More Than You Wanted to Know About Opening Day, 2021 Edition

Hope springs eternal on Opening Day, it is often said, and that may never be more true than in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic that stopped the world in its tracks and has thus far killed more than half a million people in the U.S. alone (and nearly three million worldwide) has not yet ended, but vaccinations are becoming more widely available, and the promise of some semblance of normalcy is on the horizon. In marked contrast to last season, major league baseball is starting on schedule, and with a limited number of actual paying customers in ballparks — too many in Texas, and none for at least the first two months in Toronto, but with most teams and their respective municipalities taking a fairly conservative approach. All told, the situation is definitely better than when the 2020 season belatedly kicked off just over eight months ago.

Beyond that, MLB planned to offer MAXIMUM BASEBALL on Opening Day, with all 30 teams set to play their first games of the season on the same day, with no night-before staggered starts and no holding some teams back for the next day. Alas, this potentially historic occasion was pre-empted first by the weather in Boston, as the Red Sox announced on Thursday morning that they’ve postponed their contest until Friday at 2:10 pm ET, and, after the initial publication of this article, by a COVID-related postponement of the evening’s Mets-Nationals contest (and Friday’s as well), yet another reminder of the difficulty of carrying out the season in the middle of a pandemic.

While it was not uncommon for teams to launch their seasons in unison during the pre-expansion era, when there were just 16 teams — it happened 18 times from 1910-56, according to the good folks at Baseball-Reference — it has happened only once since the first wave of expansion in 1961-62. More recently, it almost happened in 2018; while a full slate of 15 games was scheduled for Opening Day, two of those contests were postponed due to rain.

The only time it actually happened during the expansion era was in 1968, and under less-than-ideal circumstances. In the wake of the April 4 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all of American sports observed a three-day moratorium, though baseball, led by ineffectual commissioner Spike Eckert, left the decision of whether to go ahead with the Opening Day games scheduled on April 8 and 9 up to individual teams. Protests and unrest, and then an uprising by players, led by the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente (one of an major league-high 11 Black players on the team) and the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson, keyed the postponement of those games. Finally, on April 10, all 20 teams got underway.

With Opening Day comes the individual teams’ choices of starting pitchers, which generally carry a certain symbolic significance. Teams with championship hopes or at least postseason aspirations put forth bona fide aces while teams with lower ceilings offer up the best they’ve got. Injuries, expedience, and other considerations sometimes take precedence, thereby turning the slate of Opening Day starters into a snapshot in time that may not be entirely representative. In that light, Opening Day start totals themselves aren’t exactly a marker of greatness or worthiness for the Hall of Fame, but rather a byproduct of stature and longevity, with some dumb luck thrown in. Proponents of Jack Morris often cited his total of 14 Opening Day starts and his relative ranking as key points in his favor when talking up his case for Cooperstown. Morris is in a four-way tie for second in the modern era (1901 onward) alongside Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson, and Walter Johnson, and two starts behind leader Tom Seaver; he’s also the owner of the longest streak of consecutive Opening Day starts with 14 (1980-93). However, it should be obvious that his total doesn’t make him a better pitcher than, say, Sandy Koufax, who made only one Opening Day start.

If you’re wondering how that particular quirk happened, teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, who developed into a frontline pitcher earlier than Koufax, made seven such starts, though just two during the 1962-66 window when his left-handed counterpart was the most dominant pitcher on the planet. Johnny Podres, the 1955 World Series hero, got the call in ’62 off an All-Star caliber season, breaking Drysdale’s four-year streak, and then Big D sandwiched the aforementioned two starts around Koufax’s lone Opening Day turn in ’64. Claude Osteen took the ball in 1966 because Koufax and Drysdale jointly held out for 32 days, until March 30, and didn’t make their respective first appearances of the year until April 13 and 15, the Dodgers’ second and fourth games of the season.

On the subject of Dodgers’ Opening Day starters, three-time Cy Young winner and freshly crowned World Series winner Clayton Kershaw is set to take the ball on Thursday for the first time since 2018, having missed the last two such assignments due to injuries. A mid-spring bout of shoulder soreness led to his being behind schedule as the big day arrived in 2019, and so Hyun Jin Ryu took the ball while Kershaw’s season debut was delayed until the Dodgers’ 18th game of that year. Last year, Kershaw was scratched on game day due to lower back stiffness, so rookie Dustin May was called up from the alternate training site. This time (knock on wood), the 33-year-old southpaw is ready to go.

This will be Kershaw’s ninth Opening Day start, which will move him into third place among active pitchers:

Active Leaders in Opening Day Starts
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Yellow = scheduled Opening Day starter for 2021

As for the active leader, Verlander, he’s actually inactive at this writing. His 12th Opening Day start, which took place last July 24, moved him into a three-way tie for eighth place in the modern era, but it proved to be his only start of the season, as he suffered a forearm strain and ultimately wound up needing Tommy John surgery, which will sideline him for all of this season. The number two pitcher on the list, Hernandez, recently opted out of his minor league deal with the Orioles amid a bout of right elbow soreness and a sadly unsurprising lack of giddyup on his fastball.

