Opening Day: It’s a Whole New Ballgame

The 120th season of baseball’s modern era is finally underway, a season like no other … yada, yada, yada. No, I’m not going to assault you with yet another piece on the uniqueness of the 2020 campaign. Instead, I’m going to look at the uniqueness of every season, hopefully from a new angle. More after the jump.

I happened to catch a few innings of the Dodger/Giant opener, and ESPN obligingly provided some unusual opening game factoids to ponder.

  • Hands up if you knew that Johnny Cueto has the lowest opening day ERA of the live ball era in a minimum four opening day starts. Or that Rick Mahler is second. Really.
  • Clayton Kershaw‘s back was acting up, so Dustin May became the first Dodger rookie to start on opening day since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. Valenzuela is still, I think, the only pitcher since World War II to make his first career start on opening day. Quiz: name three (or more) Dodgers whose first career start was on an opening day before 1946. (Hint: of the three I’m aware of, two are obscure but one definitely isn’t)
  • Alex Dickerson manned LF for the Giants, making it 14 straight opening days for San Francisco with a different left fielder, a streak that began with Barry Bonds in his final season.

It was the last of those factoids that got me thinking about opening day lineups. On the face of it, 14 straight years with a different left fielder seems pretty bizarre. Teams generally try to start the season with their preferred lineup on the field and, with a whole off-season to get ready, that’s often what happens. But, in the age of free agency, with hundreds of players changing zip codes every winter, good players seldom stay in one place for very long, so opening day lineup turnover might be more than you would think. Other factors that can lead to changes in opening day lineups.

  • Injuries. Of course.
  • Platoons and other matchup considerations
  • The can’t miss rookie who does (after his opening day debut, of course)
  • The journeyman who looks like a world beater in pre-season play and parlays that performance into a spot in the opening day lineup … before reminding everyone why he is a journeyman.
  • I’m sure you can think of a few more.

So, now I’m starting to wonder: is 14 straight years with a new opening day player at a position as unusual as it first seemed? Well, only one way to find out. So, thanks to Baseball-Reference and the wonders of Excel, I’ve found out how often opening day lineups change from one season to the next. But, in finding the longest string of seasons with a different player at a position, I wasn’t just looking at a player different from the season before, but different from all of the other players in the streak. In other words, a 10 year streak means 10 different players.

Below, by position, are the record longest streak of seasons since 1901 for a franchise to start a different player on opening day.

I’ll have more to say about some of these marks when I offer some comments on each team, but a couple of general and fairly obvious observations are:

  • teams trying to find an answer at a position are usually not championship teams
  • left-field is definitely the position where teams most frequently try out new players, a practice for which there is some logic given that LF is generally regarded as the least challenging position defensively
  • I expected these record streaks to be dominated by the free agency era, particularly in the past 25 years. That’s somewhat true, but not nearly to the degree I was anticipating.

A couple of notable exceptions to the championship team “rule” among these record holders are the 1956-66 Dodgers (3B record) and the 1988-94 Braves (C record). There are also a few lone championship seasons among these record streaks, including the 1944 Browns, not yet halfway through their remarkable 19-year run auditioning new left-fielders.

Looking at the record streaks for each team gives us these results, starting with the NL (I’ve included the Astros in the NL section, for obvious reasons). The red numbers are the longest streak of seasons with a different opening day player, with the seasons when this occurred shown in smaller type below.

To perhaps provide some fodder for further discussion, here are some more or less random observations for each of the above teams.

