The Best Pitching Performances in Opening Day History

We made it through. We’re still here, baseball’s still here, and we can all agree that everything is better today. Opening Day is when we crack the first egg to make a massive, delicious omelet. In many ways, there isn’t a better point in our yearly lives than the moment just before the first pitch of the first game for our favorite team: the amalgam of our hopes and expectations stretch out in the green expanse before us, realized in our mind’s eye all at once, and we drink them in.

Every once and a while, we see something a little more special than usual on Opening Day: a player hitting the ground running, acting like they could’ve been done with spring training weeks ago. They dominate on a day when many players might be hoping to ease into things.

In honor of this auspicious day, and to welcome back the time of the year when games mean something, I’ve combed through some particularly noteworthy pitching performances for the first counting games in the historical record (live-ball era) of previous seasons. With any luck, we’ll have another one to catalog today. Let’s get to it.

Best Game Score

Most of us are familiar with Bill James’ Game Score, a way of giving an overall score based on a standard pitching line. As a refresher, it’s started and centered at 50, with positive points awarded for strikeouts, outs, and completing innings. Likewise, points are subtracted for negative outcomes, like hits allowed, runs scored against, and walks issued. There have been some keen ideas about how to improve the Game Score in these pages, and also some critique of its continued effectiveness, but it’s still a fairly easy, reliable way of measuring a one game pitching performance.

Who had the best Game Score on an Opening Day in the live-ball era?

That would go to Walter Johnson, who posted an unearthly score of 111 on April 13th, 1926 in the opening game of his 20th season in the majors. The 38-year-old Johnson went 15 innings for the Washington Senators against the Philadelphia Athletics, giving up six hits, three walks, and zero runs. The number of batters he struck out seems to be in question: newspaper archives put the total at 12, while Baseball Reference tallies nine.

Whichever is the case, the game finally ended 1-0 when player/manager Bucky Harris crossed the plate in the bottom of the 15th. Oft-remembered Vice President Charles Dawes was on hand to throw out the first pitch, with the New York Times reporting that “A floral piece was presented to Manager Bucky Harris, and Johnson received a loving cup,” which I can only take to mean Harris received flowers, and Johnson received applause. Also reported were “Johnson’s curves and fast ones appearing as effective as ever”.

While there isn’t film of the game (surprising, to be sure), there are a few great videos of Walter Johnson pitching. Here’s one of them:

More modern examples would be Bob Veale‘s 10-inning masterpiece in 1965, Tom Glavine’s two-hit, complete game shutout in 1992, and Felix Hernandez‘ domination of the Athletics in 2007.

Pre-2000 honorable mentions (game score): Lon Warneke1934 (96), Mel Harder1935 (95)Bob Veale1965 (95), Tom Glavine1992 (90)

Post-2000 honorable mentions (game score): Hideo Nomo2003 (84)Felix Hernandez2007 (86), Clayton KershawJeff Samardzija — 2013 (86)

Most Strikeouts

For those after sheer gaudiness, or for those who simply don’t believe in the democratic ideals of the ground ball out, look no further than Camilo Pascual on April 18th, 1960. He struck out 15 Red Sox as a member of the Washington Senators (the Senators obviously love Opening Day), only giving up three hits and three walks over nine innings. The only run of the game for the Sox was represented by a Ted Williams home run, but you can’t fault Pascual too much for that. This game is noteworthy as the last game Dwight D. Eisenhower would throw out a first pitch as president. It’s also noteworthy because of this great News of the Day recap video about the game:

The Senators won 10-1 in front of Eisenhower and fresh-faced Vice President Richard Nixon. Coming in a close second for the strikeout crown are Don Drysdale and Randy Johnson, who both recorded 14 strikeouts in the opening game of a season. Strictly from a strikeout perspective, Johnson is the more impressive of the two: he struck out 14 twice (1993 & 1996), and didn’t take 11 innings and 164 pitches to do so, as was the case with Drysdale (1960). Not that 164 pitches isn’t impressive in its own right.

Pre-2000 honorable mentions (strikeouts): Lon Warneke — 1934 (13), Bob Gibson — 1967 (13), Dave McNally — 1970 (13), J.R. Richard — 1980 (13)

Post-2000 honorable mentions (strikeouts): Pedro Martinez — 2000 (11), Felix Hernandez — 2007 (12), Jered Weaver, Justin Masterson, Ryan Dempster — 2012 (10)

The Only No-hitter

The lone pitcher to record a no-hitter on Opening Day after 1920 was Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians, who was supremely and effectively wild on April 16th, 1940. Feller walked five in the outing, which is the reason the performance is only 9th-best in terms of Game Scores on the first day of the season (posting a mark of 90). He struck out eight. Amazingly, it’s arguably not the best performance from Feller on Opening Day during his Hall of Fame career: his complete game, three hit, one walk, 10 strikeout opener in 1946 matches the Game Score mark of his 1940 no-hitter.

Feller was a notorious hard-thrower, and interested parties employed a rather unique method of measuring the speed of his fastball before the days of radar guns:

Bob_Feller_Fastball_Measurement

Yes, that is a policeman on a motorcycle going “86 miles per hour” racing Feller’s fastball. This test was enough for the narrator of the film to exclaim, “That ball was traveling better than 100 mile per hour!”, in what was the first documented case of solid empirical evidence beating the eye test in baseball.

Other pitchers have come close to the Opening Day no-no: Jesse Petty (1926), Lon Warneke (1934), and Bob Lemon (1953) all threw complete game one-hitters. The closest to perfection may have been Lefty Grove (1940) or Ron Guidry (1980), who walked none and gave up two singles apiece. Neither received decisions in their games, amazingly.

If we wait long enough, we’ll eventually see a perfect game or another no-hitter on Opening Day: until then, we have Walter Johnson, Camilo Pascual, and Bob Feller’s amazing fastball. Just like the police motorcycle speed test, they’ll be overtaken one day by a better performance, gone but not forgotten.





Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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ivdown
7 years ago

I’ll take Kershaw’s shutout of the Giants where he hit the game winning home run in the 8th inning.