

Sutton

9

4

3

2.63

Steve

Rogers

9

2

4

3.43

Mark

Buehrle

9

4

1

3.68

Gaylord

Perry

9

4

3

3.82

Nolan

Ryan

9

5

3

3.84

Brad

Radke

9

4

2

4.25

Livan

Hernandez

9

4

4

4.45

Rick

Sutcliffe

9

5

3

4.71

Phil

Niekro

9

0

7

7.31

           

Greg

Maddux

8

6

1

2.10

Pedro

Martinez

8

3

1

2.76

Charlie

Hough

8

4

1

3.08

Roy

Oswalt

8

2

4

3.48

Tom

Glavine

8

5

3

3.70

Kevin

Appier

8

1

5

3.80

Dwight

Gooden

8

6

1

3.81

           

Mickey

Lolich

7

5

2

1.55

Ben

Sheets

7

3

0

2.59

Jimmy

Key

7

7

0

2.64

Mel

Stottlemyre

7

4

3

2.90

Kevin

Brown

7

3

3

4.83

Jon

Lieber

7

2

2

5.87

           

Felix

Hernandez

6

4

0

1.33

Jim

Palmer

6

5

1

1.40

Chris

Short

6

3

1

1.54

Mario

Soto

6

4

1

2.16

Dave

McNally

6

4

0

2.41

Bartolo

Colon

6

4

1

2.79

Mike

Moore

6

2

1

5.00

Larry

Jackson

6

2

3

5.05

Derek

Lowe

6

3

3

5.05

Justin

Verlander

6

1

1

5.08

John

Burkett

6

2

2

5.14

Chris

Carpenter

6

3

1

5.40

Carlos

Zambrano

6

1

2

6.99

           

Wilbur

Wood

5

2

2

1.52

Don

Drysdale

5

5

0

1.71

Jered

Weaver

5

3

1

1.93

Randy

Jones

5

3

1

2.25

Doug

Drabek

5

3

2

2.61

Josh

Beckett

5

2

1

2.96

Mike

Torrez

5

2

2

4.91

Mike

Scott

5

3

1

5.12

Camilo

Pascual

5

1

3

5.16

Ramon

Martinez

5

2

3

5.18

James

Shields

5

1

2

5.22

Rick

Langford

5

0

3

5.54

Andy

Benes

5

0

4

6.28

 

                This data does not include 2014.  King Felix actually made his 7th Opening Day start this season and won, raising him to 5-0 on Opening Day, ERA now at 1.52.  Great Opening Day records:   Big Unit, Marichal, Maddux, Lolich, Felix; worst include Niekro, Sabathia, Carlos Zambrano.  Drysdale (5-0, 1.71 ERA) probably had some Opening Day assignments in the 1950s, before this study started, I don’t know.

                OK, the question with which we started the exercise:  How often does the Opening Day starter turn out to be the team’s best pitcher, over the course of the season?   34%.

 
 

COMMENTS (8 Comments, most recent shown first)

WarrenJohnson
I enjoyed reading this study, but one thing puzzles me. You make a
point of saying that you can't count Bert Blyleven for both the Twins
and the Rangers in 1976, which is fine, but he is listed for both the Indians and the Twins in 1985.
8:15 AM May 11th
 
Riceman1974
KaiserD2
Also, i'm sure Bill is using Win Shares or some Win Shares WAR combination to derive value. We are talking about the father of Sabermetrics here. I think he's aware of the dangers of valuing pitchers solely by Win-Losses
6:27 PM May 10th
 
Riceman1974
KaiserD2.
Interested in your study. I find the various WAR formulations to be utter nonsense. They vary so much based upon competing definitions of replacement level, defensive valuation, and the overrated position adjustments. I prefer win shares.
6:17 PM May 10th
 
ventboys
The writers actually voted for Blyleven and rejected Morris.
3:56 PM May 10th
 
StatsGuru
This strikes me as another reason writers tended to think Morris was a Hall of Fame Pitcher and Blyleven wasn't. Opening day, big game, big success.
9:54 AM May 10th
 
KaiserD2
I too would appreciate knowing what the measure of "best pitcher" was. If it was won-lost, that for me would call into question the validity of the whole exercise.