  • The Astros’ recent AL success followed closely the ending of their record streaks at SS and CF. Strength up the middle nearly always makes a team better.
  • While the Braves had a record streak of seasons with different opening day catchers in late ’80s and early ’90s, Greg Olson was the primary catcher for their pennant winning years in 1991 and 1992. When Javy Lopez emerged as their next regular catcher, the Braves added three more pennants before the decade was out.
  • For the 25 seasons from 1978 to 2002, the Cardinals’ longest streak at any position was 5 years, once at each outfield position. The Redbirds won three pennants and had three other NLCS appearances over that period.
  • In the 28 seasons (1938 to 1965) between Gabby Hartnett and Randy Hundley, the Cubs failed to find anyone who could catch 100 games in a season more than once, and only seven who did so just that one time.
  • The D-Backs traded away Miguel Montero in 2014 after five seasons with 100 games caught; they’ve had a different opening day catcher every year since.
  • In the 31 seasons (1942 to 1972) between Cookie Lavagetto and Ron Cey, the Dodgers had only 5 seasons with a player logging 120 games at 3B. They still racked up 10 pennant-winning seasons over that period, but quickly added four more in the 9 seasons (1974-82) that Cey was the opening day starter.
  • The Giants’ record 1B streak followed the retirement of Willie McCovey. The streak breaker was Will Clark in 1987; a pennant followed two years later.
  • The Marlins fielded 4 opening day shortstops in their first 6 seasons. They’ve had only 5 more in the 22 years since.
  • The Mets’ record streaks at C, 1B and 2B all began in the franchise’s debut season, and their LF record started two years later. All of those streaks ended just in time for their championship season in 1969. The Mets next pennant in 1986 closely followed the end of their record shortstop streak. But, their most recent pennant in 2015 was a different story, coming during the midst of record streaks at P and LF.
  • The Expos were serious challengers in the 1979-81 seasons before their fortunes and their infield unraveled, with record OD streaks in the early and mid-80s at 1B, 2B and SS. It would be more than a decade later, in 1992, before Les Expos next finished higher than 3rd.
  • Sixteen years and counting. That’s the Padres’ NL record streak in LF. In more than 50 years of NL play, Gene Richards is the only Padre to have opening day LF starts in in more than two consecutive seasons.
  • The Phillies ended their record RF streak with the acquisition of Bryce Harper. Notables have also ended club record streaks at Pitcher (Robin Roberts) and 3B (Dick Allen).
  • The Pirates had 14 opening day starting pitchers in the 16 seasons from 1999 to 2014. No Pirate pitcher has started more than three consecutive opening day games since Bob Veale in the 1960s.
  • The Reds were pennant winners in 1961 despite being in the midst of record streaks at P and 2B. But there are no record streaks anywhere close to the Big Red Machine era.
  • The Rockies’ surprise pennant in 2007 closely followed the ends of record streaks at SS, 3B, LF and RF, though record streaks at P, C and 2B were all still in progress.

Now to the American League where I’ve included the Brewers, to balance things out and also because they still have more history in the AL (though that will be changing soon).

