March 28, 2008
Opening Day Goodbyes
Don't Get Too Used to Your Opening Day Lineup
It is one of the great spectacles of Opening Day that which sets it apart from the rest of the season: the introduction of the starting lineups, a bit of pomp and circumstance not seen again until three months later at the All-Star Game. Only here, it is not the game’s chosen few getting a moment on the white lines, but everyday players along the opposing base paths getting individual calls before the gathered throng.
While it may seem that after six weeks of spring training a manager should have a pretty good idea of what his lineup is going to be for the season, that’s never quite always true. As we saw in Tokyo on Tuesday, last-moment unexpected events can ruin the best-made plans of the lineup maker. Brandon Moss substituting for the stricken J.D. Drew immediately created a Red Sox lineup that will probably not be repeated very often in 2008, and when Coco Crisp started the next day in place of Jacoby Ellsbury, the chance to repeat the lineup immediately went away. The fact is, Opening Day lineups are not often repeated, at least in the exact order they appeared in Game One. In 2007, no less than 10 teams used their exact Opening Day lineup just that one time. Another eight teams repeated it only one more time during the course of the season.
These are the teams that found a lineup on Opening Day and either by design or the failure of fate to intervene via injury, were able to repeat those eight (for National League teams) or nine (for American) men in the exact same sequence:
25: Tigers 22: Rockies 17: Mariners 16: Mets 14: Boston 10: Braves 7: Orioles 5: Angels, A’s, Rangers
Not only did the Tigers have the most repeated Opening Day nine, but it also represented the most-used lineup in all of baseball for 2008. The group of Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Ivan Rodriguez, Sean Casey, Craig Monroe, and Brandon Inge were used three more times than the next-closest line-up configuration, that fielded by Colorado. Seattle’s 17 was third, and Mets’ 16 was fourth overall.
Seeing Boston open the season with Brandon Moss in right field also got me wondering about which teams got the most use out of the players whose names appeared in the starting lineups on Opening Day. These were the top three in the American League, based on the combined percentage of team plate appearances they made for the club throughout the season:
87.3: Mariners 83.9: Red Sox 81.4: Tigers
The top three in the National League (not counting pitchers, which makes the National League scores lower, about 63.0 percent as opposed to 70.6 percent for the American):
68.7: Rockies 68.3: Padres 66.9: Mets
Probably not too surprisingly, these were all teams with winning records last year. The bottom three in the American League were sub-.500 teams:
58.8: A’s 59.5: Devil Rays 62.0: Rangers
…while a division winner snuck into the bottom three in the National League:
50.3: Cardinals 56.9: Astros 57.0: Cubs
Obviously, a couple of key factors go into a team’s location on this list. They have to find the right men in the first place, then have them perform up to code and manage to stay healthy to get a top placement. (Although skipping the first criterion would also get a team a high placement on the list, but make for a hellish season.)
Which Opening Day starting lineup player had the least amount of playing time in 2007? It was Ryan Langerhans of the Braves who batted eighth on Opening Day a year ago and only registered 0.8 percent of his team’s total plate appearances. Landing on his third team by May 2 certainly didn’t help there. In the American League, the low man was Andy Marte of the Indians (0.9 percent). Other Opening Day starters who ended up logging very little time with their teams were Preston Wilson, Cardinals (1.1 percent); Milton Bradley, A’s (1.2); Josh Phelps, Yankees (1.3); Pablo Ozuna, White Sox (1.4); Ben Zobrist, Devil Rays (1.7); and Rondell White, Twins (1.9).
What must really be strange is to make the team heading into the season, have the thrill of playing on Opening Day, and then… never appear in a major league game again. It's happened to 13 players in the last 50 years, and we're all pulling for Chris Carpenter, who has been shelved since his April 1 Opening Day start last season, not to make it 14. I thought a discussion of this group is in order, given the time of year.
Luis Ordaz, Devil Rays; April 3, 2006: He's 32 now and spent 2007 at the Pirates Triple A affiliate, where he did hit .302 in 352 at-bats. His appearance with the Rays on Opening Day in '06 remains his only big league experience in the last five years. He's been playing at the Triple-A level since 2003. In that game, he came in for Julio Lugo when the then-Rays shortstop was injured in the third inning. However, by the end of the game, Ordaz had been replaced by Nick Green because of a bum knee that placed him on the DL, and then a rehab assignment he would never return from. With two major league at-bats over the course of the last five seasons, Ordaz seems more likely to show up in the Atlantic League than the National or American.
Jose Nunez, Padres, April 1, 2002: He pitched the eighth inning a 2-0 loss to Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks, ending a strange run that saw him pitch at a level no higher than the Sally League before coming to the majors at age 22 with the Dodgers in 2001. They then waived him, and the Padres came calling, and clearing a roster spot for him. He pitched well for them and had this roster spot sewed up before injuries forced him out of the picture. He started the long road back in 2003, but never got higher than Double-A and has been out of baseball since 2004.
John Dettmer, Rangers, April 26, 1995: After his first three minor league stops, Dettmer boasted a 32-5 won-loss record. Naturally, this got some attention, and he was soon in a Rangers uniform where he went… 0-6. He did make the team out of spring training the next season. With the Rangers trailing 4-1, he started the fourth inning, surrendering an infield hit, a ground-ball single, and two fly balls, one of which was botched by Rusty Greer in right. He was sent down, traded to the Orioles a month later, and ended his career in the Braves system the next year at the age of 26.