Here’s the full slate of starters:

2021 Opening Day Starting Pitchers
Visitor Starter OD GS Home Starter OD GS Time (ET)
Blue Jays Hyun Jin Ryu 2 Yankees Gerrit Cole 2 1:05 PM
Cleveland Shane Bieber 1 Tigers Matthew Boyd 1 1:10 PM
Twins Kenta Maeda 0 Brewers Brandon Woodruff 1 2:10 PM
Pirates Chad Kuhl 0 Cubs Kyle Hendricks 1 2:20 PM
Braves Max Fried 0 Phillies Aaron Nola 3 3:05 PM
Diamondbacks Madison Bumgarner 6 Padres Yu Darvish 1 4:10 PM
Dodgers Clayton Kershaw 8 Rockies Germán Márquez 1 4:10 PM
Cardinals Jack Flaherty 1 Reds Luis Castillo 1 4:10 PM
Rays Tyler Glasnow 0 Marlins Sandy Alcantara 1 4:10 PM
Rangers Kyle Gibson 0 Royals Brad Keller 1 4:10 PM
Mets Jacob deGrom 2 Nationals Max Scherzer 5 7:09 PM
White Sox Lucas Giolito 1 Angels Dylan Bundy 1 10:05 PM
Astros Zack Greinke 4 Athletics Chris Bassitt 0 10:07 PM
Giants Kevin Gausman 1 Mariners Marco Gonzales 2 10:10 PM
Orioles John Means 0 Red Sox Nathan Eovaldi 1 2:10 PM

Kershaw doesn’t lack for former teammates getting Opening Day assignments; no fewer than five ex-Dodgers will take the ball on Thursday, namely Darvish, Eovaldi, Greinke, Maeda, and Ryu. Darvish is the only pitcher in the entire group who’s making his debut with a new team, one expected to be the third-best in baseball according to our Playoff Odds. No pressure, dude.

Seven of the above hurlers will be making their first Opening Day starts, which pales in comparison to last year’s total of 18, a swell that owed something to spring or summer injuries and opt outs. In addition to May starting for Kershaw, Tommy Milone filled in for Means, who was scratched three days before last year’s assignment due to arm fatigue, and Eovaldi was given the honor in the absences of Chris Sale (Tommy John surgery) and Eduardo Rodriguez (post-COVID myocarditis). Eovaldi’s -0.3 WAR in 2019 brought up the rear among the 2020 starters, while this year’s low man is Bumgarner, who was torched for a 6.48 ERA and 7.18 FIP en route to -0.5 WAR in his first season in Arizona but who still has a long enough track record (and a high enough salary) to get another shot.

The top matchup in terms of the overall quality of the two teams, at least according to our Playoff Odds, belongs to the Blue Jays versus Yankees. The pair are forecast for 87.0 and 95.4 wins, respectively, and this is the only pairing where both teams have odds above 50% (91.3% for the Yankees, 50.7% for the Blue Jays). While Ryu and Cole are both Cy Young contenders, the top matchup in terms of the overall quality of the two starters — and the one scheduled for prime time on the East Coast via ESPN — was the Mets-Nationals one, where deGrom, a two-time Cy Young winner, was set to square off against Scherzer, a three-timer. Unfortunately, Wednesday’s report of an as-yet-unidentified Nationals player testing positive for COVID-19 and forcing four other players and one staff member into quarantine already threatened to overshadow that game, and on Thursday morning the game was officially postponed while the Nationals continue to conduct contact tracing. Assuming the Nationals do get to play soon, and that Scherzer isn’t among the ailing or quarantined players, he and Nola will take over the active lead in consecutive Opening Day starts with four, as Verlander’s string of five straight comes to an end.

Two other Cy Young winners besides Kershaw will be in action on Thursday, namely Bieber, the reigning AL winner, and Greinke. As for the reigning NL winner, Trevor Bauer, he’ll have to wait to make his Dodgers debut on Friday. Oh, and if you’re wondering about Cy Young himself in light of those all-time totals, he made 14 Opening Day starts, only six of which are captured by Baseball-Reference’s Stathead (f/k/a the Play Index); the other eight occurred in the 1891-1900 span. In my spot perusal of the 19th century’s workhorses, the highest total of Opening Day starts by a starter besides Young is Bobby Mathews with eight.

Back to the present day, the elephant in the room in this pandemic-adjacent season opener is ballpark capacity. The Athletic’s Evan Drellich gathered data on all 30 parks for a tracker published last week. According to that data, 26 of the 30 ballparks will open the season at 33% capacity or lower, with 16 of those at either 20% or 25%. The Red Sox and Nationals have the two lowest in terms of percentages, at 12% for the former (about 4,500 fans) and 12.1% for the latter (5,000 fans). In terms of head counts, the Blue Jays, who will spend at least the first two months of their season at TD Ballpark, their spring home in Dunedin, Florida, will have roughly 1,275 fans, which is 15% of capacity.

At the other end of the spectrum, the four teams exceeding 33% capacity are the Rays (36%, and in an indoor stadium to boot), Rockies (42.6%), Astros (50%, with the roof open or closed based on the weather) and Rangers. The last of those will open the season at a cringe-inducing 100% capacity, which they’ve rationalized by promising to offer “socially distanced” sections for subsequent games, when safety concerns will somehow come back into vogue. Yeesh.

That potentially hazardous situation, the ongoing plight of the Blue Jays (who of course spent last season in Buffalo, New York), and the Nationals-Mets postponement are just a few reminders that as the season begins, we’re still far from business as usual in baseball. Still, with fans and even players lining up to get shots — hat-tip to the Cardinals, who apparently will become the first team to reach 85% vaccination compliance, which will allow them to ease some restrictions — we’re in a much better place than a year or eight months ago. Play ball!

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.

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Shouldn’t you use a t distribution for this? Excellent article though.