  • The Angels started 10 different opening day second basemen in the 12 seasons from 1990 to 2001, finally settling on Adam Kennedy who made 5 opening day starts in 7 seasons (2000-06), including the Halos’ world championship season in 2002.
  • Connie Mack’s sell-off of his top players after the A’s pennant three-peat (1929-31) signaled the start of record streaks at three positions. Marcus Semien this season became the first A’s shortstop since Bert Campaneris to make six consecutive opening day starts.
  • Jack Morris was the Blue Jays’ opening day starter in their two championship seasons (1992-93). His departure started a run of 10 OD starting pitchers in 11 seasons (1993-2003), ending only with the emergence of Roy Halladay as the staff ace.
  • The Brewers’ current 10 year record streak at 1B is unusual for that position, where the next longest streak is only four seasons (1998-2001). Their record streaks for every position are among the shortest for any franchise, a common indicator of a small market team making judicious use of the free agent market.
  • The Indians’ record RF streak ending in 1950 did not herald continuity at the position. Not until Cory Snyder in 1989 would an Indian right-fielder again start three consecutive opening day games.
  • While the Mariners have impressive records for OD starts in CF (11 by Ken Griffey Jr.) and RF (10 by Ichiro Suzuki), their record in LF is only four starts by Raul Ibanez. Suzuki is the only Mariner to make OD starts at all three outfield positions, and is the oldest major league player to make OD starts in consecutive seasons.
  • The Brownies went 19 straight years with a different OD left-fielder. Part of the reason for that turnover was the adverse effect an OD start in LF had on the players’ career prospects: of those 19 players, only two were still active 5 years after their OD start, and more than half were done within 3 years.
  • The expansion Senators had 6 OD catchers in their first 6 seasons, but only 8 more over their next 36 campaigns. Recent seasons have looked more like the franchise’s beginning, with 10 OD catchers in the last 18 years.
  • The Rays have been around for only 23 seasons, but have record streaks not dissimilar to those of teams with much longer histories. In 2012, the Rays had only one returning starter (Evan Longoria) from the 2011 OD lineup. Even in their championship season in 2008, the Rays’ OD lineup included only three players from the OD lineup of the year before.
  • Current Red Sox shortstop Xander Boegarts has been their OD starter for the past 7 seasons, and is the franchise’s seventh shortstop to start an OD game in 6 consecutive seasons. At the other end of the spectrum are the “one and done” OD players, one of whom was Red Sox shortstop Ewell “Turkey” Gross in 1925. Gross is one of 685 non-pitchers to make his major league debut with an opening day start, and his 9 game career is likely one of the shortest of that group. If you read his SABR Bio, you’ll learn that Gross was relatively unknown, turned some heads in spring training, garnered some favorable press suggesting he may have a leg up on the incumbent shortstop (Dud Lee), and wound up in the lineup on opening day. His stat line suggests he was holding his own in the field, but clearly struggled at the plate, though it doesn’t seem he was given much of a chance, getting his outright release after those 9 games.
  • The Royals struggled through the first decade of this century, unable to find stability at either of the corner outfield positions. That spells trouble in spacious Kauffman Stadium which places a premium on the ability of those outfielders to cleanly field balls hit down the lines into the rounded corners unique to KC’s ballpark. The emergence of Alex Gordon in LF and Lorenzo Cain in CF solved most of the Royals’ outfield woes, with those two players becoming key contributors on the Royals’ 2015 championship team.
  • After two decades manning RF for Detroit, Al Kaline‘s retirement began a record streak of 11 straight seasons with a different OD player at that position. The streak breaker was Kirk Gibson in the Tigers’ 1984 championship season, with Gibson garnering MVP honors in the ALCS, and posting a massive .367/.486/.700 slash for the post-season (ALCS+WS).
  • After starting assignments in 14 of 17 opening day games (1910-26), Walter Johnson‘s retirement began a record streak for the Senators of 8 straight seasons with a different opening day starting pitcher. The streak breaker was General Crowder, leading the AL in Wins in 1932 and 1933, and leading the Senators to the World Series in the latter season.
  • Willie Kamm was the White Sox opening day third baseman for 9 straight seasons (1923-31) and Bill Melton logged 7 straight starting assignments (1969-75). In the 37 seasons between those two players, no White Sox third baseman recorded more than two consecutive opening day starts.
  • The Yankees’ three straight pennants in 1976-78 owed much to establishing continuity at 1B (Chris Chambliss), 3B (Graig Nettles) and RF (Reggie Jackson), all positions which experienced franchise record streaks of different OD starters in the late 60s and early 70s.

So, that’s the story of the longest streaks of seasons with different opening day starters. While one should be careful not to read too much into which players started a single game, opening day is probably the game to look at for such a barometer.

For those interested, the complete list of opening day starting lineups can be downloaded here. The data are organized by franchise, with all of a franchise’s seasons associated with its current nickname. You can use the drop-down menus to select the teams, seasons or players to view. For example, you could see:

  • the opening day lineups for every team for a selected season; or
  • every opening day lineup for a selected team; or
  • all of the seasons when Gary Sheffield was the opening day right-fielder; or
  • whatever you might dream up.

Thanks for reading, and do let me know if you find any errors in the lineup data, as errors are entirely possible given the amount of manual cutting and pasting that was done to compile the spreadsheet.

