For some baseball fans, Opening Day is the quintessential symbol of hope.
With everybody tied for first place, it’s easy to clutch tightly to a sense of optimism, even if that optimism isn’t entirely rational. Zero and zero is a record that teems with promise of things to come. After a long, patience-testing offseason, that first taste of optimism is intoxicating.
But for some fans, Opening Day intoxication comes shortly after the first pitch, once that optimism has worn away and the emergency libations have been breached. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” — or so, the cliche goes. And there are few feelings in fandom quite as all-around awful as knowing this hell is the new normal for the next 162 games.
In theory, on Opening Day, everybody is throwing their best pitcher. In practice, “best” can mean quite a wide range of things. For a franchise like the Milwaukee Brewers, whose extended history reads like a masochist’s dream journal, the “best” starter on the roster has been objectively bad often enough to take note.
When I was ten years old, I thought the Brewers hit rock bottom with their choice of Opening Day starter. The prior year, a rookie pitcher named Rafael Roque had electrified the league in his nine starts. Well, he didn’t exactly electrify the league, but he did win four of those nine starts and posted a 0.7 WAR, which translates to approximately three wins over a full season. Roque had never been a top prospect, but the mini-breakout was enough for the team to name him Opening Day starter in 1999.
Less than two months into the season, the Brewers unceremoniously demoted their struggling opening-day starter to the bullpen, thus ending his tenure as a big-league starter. Just a year later, he bowed out of Major League Baseball, never to return. I’ve always remembered Rafael Roque as a textbook example of a bad opening-day starter, and coming into things I expected this list to feature him prominently. As it turns out, Roque’s stellar performance out of the bullpen for most of the season mitigated his awful run as a starter, and he was about replacement level for the season as a whole. Believe it or not, there’s a sizable collection of Opening Day starters who performed even worse.
As a prime example, the 2015 version of the Brewers started the season in Colorado, with Kyle Lohse on the mound against Kyle Kendrick. Lohse set the tone for an awful season with an awful first outing — he surrendered eight runs, was chased from the game midway through the fourth, and watched the other Kyle finish out a shutout for the 10-0 win. Things didn’t get any better from there, either. By August, Lohse would pull a Roque and pitch his way out of the starting rotation. He finished off the last year of his $33 million contract with a truly miserable 5.56 DRA.
Unlike Roque in 1999, Lohse’s final 2015 stat line was considerably worse than what could be expected from a replacement-level player. It can’t have been the worst in the history of the 46 year history of the franchise, though? Could it have?
3A. Jeff Suppan, 2009
For younger Milwaukee fans, Opening Day uncertainty is an unfamiliar phenomenon. For the past thirteen years, the first game on the calendar has been handled by Ben Sheets or Yovani Gallardo — with two exceptions. Those exceptions, however, have been unmitigated disasters.
In 2009, Gallardo’s torn ACL delayed the start of his season and sent Jeff Suppan to the hill in his stead for Milwaukee’s opener in San Francisco. Suppan struggled, conceding a bases-clearing triple to Travis Ishikawa in the first and a two-run homer to Aaron Rowand later. In only four innings of work, Suppan gave up six hits and six runs to the Giants.
Ken Macha’s Milwaukee managerial debut ended with the Brewers on the wrong side of a 10-6 score, Suppan taking the loss. He had been a useful mid-rotation starter for Milwaukee the previous two seasons, but in 2009 the bottom fell out. He followed up his disastrous outing in San Francisco by getting chased in the fourth inning by the Cubs, five runs deep. And though his ERA eventually sank back into the single digits, his final 2009 numbers were still really bad: a 5.29 ERA, 6.09 DRA, and 1.69 WHIP in 30 starts. Suppan struggled to get hitters out at every turn, and finished a full win below replacement for the year.
Suppan and Braden Looper were something of the 2009 Lohse and Matt Garza — two veteran pitchers acquired through free agency who crushed the team’s chances to win 40 percent of the time. The two former Cardinals were two of the four worst pitchers in all of Major League Baseball that year, measured by WAR.
3B. Kyle Lohse, 2015
So, to answer our titular question: no, Lohse’s tire fire of a 2015 is not the worst ever posted by an Opening Day starter for the Brewers. It is, however, eerily similar to the narrative followed by Suppan six years prior. Both were back-end starters in the American League before Dave Duncan made them into something in St. Louis. Both signed with the Brewers in their 30s for questionably long, high-money deals. And both pitchers were downright competent for the first two seasons of those deals, before they were called upon to take the ball for Milwaukee on Opening Day.
And just like Suppan before him, Lohse proceeded to hang a crooked number on the scoreboard before the Brewers could even get their first hitter of the season to the plate.
As we all know now, Lohse would never put it back together in a Milwaukee uniform. Like Suppan once upon a time, he posted one of the worst statistical seasons by an active starter. Lohse’s 5.56 DRA might not have been quite as unfortunate as Suppan’s, but he was a tenth of a game worse relative to the replacement level. If you go strictly by the numbers, Suppan was worse — his DRA was considerably higher, and Lohse was only a tenth of a win worse by that metric — but it’s really close. Throw in all the eerie similarities, and the fact that Lohse lost his rotation spot, and the only fair thing to do is call it a tie and bind them together for eternity.
2. Don August, 1989
It’s truly amazing how history has a way of repeating itself with this team.
