April 5, 2012
Worst. Lineup. Ever.
Last week’s discussion of the worst pitchers started by defending World Series champions on Opening Day inspired me to look into the worst Opening Day starters period, regardless of where his team had finished the previous season. Claude Osteen, whom the Dodgers trotted out in Game One of their World Series title defense on April 12, 1966, doesn’t even sniff the title of “worst Opening Day starter ever”:
Worst Opening Day Starters Since 1951
Pitchers Making Multiple Appearances Among Worst 100 Opening Day Starters Since 1951
With that out of the way, let's move on to new business. Today we'll take a look at pitchers piling up wins but not throwing enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, organization depth as a precursor to spring training success, and the worst Opening Day lineups of the modern era. If you have a question you would like to have answered, please send me an e-mail or reach out via one of the myriad contact links on this page (be sure to include your full name and hometown).
Since 1950, it has taken an average of 17.387 wins to crack the top five, a feat that has grown more difficult as the role of the bullpen has evolved, resulting in shorter outings by starters and fewer innings per appearance by relievers. Given that, it’s no wonder 30 years have passed since Bob Stanley’s 10 wins out of the Red Sox bullpen in 1981 earned him a tie with nine others for the fifth-most wins in baseball.
Pittsburgh reliever Roy Face compiled an 18-1 record in 57 appearances in 1959, tying with Vern Law and Bob Shaw for fourth place. Face was one of seven players to pitch in 50 or more games without making a single start that year, and one of only three to do it in both 1958 and 1959 (Don Elston and the aforementioned Gerry Staley were the others).
Each March, we’re reminded that spring training player statistics and team won-lost records are poor predictors of performance in the upcoming season. For the most part, that advice is correct.
Between 2006-2011, the difference between a team’s spring training and regular season winning percentages has ranged wildly, from -0.256 to 0.255, reaffirming conventional wisdom that spring training won-lost records are meaningless.
John’s question of whether there is correlation between farm system strength and team spring training performance is something I hadn’t considered before. To test his theory, I turned to the organization talent rankings Kevin Goldstein has compiled each offseason since 2007. I compared Kevin’s ranking of an organization with its spring training winning percentage, but found little evidence that system-wide talent depth played a part in a team’s spring training success.
The trend is more apparent when the data is aggregated by rank, but still isn’t enough to support any conclusions. I suspect stronger correlation could be found if rankings of upper-level, rather than organizational, talent were used, however.
In 2012, Kevin had San Diego and Toronto atop his rankings, but for different reasons. Five of the Padres’ top 11 prospects played at or above Double-A last year, while nine of the Blue Jays’ top 11 saw time at Class-A or below. The Padres boast a deep supply of upper-level talent that is likely to reach the majors, though unlikely to develop into stars. Contrast that with Toronto, whose farm is shallower (but not shallow) at the top but includes several prospects with star potential at various levels within the organization.
As it is with September stats, numbers accrued during spring training are subject to far too many variables to be useful on either end of a cause-effect inquiry. Aside from the ranging levels of talent deployed, pitchers are not at full strength when spring games begin and only throw full outings in the days leading up to the start of the regular season. Because spring training games don’t count, a pitcher is free to experiment and tinker with grips, mechanics, and new pitches altogether, further diminishing the reliability of the data earned by players and teams.
Unfortunately, I don’t have each team’s Opening Day roster available. What we can do, however, is look at which teams have had the most (and least) future WARP in their Opening Day lineups. We’ll cut the search off at the year 2000 so as to have a healthy number of seasons for each lineup to work with.
The starting nine fielded by the Milwaukee Braves on Opening Day 1955 featured six players who would go on to be worth at least 15 wins above replacement from that day forward, including a 21-year-old Henry Louis Aaron:
Milwaukee Braves Opening Day Lineup, April 12, 1955
Aaron and Mathews carried the Braves to the top four spots on our list, and the 1960-61 San Francisco Giants—led by Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda—are the only other franchise to appear multiple times among the top eight.
Best Opening Day Lineups by Future WARP
The Seattle Mariners rolled out the worst Opening Day lineup of all time—at least in terms of future WARP—on April 9, 1980. Only first baseman Bruce Bochte (7.14) and second baseman Julio Cruz (5.55) performed at an above-replacement level for the remainder of their careers; the rest of the Mariners lineup combined for -6.46 WARP.
Opening Day in the Devil Rays' inaugural season is worth a mention, but not because of how bad Tampa Bay’s lineup was; rather, how spectacular it used to be. Hometown heroes Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff combined for 112.2 career WARP prior to teaming up in the heart of the Devil Rays’ lineup in 1998. The two would be worth only 5.8 WARP over the next nine seasons.
Worst Opening Day Lineups by Future WARP