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Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
14 days ago

If you had asked me which position had long streaks like this most often, I’m not sure I’d have had a guess; probably catcher, because when the question is about weird stuff, catcher is usually the right answer, because it’s the weirdest position. But, after looking at it, it made total sense that it was leftfield. This about it – what are the chances that you have an established leftfielder, but not the other two positions? Pretty much nil, right? Because your leftfielder is generally your weakest – or at least most interchangeable – outfielder. If you’ve got a great… Read more »

14 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

I suppose taking a glass half-full approach to position turnover would be to regard a new player at a position as someone the team expects to do better in the role. The glass half-empty view would be that team still hasn’t found someone good enough to hang onto. As in most things, reality lies somewhere between those extremes. I’m somewhat surprised the streaks for 1B aren’t closer in length to those of the left-fielders. If LF is the least demanding position defensively, first base is probably second, or commonly regarded as such. Personally, I think first base defense is consistently… Read more »

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
13 days ago

For the quiz I could only 1 such pitcher. Henry Schmidt, in 1903. His W-L was 22-13 and it was his only year in the ML. His home and business were on the West Coast and he did not want to spend 6 months of the year in the eastern portion of the USA.

Richard Chester
Richard Chester
13 days ago

Should be “…could find only 1…”

13 days ago

Schmidt is one.

I just realized that one of the pitchers (the one who isn’t obscure) that I had identified achieved his greatest success as a Dodger, but actually debuted for another team. So, scratch him.

So, one other, who, like Schmidt, pitched just one season in Brooklyn.

Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
11 days ago

At this point, I put the end-date on the season at August 17. Anyone want to take the over (later) or under (earlier)?

10 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

I’ll take the under. The only way to have done this with a good chance for success was like the NBA and NHL, with hub cities in a highly controlled environment. Taking a BAU approach with travel to different cities is just dumb. If all the games are in empty stadiums, any regulation diamond will do just as well. So, why are teams traveling to different cities? Is it because you’ll only find the luxurious clubhouses the pros are accustomed to in MLB stadiums? Somehow, I think the players would have gladly accepted more spartan dressing rooms if it meant… Read more »

9 days ago

The answer to the quiz question is that Henry Schmidt (1903) and Red Evans (1939) are the pre-war Dodger pitchers who, like Fernando Valenzuela, made their first career pitching start on opening day. For both Schmidt and Evans, it was the last season of their careers and their only season playing for Brooklyn. Other pitchers with their first career start on opening day include: 1944 – Preacher Roe 1943 – Al Gerhaeuser* 1925 – Lefty Grove* 1920 – Eddie Eayrs 1910 – Hippo Vaughn 1908 – Nick Carter* 1902 – Harry Felix 1901 – Win Kellum*, Roscoe Miller*, Roy Patterson*… Read more »

Dr. Doom
7 days ago
Reply to  Doug

Wow, I would literally never have gotten those trivia answers. The Lefty Grove one is interesting, and unsurprising. Grove was already widely considered to be among the best pitchers on earth before his first start. His previous four seasons with Baltimore of the Independent League, Grove went 96-34 (24-8.5 per year) with a 2.86 ERA. This was back when the Independent League was probably the best of the minor leagues at this point (it’s possible the Pacific Coast League was better; I’m not an expert at this history). Grove therefore had the unusual position of already being established as one… Read more »

Paul E
Paul E
7 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

I believe you mean “International League”. But, yes, point taken. Jack Ogden was a longtime scout from here in Delaware County PA who pitched well in the minors (31-8 at B’more in 1921) and was a teammate of Grove

Dr. Doom
5 days ago
Reply to  Paul E

Ugh. Now I feel really dumb for writing “Independent League.” First of all, that’s not the name of the league. But, more importantly, “independent league” is, I think it’s fair to say, an oxymoron.

6 days ago
Reply to  Dr. Doom

Just a note on the three pitchers making their career debut on opening day 1901. As might be expected, all three started for AL teams in that league’s inaugural season. Two of the three, Miller and Patterson, were 20 game winners, for the Tigers and White Sox respectively. Since then, each of those franchises has had only one other rookie pitcher win 20 games, both more than 100 years ago.