We’ve already established the amazing parallels between Suppan and Lohse. But believe it or not our old friend Rafael Roque was a familiar story, too, and his 1999 misadventure somewhat mirrored a situation that took place a decade earlier.
Unlike Roque, Don August entered the professional ranks with a little bit of reputation preceding his name. He was a first-round pick in the 1984 draft, and jumped immediately to Double-A in 1985. But from 1985-1987, August’s minor-league numbers got progressively worse and he was far from a blue-chip prospect by the time he made his big-league debut in 1988. Despite this, the 24-year-old took the league by storm, racking up 13 wins while posting a 3.09 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. He was fourth in that year’s American Rookie of the Year balloting with a 16 percent share.
Today, we know that there were huge warning signs baked into August’s phenomenal rookie campaign. August was allergic to strikeouts, fanning just four batters per nine innings in 1988. More troublingly, his excellent numbers were buoyed along by an unsustainable .256 BABIP. Today, we recognize this as unsustainable.
But back in 1989, nobody had ever heard of BABIP, or even K/9 for that matter. So, naturally, the Brewers thought they had a budding ace — and pushed him to take the next developmental step, handing him the ball for Opening Day. It was an ambitious assignment, but at least in this case, the player in question had been in the Major Leagues for more than eight games.
For one night, at least, the decision paid off. Opening Day 1989 between the Cleveland Indians and the Brewers was a classic, hard-fought pitchers’ duel. August locked horns with Greg Swindell in a game that would see one total walk and both starters pitching through the eighth inning. Spreading eight hits around, August managed to limit the damage against him to a two-run third-inning double by Oddibe McDowell. But Swindell was even better, allowing just five baserunners and one run.
Still, Milwaukee’s 25-year-old starter had been impressive, regardless of the outcome. If he could keep it up, there was plenty of reason for optimism.
The issue was, August was never able to keep it up for an extended period of time. His month-by-month splits from that season are enough to cause any manager to lose sleep. April and June Don looked just like the previous year’s breakout rookie; May and July Don looked like they belonged nowhere near a big-league rotation. That July, he allowed opponents to post an OPS just shy of 1.000 against him! So, come August, August was banished to a relief role.
His 5.85 DRA means that he somehow got lucky to end up with an ERA of 5.31 that year, and his 1.64 WHIP was approximately four-tenths higher than it had been a year ago. With opponents hitting .304 on balls in play, August’s true colors showed. Don August’s 1989 season was like a tug-of-war between the two sides of him as a player. Unfortunately for the Brewers, Crappy Don won out in the long run.
By 1992, August would be out of the big leagues, and he played his final three seasons in the minors. At the top level he posted a 2.5 WAR for his rookie year, and a 0.8 WAR for his career. In short, he was the Alex Sanchez of the mound.
1. Mark Knudson, 1991
Mark Knudson was a type of pitcher who likely would have never gotten his shot in the sabermetric era. Flyball pitchers nowadays usually need to compensate for their home-run tendencies with a high number of strikouts, whereas Knudsen posted a career K/9 rate of 3.6 and a career ground-ball rate of just 44 percent. Acquired from Houston in 1986, Knudson settled into a long relief/swingman role throughout the 1980s, before a dominant 1989 season propelled him to full-time starterhood.
Teddy Higuera was the team’s ace in those days, but a torn rotator cuff left him on the shelf for the entire year. His top lieutenant, Bill Wegman, was unavailable early in the season as he finished rehabbing from elbow surgery himself. An already-weak rotation was left crippled, and Knudson was named the Opening Day starter largely by default.
All things considered, the opener could have gone far worse. Knudson surrendered home runs to Kevin Reimer and Ruben Sierra, but gave up just three runs in five and a third and the final score was 5-4 for Milwaukee. It was vintage Knudson — ugly, but effective against all odds.
Unfortunately, the smoke-and-mirrors act was about to come to an end. Knudson left his next start in the third inning with shoulder soreness. Nobody knew it at the time, but he would never pitch beyond the fifth inning of a game he started again. That shoulder soreness turned out to be an inflamed rotator cuff of his own, and Knudson bounced from the disabled list, to the bullpen, back to the starting rotation, down to Triple-A when he was ineffective. Knudson’s stuff was borderline to begin with, and the lasting effects of the worn-down shoulder would prematurely turn him into minor-league filler.
Throughout all of that, Knudson appeared in a total of just twelve games during 1991, starting seven. His final WHIP that year was 1.97, a number that would make even Jeff Suppan grimace awkwardly. And his DRA for the season translated to 8.64 — somehow even worse than his horrid 7.97 ERA.
Baseball Prospectus’s player cards do not show similar players for guys who have already retired, but fortunately Baseball Reference does. Knudson’s page shows one active comparison: Dodgers reliever Juan Nicasio. Nicasio was quite useful for Los Angeles out of the bullpen in 2015, but that was only after four years of uninspiring work in Colorado’s starting rotation forced him into a relief role. Nicasio, the starter, was worse than replacement level two of those four years. As bitter as “Kyle Lohse, Opening Day Starter” might have been, there’s no objective way it measures up to “Juan Nicasio of His Era, Opening Day Starter.” Poor Tom Trebelhorn lost his job over that team, which seems truly unfair in retrospect given that his alleged best pitcher posted an 8.64 DRA.