Manny Lee, Cardinals, April 26, 1995: Lee was in the Cardinals' starting lineup against the Phillies, and led off the third against Curt Schilling with a ground single up the middle. He came around to score, but then had to leave the game with an injury. At one point that year, he was one of three St. Louis second basemen on the DL. He had a couple of minor league stints later in the year trying to work his way back, but it didn't take. His professional career, which began when he was just 17, was over at 30.
Onix Concepcion, Pirates, April 7, 1987: After a decade in the Royals system, Concepcion was released by the team in October of '86 and signed by the Pirates a few months later. A career .239/.278/.294 hitter, Concepcion made the Pittsburgh roster out of camp. In the ninth inning of Opening Day, he pinch-hit for Ronnie Belliard, and lined a single to right off of Jesse Orosco of the Mets. He was immediately pinch-run for, ending his final appearance in the big leagues; his professional career ended two months later when the Pirates released him.
Mike Howard, Mets; April 5, 1983: The Mets' opener against Philadelphia featured future Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Steve Carlton, and Tom Seaver, not to mention a fellow named Pete Rose. Yet it was Howard, playing in what would prove to be his last major league game, who would break a scoreless duel in the seventh inning with a bases-loaded single off Carlton. After a couple of 600 OPS seasons at Triple A, he was done at the age of 26.
Nyls Nyman, White Sox; April 7, 1977: Nyman had one of the better cups of coffee ever for the White Sox in 1974. Only 20 years old at the time, he went 9-for-14 with two doubles and a triple. That, coupled with Southern League MVP Award, pretty much won him a job for 1975; he began that season as the team's starting left fielder and leadoff man, but played himself out of the gig with a .204 EqA. Two years later, he pinch-hit for Alan Bannister on Opening Day, and grounded out. He was traded to the Cardinals later that year and spent a few more years in their system, poking around with 600 OPS marks.
Tony La Russa, Cubs; April 6, 1973: The future Hall of Fame manager had been knocking around the pro game since the age of 17, when he found himself pinch-running for Ron Santo for the Cubs on Opening Day, 1973; he went on to score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth when Rick Monday was walked with the bases loaded. He spent the rest of the year in Wichita and another four seasons in Triple-A, with a different team every year. Then, he took up with the managing, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Casey Cox, Yankees; April 6, 1973: Cox had spent his career pitching for the Senators; his highlight season came in 1969, when he went 12-7 with better-than-league-average ERA as that team surged to 10 games over .500. In 1972, he was traded to the Yankees for Jim Roland, and was given a mop-up assignment on Opening Day the next year, when the Red Sox beat up on Mel Stottlemyre and Lindy McDaniel. In the sixth, Cox hit a batter and allowed three singles, with an error by Gene Michael in the mix; this put the Sox up 15-5. He had a smooth eighth, but ran into further trouble in the ninth. With a runner on third, he walked Carl Yastrzemski who then stole second base. (Wouldn't you like to see a list of stolen bases by players on teams that were leading by 10 or more runs?) Cox then hit Reggie Smith—which may well be related to the Yaz steal—and retired Orlando Cepeda to finish his career.
Jose Herrera, Expos; April 6, 1970: With the Expos trailing the Reds 5-0, Herrera was called on to pinch-hit for pitcher Joe Sparma in the sixth, and went down on strikes against Jim Merritt. To celebrate the 38th anniversary of this event, you can get a copy of his misprinted 1967 Venezuelan Winter League card on eBay at this very moment.
Dick Wantz, California Angels, April 13, 1965: All the previous players here already had big league experience prior to their Opening Day swan songs. Wantz is an exception, sadly in more ways than one. He was the third pitcher to appear in the Angels' 7-1 loss to Cleveland. In pitching the eighth inning, he gave up doubles to Vic Davalillo and Larry Brown as the Indians added two runs to their lead. The 1966 Sporting News Official Baseball Guide picks up the story from there: "Subsequently, he was stricken by severe headaches and was found to have a brain tumor. The 25-year-old right-hander died in a hospital in Inglewood, California, May 14, the day after undergoing brain surgery."
Bob Martyn, Kansas City Athletics, April 10, 1959: Martyn had logged decent playing time with the A’s in 1957 and 1958, but didn’t quite pop it you’d like a corner outfielder to. In this game, he pinch-hit for pitcher Bob Grim in the eighth inning, and grounded out against Gary Bell of the Indians. Two days later, he was traded to the Yankees—the team from which he had been traded two years earlier. The first deal was one of the more famous Kansas City-New York deals, in that it involved the exile of Billy Martin, and Ralph Terry was also mixed in. The later deal involved four players, two of whom, Martyn and Mike Baxes, never played in the majors again, and one, Tom Carroll, who had only 14 more at-bats. The only player in this deal that had any kind of big league playing time ahead of him was Russ Snyder, who, freed from the Yankee logjam, played until 1970. Not surprisingly, Martyn couldn’t crack the Yankee outfield of Mickey Mantle, Hank Bauer, Norm Siebern, and Tony Kubek.
Tom Flanigan, Cardinals, April 15, 1958: As a 19-year-old, Flanigan had made the Opening Day roster of the White Sox in 1954, and appeared in two games before being sent down. Four years later, he was property of the Cardinals, courtesy of the Rule 5 draft. With the Cards trailing the Cubs 3-0, Flanigan was brought in to pitch the ninth inning. He walked Dale Long, but got Johnny Goryl to hit into a double play. Cal Neeman then launched a home run to make it 4-0. After another hit, Flanigan closed out his big league career when rookie Tony Taylor bounced out to third.
We certainly don’t wish the fate of these men on any of the players you’ll see in the 28 team openers to come. While hoping that everybody you see on Sunday or Monday gets to come back and play again, just don’t get too used to seeing your team’s Opening Day lineup exactly as is.