Worst Opening Day starting pitchers

Jason Miller

Tomorrow afternoon Justin Masterson will take the bump for the Indians, despite having had a very poor 2012. How often in Tribe history has that bad a season led to an Opening Day start? How often in recent MLB history?

In 2012, Justin Masterson pitched 206.1 innings, with an ERA+ of 79. If you're not familiar with ERA+, the idea is to adjust every pitchers' ERA to eliminate differences caused by the time and place of a pitcher's performance (I think we all know different eras and ballparks have different levels of offense). Once those adjustments are made, ERA+ gives a number that compares a pitchers' performance to league average. A league average ERA+ is 100. Any number higher than 100 means a pitcher was better than average (105 = 5% above average) and any number lower than 100 means a pitcher was worse than average (95 = 5% below average). Masterson's 2012 ERA+ of 79 means he was 21% worse than average (very bad).

Despite his poor performance, Masterson is being given the Opening Day honor in 2013. Why? Because as bad as he was, he was still probably the best starting pitcher the Indians had last year. How often has a pitcher so far below average starting on Opening Day the following year? That's the question I found myself asking, that's the question I set out to answer.

In trying to determine the worst seasons that have led to an Opening Day nod the following year, I'm not looking to include pitchers who were injured or for some other reason didn't pitch a full season before their Opening Day appearance, so I'm only looking at starters who qualified for the ERA title (162 IP in most seasons). Also, I'm looking at starters from the last 25 Opening Days (1989-2013). That gives me 694 different starts (30 in most seasons, but 26 or 28 in the earlier years, before the most recent expansions in 1993 and 1998).

Worst prior seasons by Opening Day starters of the last 25 years:

Rank

Pitcher

Prior Season/Team

Innings

ERA+

Opening Day Start

t9

Justin Masterson

2012 Indians

206.1

79

2013 Indians

t9

Jack Morris

1989 Tigers

170.1

79

1990 Tigers

t7

Kip Wells

2007 Cardinals

162.2

77

2008 Rockies

t7

Omar Daal

2000 DBacks/Phillies

167

77

2001 Phillies

t4

Livan Hernandez

2001 Giants

226.2

76

2002 Giants

t4

Jaime Navarro

1997 White Sox

209.2

76

1998 White Sox

t4

Melido Perez

1989 White Sox

183.1

76

1990 White Sox

3

Frank Tanana

1990 Tigers

176.1

75

1991 Tigers

2

Dave Stewart

1991 Athletics

226

74

1992 Athletics

1

Terry Mulholland

1994 Yankees

120.2

71

1995 Giants

Masterson makes the list! My favorites might be Wells and Mulholland, who not only started the opener, they did it for a different team. Someone looked at what they'd just accomplished and thought, 'that is the guy we need on the mound come Opening day!' All in all though, it's a solid list of pitchers, which shouldn't really be a big surprise, pitchers coming off such bad seasons must have done something right somewhere along the line to be handed the ball for Opening Day. Also take note of the Tigers, who managed to send a pitcher like this to the mound for back-to-back Opening Days in 1990 and 1991. It's too bad they didn't have a pitcher like John Smoltz to start those games.

Mulholland's numbers are from the strike shortened 1994 season, and he'd been taken out of the rotation a few weeks before the strike, so he wasn't going to remain "qualified" if the season had continued, so his inclusion feels like a bit of a cheat. Dave Stewart may be the most deserving choice for this crown. 226 inning with an ERA+ of 74 is really something. Since the end of World War I, Vida Blue is the only other pitcher to have a season with so many innings and that bad an ERA+. That Stewart was still given the Opening Day start the following spring says a lot about his reputation (and or that of Oakland's other pitchers in 1992).

Alright, so those are the ten worst seasons of the last twenty five years to be rewarded with an Opening Day start a few months later. How did those ten pitchers do in that follow up year, and how did their team do?

Pitcher

Opening Day Start

Innings

ERA+

Team Record

Justin Masterson

2013 Indians

???

???

???

Jack Morris

1990 Tigers

249.2

89

79-83

Kip Wells

2008 Rockies

37.2

75

74-88

Omar Daal

2001 Phillies

185.2

95

86-76

Livan Hernandez

2002 Giants

216

89

95-66

Jaime Navarro

1998 White Sox

172.2

72

80-82

Melido Perez

1990 White Sox

197

83

94-68

Frank Tanana

1991 Tigers

217.1

111

84-78

Dave Stewart

1992 Athletics

199.1

102

96-66

Terry Mulholland

1995 Giants

149

69

67-77

Well that certainly doesn't look good for Justin Masterson (though these pitchers should be seen as only very mildly predictive of what Matserson will do). Of the previous nine pitchers in his position, only two of them bounced back to league average or better in the following season (the season in which they started Opening Day). Three of the other pitchers were even worse than they had been. The median ERA+ on that list is 89 and the median number of innings pitched is 197. I know Indians fans are hoping for better than that from Masterson in 2013, but if someone offered those numbers from him, I'd be tempted to take them. I'm certainly not going to hold my breath on him being any better than average.

On the other hand, those records look pretty good (note: these teams are in no way intended to be viewed as predictive of thee Tribe's 2013 season, I just knew some of you would wonder about the other teams' performances, so I'm giving them to you). Five of the nine teams had winning seasons, two of them made the playoffs (and a third would have, if the wildcard had existed back then). Their collective winning percentage is that of an 85-77 team, which probably wouldn't be good enough to make the playoffs this year, but would be a massive improvement over last year for the Tribe.

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