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Off to a bad start: the worst Opening Day pitchers

Opening Day should be a time of boundless optimism and joy at the return of baseball, but sometimes it doesn't quite live up to expectations. Certain Opening Day pitchers caused great pain at the time, so let's celebrate them with the benefit of hindsight.

Before he was a Cy Young winner with the Cubs, Jake Arrieta was a disappointing Opening Day starter with the Orioles.
Before he was a Cy Young winner with the Cubs, Jake Arrieta was a disappointing Opening Day starter with the Orioles.
Rob Carr/Getty Images

It's almost here. The end of the long, long, long winter is in sight. Rosters are taking shape, Spring Training lineups with more than a passing resemblance to an actual major-league team are taking the field, and, most excitingly, Opening Day lineups are trickling out to the public.

At least, that's exciting for most teams. Opening Day lineups are in large part a preview of what the upcoming season is going to look like, and that can either be exciting or terribly depressing. Astros fans recently learned the entirely unsurprising news that Dallas Keuchel, 2015 Cy Young winner and top-5 MVP finisher, is their Opening Day starter. Great! You could conclude based on that alone that 2016 is probably going to be a good year to be an Astros fan, and you probably wouldn't be wrong. Alternately, my colleague Emma Baccellieri pointed out on Monday that the Reds are probably kicking off their season with Anthony DeSclafani, and while he's a serviceable player who gave real reason for optimism in the second half of last year, his is not the kind of name that creates excitement for the upcoming season.

There have been some Opening Day starters, however, who didn't just fail to excite, but who went all the way to creating a sinking feeling of dread. There's something truly tragic about this; Opening Day, with all its pageantry and ceremony, is supposed to be an opportunity to celebrate the upcoming season. Every team is undefeated! Every team could go 162-0, and 11-0 in the playoffs! It's much harder to suspend the clinging despair that baseball is meant to be an escape from when your season is beginning with, e.g., Kevin Correia, or when the pitcher supposed to lead your team to victory departs in the third after coughing up his third home run.

In an effort to wring some levity out of these otherwise upsetting occurrences, I've ranked the five worst Opening Day starters of the last ten years (2006–2015). Bonus points were given for games in which neither team viewed their starter with pride, but overall, my methodology for these was very holistic. I considered how the pitchers in questioned performed the previous season, to get a sense for expectations, and how they performed for the rest of the season. I did consider how they performed on the actual Opening Day, but both extremely good and extremely bad performances were credited, because baseball is sublime and surprising, and sometimes a terrible, terrible pitcher spins a gem in between two otherwise terrible seasons. That should be celebrated.

5. Barry Zito (SFG) v. Brad Penny (LAD), 2008

This game just sneaks into fifth, because the performances alone don't really justify its inclusion. Brad Penny ended up having a bad, injury-shortened year, but opened the season with 6.7 innings of shutout pitching, walking none and striking out six. He was also coming off a 4.4 fWAR/3.7 WARP season, so he was a totally reasonable choice who performed up to expectations. Zito wasn't good, but not uniquely so; it's the game, his season, and his contract altogether that earn this game's keep.

This was the second year of Zito's mega-deal with the Giants, a seven-year, $133 million contract that was at that time the largest given to any pitcher. The first year was a harbinger of what was to come, as he posted the lowest fWAR and second-lowest WARP of his career. With that contract and his status as the "veteran leadership" among San Francisco's pitchers, however, the Giants were in many ways priced into starting him on Opening Day, despite the alternatives of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Zito lasted five innings, giving up four runs and a home run while striking out only one. In April, he had a 7.53 ERA, a 5.74 FIP, and more walks (4.71 per nine) than strikeouts (3.45 per nine). Zito was shipped to the bullpen at the end of the month, though he didn't pitch before returning the rotation after a week and a half. The rest of the season wasn't quite as bad as April, but he ended the year with a 120 ERA-/112 FIP-/108 DRA-, a career worst in all three categories. He spent another five years in San Francisco and had better moments than this, but his Opening Day start was a sign that the Giants were probably going to regret this particular signing for a long time.

4. Jake Arrieta (BAL) v. Carl Pavano (MIN), 2012

This game itself was actually totally reasonable, for both sides: Each pitcher went seven innings, with Arrieta giving up two runs and Pavano four. This is more about what the choice of starting pitcher said about each of the teams. For the Twins, Pavano wasn't exactly terrible, but I did and do find him really depressing in a very Twins-y way. 2011 had been a terrible year in which Minnesota went 63-99, and to this day, the only thing I can remember from it is Carl Pavano destroying a trash can in the dugout. But Minnesota couldn't develop any pitching and wouldn't spend more than $9 million in free agent spending, so the only alternatives to start the next season were pre-Searage Francisco Liriano, or, like, Nick Blackburn, or Scott Diamond. Feel free to look those players up, or don't; you already know what you'll find, basically.

Really, though, this is about Jake Arrieta, Baltimore Orioles Opening Day Starter, and the pain that hindsight brings. In 2012, Arrieta, who was entering his third season, was beginning to lose any remaining prospect sheen after two disappointing seasons. He ended 2011 with a 120 ERA-/127 FIP-/102 DRA-, and I have to imagine it wasn't fun for Orioles fans to consider that he was the best choice to kick off their next season. Wei-Yin Chen was in his first year in MLB, however, and Jason Hammel wouldn't have been an inspiring choice, so the duty fell to Arrieta. Like I said, although he pitched well in this game, he went on to have a third disappointing season that saw him used in relief and optioned back to AAA, all en route to a terrible 149 ERA- (and decent 95 FIP-/110 DRA-, which — spoiler alert — the Orioles perhaps should've paid more attention to).

