March 31, 2011
What makes Opening Day different from all other days? Every team is undefeated, and every crowd is a sellout. The sun is out (sometimes) and the grass is green. It’s a national holiday in the same vein as Columbus Day, but without all the messy genocide.
Winning a starting assignment on Opening Day is the goal of every major leaguer. On Opening Day, managers start players they feel give their teams the best chances to win not only on that day, but for the rest of the year. Those who play on Opening Day are not only healthy, but often in the best shape of their lives. They also don’t have arbitration clocks that can be manipulated by forcing exile to the minors until May or June.
Since 1954, 2900 players have started Opening Day games, and 240 have made their major-league debuts as Opening Day starters; last season, Austin Jackson, Jason Heyward, and Scott Sizemore were the lucky three. In 2001, rookies Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki entered the majors on Opening Day as two of the top players in the world.
The list of players with at least 20 Opening Day starts is as follows:
Ivan Rodriguez will make his 20th Opening Day start today.
Fifty-five percent of Opening Day starters return the following year to start on Opening Day with the same team; 45 percent come back in the same position, and 25 percent come back in the same lineup spot. Pete Rose, Tommy Harper, and Tony Phillips started on Opening Day at six different positions. Examining how often teams bring back players to play the same position reveals how they value players at each position on the diamond.
Dwight Evans and Julio Franco started on Opening Day at eight different lineup slots. Here’s an illustration of how teams might value lineup slots—by which I mean how they value number one, three, four, and nine hitters (pitchers).
The high point for repeat starter rate came in the late 70s and early 80s, when 60 percent of players returned to start on Opening Day for the same team in consecutive years. Now, as the cliché goes, we’re more likely to be cheering for laundry come Opening Day.
Since 2000, no team has been more stable with its Opening Day roster than the Phillies, while the Padres and Pirates have had the most turnover.
What is the significance of a team having year-to-year consistency with its Opening Day starters? The only teams to start the same ten players in two consecutive Opening Days were the 1979-1980 Baltimore Orioles, who won 100 games in 1980. Grouping by the number of starters who returned from the previous year, here is the winning percentage of all teams since 1954.
This is the result of selective sampling, as good players are brought back to start on Opening Day much more often than bad ones.