Opening Day Starts These Days Mean A Lot More Than They Used To


Is was far from a surprising announcement but special nonetheless when the Rays named David Price their Opening Day starter yesterday. Coming off an outstanding season that culminated with him winning the American League Cy Young award, Price is certainly deserving. But after just how good Price was in 2012, it’s surprising to hear that he didn’t start for the Rays on Opening Day last season, deferring to James Shields. Obviously the situation entering 2012 was different than it was now- Shields was coming off a third place finish in the Cy Young award voting while Price had managed a good but not great season following up his second place finish the 2010 Cy Young voting. Despite that, though, we associate a pitcher getting the Opening Day with a certain amount of prestige and the fact that Price got an even greater honor at the end of the season but couldn’t receive the opportunity to start Opening Day is something strange. But Price not getting the Opening Day nod last year was only half the equation. The NL Cy Young award winner, R.A. Dickey, was the Mets’ undisputed ace all season but even he didn’t start Opening Day, with Johan Santana instead going for the Mets. The fact that both Price and Dickey, the two Cy Young award winners, failed to start on Opening Day marked just the third time that has happened in the last 20 years. That statistic is something that makes sense- while there will always be lesser-known pitchers that come out of nowhere to surprise, they usually don’t win the Cy Young, and a clear majority of the upper-echelon pitchers who are the favorites for the Cy Young do start on Opening Day. But while that makes a lot of sense to us right now, that’s not something that has always been the case. Here’s a graph of the percentage of Cy Young winners who started on Opening Day by decade (2010 to 2012 are jumped onto 200o to 2009 as the 2000’s while the 1950’s is only from when the Cy Young first came in existence in 1956 to 1959).

Apparently managers in the 60’s and 80’s didn’t get the memo that the best pitchers are supposed to start on Opening Day. There’s no clear pattern here as the 70’s had easily the highest rate of Cy Young winners who were Opening Day starters, but it’s pretty crazy that so few Cy Young recipients got the nod from their teams on Opening Day. Heck, Sandy Koufax didn’t even start Opening Day for the Dodgers even once when he won the Cy Young in 1963, 1965, and 1966! Did teams not realize just how good their pitchers were? They did they lost sight of how special it is for a pitcher to start Opening Day? What does any of this mean? One interesting thing to compare this graph to is the percentage of new pitchers who won the award each decade in an attempt to see whether some portion of the discrepancy comes from the less established pitchers who won the Cy Young in a breakout season.

The graph doesn’t appear to tell us exactly what we would have expected- the percentage of new pitchers who won the Cy Young was remarkable similar to the percentage that received Opening Day starts in the 70’s, 90’s, and 00’s, but overall it doesn’t look like there’s much of a correlation. One thing to notice is that the percentage of new winners has decreased each decade, but you would expect that to lead to less Cy Young winners starting on Opening Day instead of more like their was in the 90’s and 00’s. The real big issue is the 80’s, were the percentage of pitchers who started on Opening Day took a free-fall and ruined the pattern of apparent increase. But it looks like there’s an explanation for that: Four of the Cy Young recipients in the 80’s were relievers, and of course relievers can’t start on Opening Day. However, even if those four relievers had been starters and two of them had started on Opening Day (the average Opening Day start rate for Cy Young winners is 56.7%), the percentage would have been just 45%. Something else changed between the 80’s and 90’s, but what? The answer is that teams stopped caring nearly as much about having a veteran as their number one starter and began giving critical starts like Opening Day to their pitchers purely based on who they believed was their best pitcher regardless of age.

An interesting stat to look at is the average age of Cy Young Award winners by decade. Here’s a scatterplot comparing the percentage of Cy Young Award winners who started on Opening Day with the average age of the starters.

Can’t say that’s the most convincing-looking graph, but there’s a strong correlation (.873) and there does look like there is some relationship. During the decades where the average age of the winners were lower, the 60’s and the 80’s, a lower proportion of pitchers started on Opening Day. When pitchers like Koufax (the first time), Dean Chance, Bret Saberhagen, and Steve Stone are coming up out of nowhere, how would teams possibly have the foresight to start them on Opening Day if they were either unproven or inconsistent previously? We saw in the graph above that the percentage of new pitchers that have won has decreased by decade, and combining that with the fact that the average age of Cy Young award winners has increased, it makes sense that the percentage of recipients that started on Opening Day has increased because the percentage of new pitchers decreased and the pitchers who did were the older, more veteran pitchers than teams are comfortable giving the Opening Day nod. And with all of that in mind, it means a lot more for a pitcher, especially a younger one like Price, to start on Opening Day.

Much was made entering this year’s Hall of Fame vote about Jack Morris‘ 14 consecutive Opening Day starts. It’s no coincidence that the bulk of those starts occurred in the 1980’s when the percentage of Cy Young winners who made Opening Day starts saw a precipitous drop. Even as Morris made 14 straight Opening Day starts, nine different pitchers finished higher than him in the Cy Young award voting. It was good but not great pitchers like Jack Morris starting on Opening Day year after year that prevented even some of the best pitchers in baseball from getting the honor of starting on Opening Day. On contending teams, very good pitchers have always started on Opening Day. But unlike years past, Opening Day starters these days in baseball is based on not on veteran status but purely on merit. Since baseball began, some of the youngest pitchers in baseball have been among the very best. For a long time, teams overlooked them when deciding who to start Opening Day, but now the pitchers starting Opening Day are truly the best their teams’ best regardless of age. The fact that neither David Price nor R.A. Dickey started Opening Day this past season was simply a major outlier that will be rectified this season when Price gets the ball for the Rays’ opener while Dickey does the same for the Blue Jays’ as they hope to follow-up their incredible years with a 2013 season that puts them in line for more of the same.