Earlier in the week, I went through the upcoming Opening Day match-ups to try and determine the most exciting games of this year’s holy day. As fans, we tend to over-emphasize Opening Day. Not only is it our first chance to see live, meaningful baseball in six months, but it’s also the one game that fans can expect to see ace-on-ace action. Couple all of that with the excitement and hope of a new year, and it’s perfectly understandable how overboard we fans can take it.
But that excitement isn’t always justified. No matter how hard teams try, they’re bound to trot out a stinker on Opening Day every now and then. Just last year, for example, the Brewers elected to start Jeff Suppan on Opening Day instead of Yovani Gallardo for mental reasons. Soup did not end up having a good season last year, to say the least. According to Sean Smith’s WAR data, Suppan’s 2009 season was worth -1.9 Wins Above Average. I guarantee you that is not the season any fan expects to see from their Opening Day starter.
Suppan’s ’09 season isn’t even the worst season by an Opening Day starter, or even close to it really. Going back to 1954 (because that’s where my Retrosheet database ends right now – I really need to get the new updates installed), I looked at every Opening Day starter and found their WAR total for that season. The -1.9 WAR from Suppan in 2009 ties him with five other pitchers as the 22nd worst season by an Opening Day starter in the last 55 years. It’s bad, but not historically bad. Who, then, are the worst Opening Day starters of all time?
Listed below are the 10 worst single-season WAR totals for 1954-and-beyond Opening Day starters (if only Baseball-Reference would include retroid’s in their Play Index output, I’d be able to expand this a great deal). I’ve done my best to provide a little context for each pitcher. If you can think of a better example of the “worst Opening Day starter” of the last 50+ years, let us know in the comments.
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Steve Blass, Pirates, 1973: -5.8 WAR
The absolute worst season by an Opening Day starter, and by a long shot. Blass was the ace of the staff in ’72 season, going 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA in 249 innings pitched. He finished second in the Cy Young voting to Steve Carlton. It makes sense that the Pirates would choose to start him the following year. It did not work. In 88 innings pitched, Blass put up a 9.85 ERA and struck out only 27 batters (compared to 84 walks). He also allowed 11 home runs. It wasn’t until after the All-Star break, though, that the Pirates pulled him from his regular spot in the rotation.
Terry Mulholland, Giants, 1995: -3.4 WAR
The ’95 Giants did not have a great pitching staff. Mark Leiter and Mark Portugal had the best seasons of the group that year, but neither’s was something to write home about. It looks to me that Mulholland got the start because they wanted to save Leiter for the home opener, but I can’t say for sure. Mulholland only lasted two innings that day.
Hideo Nomo, Dodgers, 2004: -3.2 WAR
In 2002 and 2003, Nomo put together some decent seasons, and everyone, especially the Dodgers fans, were trying to talk themselves into a mini-Nomomania. Opening Day 2004 put a damper on that, when Nomo gave up a six-spot in the fifth inning. Like Blass, Nomo’s season did not last too long. In 18 starts, Nomo only pitched 84 innings, while posting an 8.25 ERA and serving up 19 gopher balls.
Ken McBride, Angels, 1964: -3.1 WAR
McBride had the best Opening Day start out of anybody on this list. On that April day, Ken pitched into the 7th inning while only giving up one hit. He did walk five and strikeout only three. The Angels beat the Senators that day. But it wouldn’t last. McBride ended the season with a 5.26 ERA (in the era of the pitcher) and 75 BBs and 16 HBPs in only 116 innings pitched. He also gave up 14 home runs that year.
Jim O’Toole, Reds, 1965: -3 WAR
In 1966, O’Toole posted a 17-7 record with a 2.66 ERA for the Reds. He pitched alright on Opening Day (CG, 4 R, 8 K, 4 BB, 3 HR), but he finished the season with a 5.92 ERA and 14 HRs allowed.
Brad Havens, Twins, 1983: -2.5 WAR
The Twins rung in the 1983 season with a clunker: Havens allowed 8 runs on 7 hits and three walks in 1.1 innings pitched that Opening Day against the Tigers’ Jack Morris. In 16 games that year (14 starts), Havens would pitch a grand total of 80 innings with an 8.18 ERA. He would be out of baseball the next year, but return as a reliever. In his last 5 years in the bigs, he put up a 4.51 ERA in 223 innings.
Mike Parrott, Mariners, 1980: -2.5 WAR
This was only the Mariners’ fourth year of existence, and Parrott was clearly the M’s top choice. In 1979, he led the team with a 14-12 record and a 3.77 ERA. In 1980, though, he’d record a 1-16 W-L record with a 7.28 ERA in only 94 innings pitched. The 16 home runs he gave up probably didn’t help much.
Jeff Ballard, Orioles, 1991: -2.3 WAR
The best pitcher on the 1990 Orioles was easily Pete Harnisch, but the club traded him away over the winter in exchange for Glenn Davis. The next best pitcher was probably Dave Johnson, who had a 13-9 record with a 4.10 ERA in 1990. But the Orioles decided on the 27-year old Jeff Ballard, who, the year before, was 2-11 with a 4.93 ERA. He did not exactly get better in 1991: 6-12, 5.60 ERA in 123 innings.
Jack Morris, Blue Jays, 1993: -2.2 WAR
How fun is this? The king of Opening Day starts shows up on our list of worst seasons by Opening Day starters. The Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 led, in part, by Morris’ 21-6 record and league-average 4.04 ERA. They rewarded him with the Opening Day start the next season, but by then he was a 38 year old man on his last legs. After giving up seven runs in four innings to start the season, Morris would continue to decline. In 152 innings that year, he posted a 6.19 ERA. He’d retire after the 1994 season.
Danny Jackson, Cubs, 1991: -2.2 WAR
I cannot find a good reason for why the Cubs decided to start Danny Jackson for Opening Day 1991 instead of, say, Greg Maddux. Jackson was a serious Cy Young contender in 1988 after winning 23 games, but his ’89 and ’90 campaigns were poor. He signed with the Cubs in the winter of 1990. Meanwhile, in 1990, the 24 year old Maddux was 15-15 with a 3.46 ERA. I thought maybe Jackson got the nod because they wanted to save Maddux or Mike Bielecki for the home opener, but they opened the season in Wrigley. I just can’t figure it out. Jackson pitched only 70 innings for the Cubs that year with a 6.75 ERA.