The real pain, however, comes in what happened next year, as Arrieta was traded to the Cubs after five starts. After another middling season in 2013, the breakout came in 2014, followed by the Cy Young win in 2015. There's so many layers of sadness to peel back over the choice of Arrieta in 2012, which is how this game slots into fourth.

3. Tim Lincecum (SFG) v. Jeff Suppan (MIL), 2009

This is an odd choice, because while 2016 Tim Lincecum might be a funny Opening Day starter, in 2009 he was coming off a dominant, Cy Young-winning year and going into a dominant, Cy Young-winning year. Suppan, however, was bad in 2008 and downright terrible in 2009, so this game makes the list in part through the magnitude of this mismatch. Suppan had been the ultimate model of consistency previously, earning between 1 and 3 fWAR for nine straight years, but the bottom fell out in 2008, with his K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 all reaching either career worsts or second-worsts en route to a 117 ERA-/127 FIP-/117 DRA-. Still, the Brewers gave him the ball to kick off 2009 — because the alternatives were a 22-year-old Yovani Gallardo or a 34-year-old Braden Looper — and ran him into the buzzsaw that was Lincecum.

It went roughly as expected, at least for Suppan. He lasted only four innings, had as many strikeouts as walks and home runs (one), and gave up six runs in the loss. The other reason this makes the list, however, is how uncharacteristically bad Lincecum was. He went just three innings, giving up four hits, three walks, and three runs while he lasted. This was the only start in either 2008 or 2009 in which he didn't get more than nine outs. The Giants ended up winning, 10-6, but a strange choice of starter for the Brewers and terrible performances by both pitchers earns this game its third-place finish.

2. Roberto Hernandez (CLE) v. Mark Buehrle (CHW), 2011

This feels a bit like piling on, since 2011 was also the season in which Roberto Hernandez, then going by Fausto Carmona, was suspended for lying about his age and name. That said, it can't not make the list. Hernandez was coming off a solid 2010, so he seemed like a fine choice for an Opening Day starter, albeit not the kind that causes the heart to lift. Mark Buehrle was Mark Buehrle, which is to say he was good and entirely predictable. He was fine. He's not the point of this story, really.

Hernandez, on the other hand, threw possibly the worst Opening Day start in history. In three-plus innings, he gave up a whopping ten runs. There are only nine other Opening Day starters to give up ten or more runs. Before this one, the latest of those games came in 1948, and none of them managed to do it in fewer than four innings. This was reaaaal bad.

The first inning had a few singles, a double, but also two strikeouts, so while it ended with a couple runs for the White Sox, it wasn't so bad. The second inning: another two strikeouts and a groundout. Even better! The third inning, in order: single, home run, single, strike out, home run, fly out, ground out. After failing to retire four batters to start the fourth, Hernandez finally was pulled, with a terrible claim to fame under his belt.

1. Kyle Kendrick (COL) v. Kyle Lohse (MIL), 2015

You  might disagree with several of the other rankings on this list; I didn't use any kind of formula, so this is merely my (possibly stupid) opinion. I feel pretty confident about number one, however. This game was a thing of beauty, for so many reasons.

On Opening Day 2015, Kyle Kendrick pitched a gem, somehow. Photo credit: Mike McGinnis, Getty Images.

a) Both starters were named Kyle, an inherently funny name. This game can be referred to as the Battle of the Kyles, and people might even know what you're talking about.

b) Both starters were very bad, making them odd/amusing/depressing choices for Opening Day starters at the time. Kendrick was coming off 199 innings with the Phillies with a 126 ERA-/122 FIP-/115 DRA-, or a below-average season by basically any measure, and Lohse had been only slightly better in 198.3 innings with a 93 ERA-/103 FIP-/99 DRA-. It's not like either team had much of a choice, however. The Brewers could've gone for "interesting" over "upsetting" by choosing Mike Fiers, and Willy Peralta would've been no worse than Lohse, but they had no consensus choice. The Rockies could've... gone with Jorge de la Rosa, I guess? For our purposes, all that matters is that the Brewers and Rockies were both in the position of picking a player to start their season who was somewhere between below-average and bad.

c) Both Kyles would go on to be very bad in 2015. Lohse only pitched 152.3 innings, allowing his highest BB/9 since 2010 and the highest HR/9 of his career, and closed with a 144 ERA-/126 FIP-/130 DRA-. He ended with the worst fWAR (-0.1) and second-worst WARP (-1.1) of his career. Kendrick, somehow, was even worse in 142.3 innings of his own, though he was pitching in Coors. Even with the park factors, there's no spinning a 138 ERA-/146 FIP-/131 DRA- to be anything other than terrible. His WARP and fWAR were almost identical (-0.9 and -1.0). My goodness, he was bad.

d) But on Opening Day, Kendrick was extraordinary! He pitched seven shutout innings, scattered seven singles, walked none, and struck out six. That he did this after being a baffling choice for Opening Day starter but before going on to the worst season of his career is nothing short of beautiful. Lohse, despite being debatably the better player over the course of the season, got pulled in the fourth after ten hits, eight runs, and two dingers. This was in Milwaukee, too, so he didn't even have the ability to blame it on the altitude.

This was a confounding game at the time, and it remains a confounding game in hindsight. The Battle of the Kyles is the perfect dumb Opening Day matchup. May it reign forever.

. . .

Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.