Success with Opening Day Starters

What the Brewers are attempting on Opening Day has only been done eleven times in the past ten years, and the decision isn’t sitting too well with some fans. After the news broke that 32-year-old second year starting pitcher Junior Guerra would get the ball to start the season, Tom Haudricourt, a Brewers beat writer from the Milwaukee Journal Sential, quote tweeted an account that claimed the Brewers were a surefire 100 loss team if Guerra was the opening day starter.

Haudricourt, in his usual kind and gentle nature, chose to calmly declare the individual as misinformed and ignorant to the situation. But this tweet, regardless of its intelligence, got me thinking about the real impact an opening day starting pitcher has on a ball club.

Craig Counsell’s selection of Guerra was far from unsubstantiated. Given the circumstances of Guerra’s out of nowhere appearance, his final 2016 stat line nothing less than astounding. In 20 starts, he complied 121 innings, a 2.81 ERA, 2.1 WARP, and managed a 9-3 record on a team that only won 73 games.

Looking at the previous seasons of every opening day starter in the last 10 years, and analyzing the numbers they put up to supposedly “earn” the gig, Guerra had a better overall WAR than 88 pitchers, which puts his 2016 season as 232nd out of a total 320 pitchers.

Guerra also sat below the average 3.5 single season WAR of a normal opening day starter. Remember, though, these aren’t any run of the mill pitchers, they’re the top class arms. For a player that bounced around the minors for ten years and seemingly couldn’t stick, his spot on a list that consists of Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt should be a well-lauded accomplishment.


2007-2016 Opening Day Starters (Google Sheet):


More than last year’s numbers, what really makes Guerra’s opening day start a phenomenon is his lack of recorded major league statistics. There have only been eleven pitchers who’ve had similar or less career success than Guerra and earned an opening day start.

Year Player Career War Team Record Team
2017 Junior Guerro 2.5 TBD Brewers
2016 Raisel Iglesias 1.6 68-94 Reds
2015 Yordano Ventura 2.3 95-67 Royals
2014 Sonny Gray 2.5 88-74 Athletics
2014 Julio Teheran 2.5 79-83 Braves
2014 Tanner Scheppers 0.6 67-95 Rangers
2011 Trevor Cahill 2.1 74-88 Athletics
2011 Ian Kennedy 2.2 94-68 Diamondbacks
2011 Tim Stauffer 2.0 71-91 Padres
2009 Dallas Braden 1.4 75-87 Athletics
2009 John Lannan 1.3 59-103 Nationals
2008 Jeremy Guthrie 2.1 68-93 Orioles

To put Guerra in an even more elite club, there are only eight other pitchers in the last ten years to earn the opening day spot just one year after their official arrival in the big leagues.

Year Player Previous Season WAR Career WAR Record Tem
2017 Junior Guerra 2.5 2.5 TBD Brewers
2016 Raisel Iglesias 1.6 1.6 68-94 Reds
2015 Masahiro Tanaka 3.1 3.1 87-75 Yankees
2014 Jose Fernandez 4.1 4.1 77-85 Marlins
2014 Tanner Scheppers 0.6 0.6 67-95 Rangers
2014 Julio Teheran 2.5 2.5 79-83 Braves
2009 John Lannan 1.4 1.3 59-103 Nationals
2009 Hiroki Kuroda 3.6 3.6 95-67 Dodgers
2008 Jermey Guthrie 2.3 2.1 68-93 Orioles

Oddly enough, the 2015 Royals, kicked off by electric, tragically deceased Yordano Ventura, ended in a World Series. Generally, poorly experienced opening day starters have been a harbinger of a less than fruitful season. Among the 14 individual seasons listed in the charts above, only three of them have ended over .500, and the average record for one of these teams was 78-84.

So, there is good news and bad news for Brewers fans. Good news: Guerra’s presence at the top doesn’t automatically mean a 100 loss season like the twitter troll insisted. Bad news: his WAR is the exact average for the 10 opening day starters on 100 loss teams since 2007. One crucial point to mention, the stat is slightly skewed by Felix Hernandez’s 6.2 WAR back in 2009, and Guerra had a better previous season WAR than 8 of the 10 opening day starters to anchor 100 loss ball clubs. A more likely candidate to lead a staff to a 100 loss season would have a WAR hovering around 1.7 or lower.

But, all this information still raised the question of whether the quality and experience of a staff ace means anything.

On the surface, the ace of the rotation is the basis for the remaining rotational talent. If the best pitcher on the staff is below average, one probably does not want to see the rest of the staff. Also, a true ace inspires confidence. In Seattle, when King Felix takes the mound every fifth day, it’s declared a national holiday, and when Jake Arrieta went on his historic run near the end of 2015, every stopped and watched with baited breath.

Further, since Clayton Kershaw became the ace for the Dodgers in 2011, they haven’t had a losing season. The same is true for Madison Bumgarner, CC Sabathia in every location after Cleveland, and Justin Verlander in all but one of his seasons.

A strong ace is clearly important to a team that wants to consistently compete for a World Series title. For the 2017 Brewers, the importance of a strong ace couldn’t be less of a priority.

Honestly, the selection of Guerra seems to be a nod to his accomplishment last year, and allows for a stable, mentally tough arm to start off the season strong. 2017 is all about development for the Brewers, and they don’t want to throw Zach Davies, Jimmy Nelson or Wily Peralta (again) into the fire if they have someone like Guerra.

Overall, it’s interesting to talk about, and Guerra is an intriguing rags to riches story, but the players to watch this summer are the young bats, still youthful arms of Nelson and Davis trying to become consistent rotational options, and minor league reports regarding one of the best farm systems in the MLB. The Brewers will still struggle to maintain .500, and the rotation will certainly have an impact on that, but it will not make or break their season. Further, the impact made by the ace is borderline non-existent. If the Brewers do end up losing 100 games, which is highly unlikely due to the relative weakness of their division, it cannot be pinned on Guerra. If anyone, blame the underperforming offense and lack of rotational depth, not the man who worked hard to earn the title of opening day starter.

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