More Than You Wanted to Know About Opening Day Starters, 2020 Edition

At last, nearly four months after originally planned, the Opening Day of the 2020 season is upon us. It begins this evening at 7 pm ET in Washington, DC, with an impressive pitching matchup that reprises last year’s World Series opener, albeit with one of the principals having changed teams. At Nationals Park — where, in acknowledgement of his leadership during the coronavirus pandemic that caused the delay, Dr. Anthony Fauci will throw out the ceremonial first pitch — three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer will take the ball for the defending champion Nationals while Gerrit Cole will inaugurate his record-setting $324 million contract with his first regular season start as a Yankee. The night’s other contest, beginning at 10 pm ET, calls upon one of the sport’s top rivalries, pitting the Dodgers — albeit with Dustin May as a last-minute substitute for Clayton Kershaw, who was placed on the injured list due to back stiffness on Thursday afternoon — against the Giants and Johnny Cueto.

This will be Scherzer’s fifth Opening Day start, and third in a row, all with Washington; a fractured knuckle in his right ring finger forced him to yield to Stephen Strasburg in 2017. Cole has just one previous Opening Day start, in 2017 for the Pirates. Both pitchers lost at least a couple such starts to Justin Verlander, Scherzer’s teammate in Detroit from 2010-14 and Cole’s teammate since late ’17; Scherzer didn’t even get the nod when he was fresh off his 2013 AL Cy Young award. Verlander, who will take the ball in the Astros’ opener against the Mariners on Friday, will move into the active lead in Opening Day starts with his 12th. Kershaw would have taken sole possession of third with nine:

Active Leaders in Opening Day Starts
Rk Pitcher Opening Day Starts
1T Justin Verlander 11
Felix Hernandez* 11
3T Jon Lester 8
Clayton Kershaw 8
5 Julio Teheran 6
6T Adam Wainwright 5
Edinson Vólquez 5
Chris Sale 5
David Price* 5
Corey Kluber 5
Madison Bumgarner 5
12T Masahiro Tanaka 4
Stephen Strasburg 4
Max Scherzer 4
Francisco Liriano 4
Cole Hamels 4
Zack Greinke 4
Johnny Cueto 4
Chris Archer 4
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* Opted out of 2020 season. Yellow = scheduled Opening Day starter for 2020.

Like the saguaro cactus flower, Opening Day happens just once a year (even if MLB does spread the event over a couple of days), and I have to admit I’m rather fascinated by the choices that it brings, even if that fascination is rather fleeting. By next week, none of us will care about this stuff until (hopefully) late March of next year. As I’ve noted previously, by themselves, Opening Day start totals are not really a marker of greatness or worthiness for the Hall of Fame, but rather a byproduct of stature and longevity. Proponents of Jack Morris often cited his total of 14 Opening Day starts and his relative ranking — he’s second all-time, and the owner of the longest consecutive streak (1980-93) — as key points in his favor when talking up his case for Cooperstown, but 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.

Even so, with the elections of Morris (2018) and Roy Halladay (’19), 13 of the top 18 pitchers in Opening Day starts are enshrined, and Verlander, who had already cracked the top 10 among pitchers since 1904, will join them someday:

Most Opening Day Starts Since 1904
Rk Player Opening Day Starts
1 Tom Seaver+ 16
2T Jack Morris+ 14
Walter Johnson+ 14
Randy Johnson+ 14
Steve Carlton+ 14
6T Robin Roberts+ 13
Roger Clemens+ 13
8T Bert Blyleven+ 12
Pete Alexander+ 12
10T Justin Verlander 11
CC Sabathia 11
Dennis Martinez 11
Fergie Jenkins+ 11
Felix Hernandez 11
15T Warren Spahn+ 10
Juan Marichal+ 10
Roy Halladay+ 10
Bob Gibson+ 10
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = Hall of Famer

Of the others outside the Hall, Clemens is caught up in his PED mess, Sabathia might make it yet, Hernandez has fizzled out, and Martinez is a great comeback story — and a better pitcher than Morris by both traditional stats and advanced ones, albeit a less famous one outside of his native Nicaragua. Just below this cutoff, among the 10 players tied with nine, are enshrined 300-game winners Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Nolan Ryan, and Don Sutton, and among the 10 pitchers with eight are Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez. You can see the whole leaderboard here.

This list might look different if we had earlier box scores. Per the Play Index, Cy Young had just five Opening Day starts, all from ages 37-41 (1904-08), but Retrosheet recently added box scores for the 1901-03 seasons — which, holy smokes, box scores from the entire 20th century of major league baseball are now available, a remarkable feat unto itself — and I confirmed another Opening Day start for Young there. Not only that, looking back through the game logs of the 1890-98 Cleveland Spiders, ’99 St. Louis Perfectos and 1900 St. Louis Cardinals reveals that Young started eight additional openers, though Retrosheet doesn’t yet have their box scores. That brings his total to 14, tying him with Morris, but then it figures that the all-time leader in starts (815) would rank highly. By that same methodology, however, I counted just seven Opening Day starts apiece for the 19th century’s top two workhorses, Pud Galvin (688 starts, 10th all-time) and Tim Keefe (594 starts, 23rd all-time).