As I've mentioned, I'm in the midst of a long-term project to identify the best seasons in history for both pitchers and hitters, designed now to include all seasons of four or more WAA (not WAR.) One of the things that is clearly emerging from the data-gathering (which is about 80% complete at this point) is that two of the most misleading statistics in baseball are RBIs for hitters, and won-loss for pitchers. Both are, to a very large extent (perhaps some day I can tell you how large) a function of two things: how good one's teammates are, and luck.

With respect to pitchers and won-loss records, I would suggest that we keep in mind a simple and fairly obvious fact. A pitcher for a team whose hitters are, let's say, 14 wins above average (and there are plenty of such teams), with at least average defense, who has 22 decisions, will, all things being equal, have a record of 13-9. If he's two wins above average himself, it should be 15-7. If he were 2 wins above average on a team with average hitting, he would be 13-9.

That example wasn't chosen at random. The pitcher was Tom Sturdivant, who went 16-6 for the 1957 New York Yankees. In one of his books--perhaps the one on managers?--Bill noted that Casey Stengel and/or Ralph Houk both seemed to have a habit of getting one really good season out of a pitcher not destined for greatness. That was true, but I would argue that the explanation was a mixture of 1) the Yankees' superior offense and 2) luck. Of Sturdivant's five wins above .500, it would seem that he owed three of them to the Yankee offense, two of them to his own skill, and one of them to luck.

And that's not all--since Sturdivant was over 1 WAA in only one other season in his whole career, it would seem that his 1957 numbers (that is, the number of outs he recorded compared to hits and walks) probably owed something to luck too--perhaps a lot of balls off him were just within the range of fielders. While I think Voros McCracken was basically correct, I don't think his rule applies strictly to 200 innings by one pitcher in one season.

I should note, by the way, that I do not agree with the way that baseball-reference.com calculates WAA, because they give the same number to someone who saved 35 runs in 200 innings as some one who saved 35 runs in 300 innings, which makes no sense to me. Their numbers discriminate against people who pitched a lot of innings. However, if you start checking their WAA numbers for seasons thought of as great, or if you simply check out, for instance, the career figures for Don Drysdale, you're going to be very surprised about his actual value and WHEN he was most valuable. Although he had a number of fine seasons, only one of them (1959) took place during a year in which the Dodgers won the pennant. And incidentally, he narrowly beats out Johnny Podres as the best Dodger pitcher in 1957.​
8:59 AM May 10th
 
chuck
Drysdale was 0-2 in the 1950s. He was the opening day starter in '58 and '59 but had game scores of just 25 and 34 in them. In '58 he was not the team's best pitcher, but in '59 I'd say he was.
10:11 AM May 9th
 
OldBackstop
Very interesting. What would also be interesting as a follow up is the dynamics of the guys that lose their Opening Day status. If someone else is the best pitcher, does the Opening Day starter lose the job the next year? Or is it more a name recognition/marketing job?

I don't know why, I tend to forget Seaver when you poke around in research, and then, bang, there he is at the end. As a Met fan, I think I remember the wipe out team years after '73, but Tom Terrific was there slugging along...

In 1976, Seaver was third on the Mets in Ws with 14, Koos won 21, and Seaver was the Opening Day pitcher in '77.

Just make my usual bitch about hating W-Ls as a measure of bestness. I assume that was done here. In 2006, Steve Trachsel was 15-8, tying Glavine for most wins on the Mets. He had a 4.97 ERA and was 12th among the Mets' pitchers in WAR with a .06. I guess Glavine with the same wins but one less loss was the best pitcher, but Trachsel came just-the-close to earning the title by W-L measures.

7:18 AM May 9th
 
 
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