What does opening day mean for a pitcher?

Before we get into this week’s topic there is something worth mentioning about the Nats last week. They scored 6 runs… in one game! This shouldn’t be such a shocker but with the way they’ve played up until now, it is. This game had 3 HRs from Nationals players and it just goes to show, it’s alot easier to just hit a HR than try to tack together single after single. Even statheads realize this… it’s why they place emphasis on power and HRs. It’s why singles hitters are less impressive on the funny VORP-type stats than power hitters who can hit for some average. The Nats do have some seriously good hitters. Lopez, Kearns, Zimmerman, Church and even Young can all hit. But unless they get a real power source (Zimmerman will not be that, Church could be, but probably isn’t) they are going to have more 2/3 run games and less 6 run games. The combination of Zimmerman, Church, Kearns and a healthy Nick Johnson provides them a good combination of 20+ HR guys. But when one of them goes down, it goes to show why it would be nice to just have a 40 HR guy. The HR is the great differentiator between today’s high scoring games and yesterday’s pitchers duels. The Nats may have everything they need to score runs except a monster HR guy. Eventually on these pages, we will discuss who the Nats should spend their money on in the offseason. No doubt the decision has been made here that one of those guys should be able to jog around the bases more than most players.

On to the pitching

On opening day around the league pitchers who were supposed to be good got shelled. Schilling looked overweight and overmatched, Patterson wasn’t throwing correctly, Pavano got bombed, Contreras looked like the Contreras that used to be on the Yankees, Webb looked nothing like the reigning Cy Young winner. Bad performances by Bedard, Lowe, and Kazmir and the list goes on. So what happened? Well, it turns out, quite a few of these pitchers didn’t forget how to work their arms, and they recovered in time for their next start. Others, like Harang and Meche had a great start in game 1 and then looked rather hittable for their next appearance.

Below is a list of all opening day starters, and how they performed in terms of IP and ER over their first 2 starts (Carpenter is excluded because he has yet to make a second start and will not for a while). They are ranked in order of the size of the change in number ER given up between start 1 and start 2. If the number is negative there, it means they gave up less ER in their second start. Additionally, we have listed in the last column the number of quality starts (QS) they have had over these 2 games. A QS is when the pitcher throws for 6 or more innings, and gives up 3 ER or less.

Opening Day Pitcher Stats

We can see that over these 2 starts, 13 of these pitchers had a swing of 3 ER or more (those arBen Sheetse the names in bold). Highlighted are those pitchers who had no quality starts over their first 2 outings. For everyone who panicked about their #1 starter, their fears were alleviated on the next start. Unless those people happen to be Washington (dang), San Fransisco, or Tampa Bay fans. Also many people who bragged about their #1 starter saw guys like Harang, Meche and even Sheets and Myers looking rather pedestrian in the next start.

It really shows that the beginning of the season is only the beginning, and it also reinforces the fact that pitchers often take longer to get up to full strength. Only 6 pitchers of the 29 listed gave up more than 1 additional ER in their second start compared with their first, while most stayed within 1 or improved by more than 1 ER. But most of all, it shows that it is a long season, and much has yet to be played out.

So after 2 starts, are any of these guys winning the Cy Young?

Forgetting about a good pitcher, and thinking about a great pitcher, what have the eventual Cy Young winners done in their opening weeks? Looking out over the last 12 years (since the strike season), the Cy Young winners have had some rocky starts as well. Since the 1994 strike season, there have been 24 Cy Young winners, 23 of them starters. Of these 23 starters, only 3 of them did not have quality starts in either of their first two appearances. Of those 3, 2 were Johan Santana, and 1 was Greg Maddux.
Cy Young Winner QS

In 2004, Santana led the league in strikeouts, ERA, and had 20 wins (to finish second). In 2006, he led the league in all 3. In 1995, Maddux led the league in wins, ERA, and was 3rd in strikeouts. In other words, if you want to win the award and you don’t start strong, you Hentgenbetter finish really really strong.

What does this all mean? Less than half of these award winners had both of their first 2 starts as QS. So although that helps, it’s not necessary. Dominance over the year is much more important that a hot start. The total number of ER given up over these first 2 games isn’t incredibly important either, as 6 of the winners gave up more than 5, with 4 more guys giving up exactly 5 ER. In fact, no pitcher this season has given up as many ER is his first 2 starts as Randy Johnson did in 2001 when he won the award. Finally, in response to Brian’s comment, we added the Wins and Losses for the Cy Young winners over the first two games of the season. 10 of the pitchers had 2 wins, which is close to half, while only 1 had 2 losses. So winning those first 2 games is not a requirement, but it does help, while a couple of losses at the beginning of the season will probably hurt your chances of winning the award.

Basically, if a player doesn’t have a QS in one of their first 2 games, they better be someone that can win 2 out of the 3 pitching triple crown categories. We can look at the starters so far this season and see that Patterson, Zito, and Kazmir have greatly decreased their chances of winning the award by not having a QS. Zito and Patterson have both started out 0-2, so you might as well not bet on them winning the award. Kazmir could still finish towards the tops in Ks (at least, they are strikeout pitchers when pitching well) so he still has a chance, but again, his first 2 starts indicate that he is pretty much out of the running already. And pitching in TB means he could lose too many great starts to a terrible bullpen. Haren is an interesting case because he is 0-2, with 2 QS. Nobody who has won the award over the last 12 years has done that. But it is relatively unusual, although with the A’s run production there could be quite a few losses despite a QS. One final point to remember – these are only the opening day starters – other guys are allowed to win the award, too. Right now Brad Penny, Josh Beckett, and CC Sabathia are all 3-0, all pitching with low ERAs (0.89, 1.50, 2.14 respectively), and all have shown enough talent in the past to take this award, while none of them started on opening day. Then again, maybe Shawn Hill will finish the season with his current 2.89 ERA and win it. Because it’s early, and you never know.

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One Response to What does opening day mean for a pitcher?

  1. Brian says:

    I can’t remember anyone analyzing this before and it is all very interesting. Plus you included a picture of Pat Hentgen which really did it for me. What would be interesting to see is how Wins factored into Cy Youngs to begin the season. Cy voters usually weigh wins very highly over QS. Some voters don’t even look at QS I would imagine.

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