On the heels of a pair of injury-shortened seasons, it was a rough spring for Felix Hernandez, who was drilled by a line drive in his first Cactus League start. Fortunately, he bounced back in time to build up his pitch count, and when he takes the mound tonight for the Mariners at Safeco Field, he’ll claim a little slice of history.
Hernandez will be making the 11th Opening Day start of his career, putting him into a tie with CC Sabathia for the lead among active pitchers, and the 10th-highest total since 1908, as far as the Baseball-Reference Play Index now reaches. He’ll also be making his 10th consecutive Opening Day start, moving him into a tie for fourth place with Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Steve Carlton as well as Roy Halladay.
By themselves, Opening Day start totals are not really a marker of worthiness for the Hall of Fame but rather a byproduct of stature and longevity. The proponents of Jack Morris used their man’s total of 14 — tied for second all-time — as a key point in his favor when talking up his case. That doesn’t make him a better pitcher than Sandy Koufax, who made only one Opening Day start. But with Morris’s election in December by the Modern Baseball Era Committee, eight of the top nine pitchers in this category are all enshrined in Cooperstown, as are 12 of the top 17:
As I discovered while researching this, Seaver, the all-time leader, squared off with Carlton, who’s tied for second, a record five times on Opening Day (1973-75 and 1983 as members of the Mets and Phillies, respectively, and 1981 when Seaver was with the Reds). With the help of B-Ref’s Sean Forman, I learned that following four pairings occurred three times: Roberts versus Don Newcombe, Dizzy Dean versus Lon Warneke, Howard Ehmke versus Bob Shawkey, and most recently Mike Mussina versus Kevin Appier. Fifteen other Opening Day matchups occurred twice, with Morris versus Clemens the only one involving two members of the above leaderboard. Sabathia squared off twice against Mark Buehrle, and Bartolo Colon did so against his model for agelessness, Jamie Moyer.
As Hernandez climbs into a tie for 10th on the above list, Justin Verlander, who will be making his 10th Opening Day start overall and his first for the Astros, will replace him in the tie for 14th, rising from what’s now a 10-way tie with four Hall of Famers (Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton) and five others (Buehrle, Livan Hernandez, Brad Radke, Steve Rogers, and Rick Sutcliffe).
Back to the consecutive list: here’s how it stands right now, with a hat tip to MLB.com’s Andrew Simon:
Verlander won’t crack this list anytime soon, as he did not start the Tigers’ opener in 2015. Clayton Kershaw could in 2019, which would be his ninth straight Opening Day assignment. Both he and the White Sox’ James Shields are making their eighth such starts in all on Thursday.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.
Dennis Martinez has made 11 Opening Day starts? I find that shocking.