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March 25, 2003

Aim For The Head

Opening Day Starters

by Keith Woolner

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This week's question comes comes from an anonymous reader, who asks:

Opening Day's right around the corner, and I'm fascinated in how prestigious it is to be the Opening Day pitcher. The Opening Day starter is supposed to be your ace. My question is: How often to teams get it right and their first starter is their best starter of the year?
First, I want to apologize for the long absence of AFTH from the web site. In addition to the usual off-season book-writing duties, I spent the winter relocating to the east coast from California as well as welcoming a new baby to the family. But I'm getting settled now, and hope to be writing AFTH and doing other research again in between feedings and diaper changes.

Onto the question. If we assume that the "best" pitcher is the one with the highest VORP, we can look at the Opening Day starter's eventual full-season VORP to see if it led the team.

I've run the numbers for the 2002 season, and some of the results are surprising. First of all, only seven teams had their Opening Day starter turn in the best season on the team. And two of them did it despite being traded off the team during the season!


Team  Opening Day Pitcher   Starter w/highest VORP          VORP
----------------------------------------------------------------
ANA   Jarrod Washburn       Jarrod Washburn                 63.8
ARI   Randy Johnson         Randy Johnson                   86.9
CHA   Mark Buehrle          Mark Buehrle                    56.7
CLE   Bartolo Colon         Bartolo Colon (CLE stats only)  38.8 
DET   Jeff Weaver           Jeff Weaver (DET stats only)    26.4
MIL   Ben Sheets            Ben Sheets                      28.9
SLN   Matt Morris           Matt Morris                     42.0

It's odd not to see Pedro Martinez on that list, but as amazing as his season was, Derek Lowe was slightly better. Still, that hardly means Boston goofed by having Pedro start on Opening Day. Similarly, the next group of teams had a pitcher with a better season than their Opening Day starter, but the O.D. starter still turned in a respectable or near-the-top performance.


     Opening Day                                     VORP Gap
Team   Pitcher          Starter w/highest VORP (Best vs O.D.)
-------------------------------------------------------------
ATL  Tom Glavine        Greg Maddux              56.1 to 53.9
BOS  Pedro Martinez     Derek Lowe               79.0 to 68.7
CHN  Jon Lieber         Matt Clement             39.9 to 21.2
HOU  Wade Miller        Roy Oswalt               61.6 to 41.4
MIN  Brad Radke         Rick Reed                34.0 to 13.5
MON  Javier Vazquez     Tomo Ohka                40.5 to 37.4
NYA  Roger Clemens      Mike Mussina             37.7 to 23.4
NYN  Al Leiter          Steve Trachsel           21.9 to 20.6
OAK  Mark Mulder        Barry Zito               65.0 to 41.1
SEA  Freddie Garcia     Jamie Moyer              55.7 to 28.9

There are plenty of reasons why the Opening Day starter might not lead the team in performance. He may have an off season, or a younger pitcher may have a breakthough year. The team management may has misassessed who the best arms were. Injuries can always take their toll. Or, perhaps, the best starter wasn't ready to go on Opening Day, forcing the team to its next best alternative. Whatever the reason, the next group of teams saw large gaps between the first pitcher of the year, and their best pitcher of the year.


     Opening Day                                     VORP Gap
Team   Pitcher          Starter w/highest VORP (Best vs O.D.)
-------------------------------------------------------------
CIN  Joey Hamilton      Elmer Dessens            38.4 to -2.2
COL  Mike Hampton       Jason Jennings           30.6 to -0.2
FLO  Ryan Dempster      A.J. Burnett             35.9 to  3.7
KCA  Jeff Suppan        Paul Byrd                44.6 to  9.9
PIT  Ron Villone        Kip Wells                31.8 to -4.4
SDN  Kevin Jarvis       Brian Lawrence           19.9 to  0.1
SFN  Livan Hernandez    Kirk Rueter              33.2 to  7.8
TBA  Tanyon Sturtze     Joe Kennedy              13.8 to  4.6
TEX  Chan Ho Park       Kenny Rogers             35.4 to -0.8

I've saved the teams with the largest gaps between the Opening Day starter and the team's best pitcher for last. In three of the four cases, time missed to injuries played a significant part, and Scott Erickson was diagnosed with a torn labrum following the season. But all these teams had a pitcher worth 50 or more runs above their Opening Day starter.


     Opening Day                                     VORP Gap
Team   Pitcher          Starter w/highest VORP (Best vs O.D.)
-------------------------------------------------------------
BAL  Scott Erickson     Rodrigo Lopez           39.5 to -11.6
LAN  Kevin Brown        Odalis Perez            51.4 to  -1.1
PHI  Robert Person      Randy Wolf              48.1 to  -7.2
TOR  Chris Carpenter    Roy Halladay            66.1 to   4.4

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that being an Opening Day starter may be an honor for past performance, but it hardly ensures a good season ahead. But you probably knew that already.

One side note: Rick Reed is shown as the Twins' VORP leader, but it's more accurate to say that he was the starting pitcher with the highest VORP. Reliever J.C. Romero actually led the team with 35.8 VORP (to Reed's 34.0); he was the only reliever to lead a staff in VORP last year.

Thanks for writing in, and keep sending your "Aim For The Head" questions to kwoolner@baseballprospectus.com.

Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Keith's other articles. You can contact Keith by clicking here

Related Content:  Starter,  Opening Day,  Best

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