Is First Always Best? The Story of the Opening Day Starting Pitcher

By Ellie Silfin

Feb 15, 2013; Port St Lucie, FL, USA; New York Mets pitcher

Johan Santana

during spring training workout at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports

Every year every team announces which pitcher is going to start on Opening Day well before the season begins.  Sometimes they even announce it before Spring Training games begin.  It has become an honor that symbolizes gratitude for the years of work a veteran pitcher has provided or a newfound trust in a young starter.  In recent years the Mets have given the start to a veteran.  However, injuries mess with everybody’s plans and this year they might have to give the ball to a younger face on Opening Day.

The Mets came into Spring Training ready to have Johan Santana open their season.  Once again he was coming off an injury and once again they wanted to show that he was back and stronger than ever.  Oh, and there was that whole no-hitter thing last season too.  Unfortunately, Santana isn’t as ready as the organization had hoped making them consider giving that first start to Jon Niese.

But does the Opening Day start really mean that much to the rest of the season?  Four of the last five starts have gone to Johan Santana.  Four of the five before that went to Tom Glavine.  The Mets don’t seem to put much thought into it, as the only other Opening Day starters in the last ten years have been Mike Pelfrey, due to an injury to Santana, and Pedro Martinez, when they wanted to show off their big offseason acquisition right away.

Over the last ten seasons the Opening Day starting pitcher has lead the pitchers in games started only half the time.  They have lead the team in wins only four times and ERA only twice.  In 2007 Tom Glavine was appointed Opening Day starter and after the last game, which he also started, he was all but run out of town.  Mike Pelfrey couldn’t get through five innings in his 2011 Opening Day start after a comical performance in the 2010 home-opener that included him falling while trying to deliver a pitch.  Al Leiter, R.A. Dickey, Jon Niese, and even Steve Trachsel and John Maine arguably had better seasons than the season-opening pitchers but the Mets continued to give the honor to the same faces.

So maybe it’s time to stop putting so much stock into who starts on Opening Day.  The idea of a team’s “ace” automatically being the Opening Day starter is silly.

R.A. Dickey put the team on his back for much of 2012 while Santana spent the second half on the disabled list.  At times it really felt like they were both aces but ultimately it was Dickey, who didn’t get to start the season on the mound.  Nobody knew that Pedro Martinez would have such a fantastic season when he was named Opening Day starter in 2005.  There was also no way to know Mike Pelfrey wouldn’t step up and grow into the role he was given in 2011.

The starting pitcher on April 1 is also going to be starting pitcher on, hopefully, about 30 other days of the year.  The starting pitcher on April 3 and 4 and May 24 and 25 is in the same situation.

Getting the Opening Day start will always be an honor, and it should.  However, it should not define the team’s best pitcher.  I’m stating the obvious when I say baseball season is long and a lot can happen in six months but some people still seem to argue that if a pitcher starts on Opening Day they should be treated as the ace all season.  If Shaun Marcum somehow started on Opening Day instead of Johan Santana or Jon Niese it wouldn’t throw him to the top of the rotation.

Opening Day is one game out of 162.  The results of that game and of that starting pitcher and starting center fielder and starting second baseman should be treated as the results of one game.  Opening Day’s outcome should n0t make anyone more of an ace or a laughing-stock more than any other game’s outcome.

This guy started on Opening Day?”

“Yeah and our game three starter has 20 wins.  Why does it matter?”