As for consecutive starts, the recent leaders have taken some hits lately. Hernandez made his 10th straight start in 2018, but it’s been all downhill in the two seasons since. Kershaw was poised to make his ninth straight in 2019, but a spring bout of shoulder inflammation forced him to the Injured List to start the season, bringing his streak to an end. The active leader in this is — wait for it — Teheran, who opened the 2014-19 seasons for the Braves but will see that streak come to an end now that he’s an Angel, as Andrew Heaney gets the call against the A’s. With Corey Kluber’s streak of five similarly coming to an end now that he’s a Ranger (Lance Lynn will face the Rockies), it’s Verlander taking over the active lead with five; his previous streak of seven straight was interrupted in 2015 with what was diagnosed at the time as a triceps injury, but may have in fact been his back (yeah, weird).

Back to Thursday night, the two matchups represent two of the most experienced combinations of Opening Day starters from this year’s slate, while at the other end of the spectrum, the starters for 18 teams will be doing this for the first time. That seems like a lot, though I’m presenting this without having counted any other year because, well, it’s a pain.

2020 Opening Day Starting Pitchers
Visitor Starter OD GS Home Starter OD GS Time (ET)
Yankees Gerrit Cole 2 Nationals Max Scherzer 6 7:00 PM
Giants Johnny Cueto 4 Dodgers Dustin May 0 10:00 PM
Braves Mike Soroka 0 Mets Jacob deGrom 1 4:00 PM
Tigers Matthew Boyd 0 Reds Sonny Gray 2 6:10 PM
Blue Jays Hyun Jin Ryu 1 Rays Charlie Morton 0 6:40 PM
Brewers Brandon Woodruff 0 Cubs Kyle Hendricks 0 7:00 PM
Marlins Sandy Alcantara 0 Phillies Aaron Nola 2 7:05 PM
Royals Danny Duffy 2 Indians Shane Bieber 0 7:10 PM
Orioles Tommy Milone 0 Red Sox Nathan Eovaldi 0 7:30 PM
Rockies Germán Márquez 0 Rangers Lance Lynn 0 8:05 PM
Twins José Berríos 1 White Sox Lucas Giolito 0 8:10 PM
Pirates Joe Musgrove 0 Cardinals Jack Flaherty 0 8:15 PM
Mariners Marco Gonzales 1 Astros Justin Verlander 11 9:10 PM
Diamondbacks Madison Bumgarner 5 Padres Chris Paddack 0 9:10 PM
Angels Andrew Heaney 0 Athletics Frankie Montas 0 10:00 PM

Some of those firsts are going to pitchers who broke out in 2019 — Bieber, Flaherty, Giolito, Lynn, Chris Paddack — but one sticks out as highly unlikely, namely the Orioles’ Milone. The 33-year-old lefty is filling in for staff ace John Means, who is dealing with a bout of arm fatigue, and as you might figure given a rotation that last year turned in an MLB-worst 5.72 FIP to go with their 5.57 ERA (28th) and shed its two other respectable starters (Dylan Bundy, now an Angel, and Andrew Cashner, curiously unemployed after finishing the season with the Red Sox), the pickings beyond that are slim. Milone will be pitching for his sixth team since the start of the 2016 season, having bounced through the Twins, Brewers, Mets, Nationals, and Mariners in that span. As you might guess, he hasn’t exactly had much success lately, with a 5.67 ERA, 5.44 FIP, and -0.1 WAR in 255.2 innings over that stretch; last year, he made just six starts from among his 23 appearances, yielding a 4.76 ERA and 5.00 FIP with 0.1 WAR for Seattle — which, to be fair, surpassed Cueto (0.0, albeit in just four starts since returning from Tommy John surgery) and Eovaldi (-0.3 in an injury-riddled campaign); you can see all of the above pitchers’ 2019 stats on this custom leaderboard. Milone’s start will allow the rest of the Orioles’ rotation to remain on turn, and his workmanlike career gets an unforgettable highlight, however things turn out.

As for the 22-year-old May, who ranked number 14 on Eric Longenhagen’s Top 100 Prospects list this spring, he’ll be making just his fifth major league start. That’s an impressively low total, though the last Dodgers rookie to start on Opening Day — April 9, 1981, in place of the injured Jerry Reuss — was making his first major league start, and he threw a five-hit shutout against the defending NL West champion Astros, namely Fernando Valenzuela. No pressure, kid!

The run-up to this belated restart has, of course, been a particularly grim one due to the coronavirus pandemic, whose shadow will be inescapable this season. Still, Opening Day is traditionally a time of renewed hope, and regardless of how any of these pitchers fare on Thursday and Friday, we could all use an extra dose of that right now.

This post has been updated with the news about Kershaw’s injury.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

Imagine making a HOF argument based on how many times a guy pitched on Opening Day

3 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Imagine making a HOF argument based on games “won” ignoring offense or defense contributions of your team

Smiling Politelymember
3 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

It’s a pretty tight fit with the Jack Morris/Harold Baines voting bloc, I would guess

3 years ago

Remember, the “Harold Baines voting bloc” is Jerry Reinsdorf and Tony La Russa and 10 cronies on one of those Veterans’ Committees.