What Makes an Opening Day Ace in Major League Baseball?

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What Makes an Opening Day Ace in Major League Baseball?
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Opening Day is exciting mainly because it's the return of baseball. And baseball, as we all know, is good.

But here's another one for the pro-Opening Day pile: all those Opening Day aces. There will be juicy pitching matchups aplenty throughout a season, but the beginning of the season is the best chance to see the best of the best all on display at the same time.

Well, OK, fine. In theory, anyway.

For one, there tends to be more than one "Opening Day" these days. There are three for 2014: the Australia opener between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks, Sunday night's domestic opener between the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres and now the true Opening Day Monday.

The "Opening Day aces" part is also tricky, as it asks—literally out loud and with Morgan Freeman's voice—precisely what makes an Opening Day ace?

Let's see what this year's collection of Opening Day starters can tell us. Including Clayton Kershaw and Wade Miley—who opened the season for the Dodgers and Diamondbacks Down Under—the list of Opening Day starters this year looks like:

2014 Opening Day Starters
Team Name Age Throws Career GS 2013 IP 2013 RA9-WAR
LAD Clayton Kershaw 26 L 182 236.0 8.8
KCR James Shields 32 R 251 228.2 6.0
MIA Jose Fernandez 21 R 28 172.2 5.7
STL Adam Wainwright 32 R 185 241.2 5.4
CWS Chris Sale 25 L 59 214.1 5.4
PHI Cliff Lee 35 L 311 222.2 5.3
SEA Felix Hernandez 27 R 269 204.1 5.1
SFG Madison Bumgarner 24 L 115 201.1 4.4
BAL Chris Tillman 25 R 84 206.1 4.1
DET Justin Verlander 31 R 266 218.1 4.0
BOS Jon Lester 30 L 220 213.1 3.9
PIT Francisco Liriano 30 L 167 161.0 3.8
CLE Justin Masterson 29 R 150 193.0 3.8
ATL Julio Teheran 23 R 34 185.2 3.6
COL Jorge de la Rosa 32 L 159 167.2 3.5
LAA Jered Weaver 31 R 231 154.1 3.3
WAS Stephen Strasburg 25 R 75 183.0 3.3
TBR David Price 28 L 147 186.2 3.1
ARI Wade Miley 27 L 69 202.2 3.0
SDP Andrew Cashner 27 R 32 175.0 2.7
NYM Dillon Gee 27 R 81 199.0 2.4
TOR R.A. Dickey 39 R 173 224.2 2.4
TEX Tanner Scheppers 27 R 0 76.2 2.4
HOU Scott Feldman 31 R 131 181.2 2.1
MIN Ricky Nolasco 31 R 212 199.1 2.0
CIN Johnny Cueto 28 R 160 60.2 1.6
OAK Sonny Gray 24 R 10 64.0 1.5
CHC Jeff Samardzija 29 R 66 213.2 1.4
MIL Yovani Gallardo 28 R 179 180.2 1.0
NYY CC Sabathia 33 L 415 211.0 0.8

FanGraphs

Note the highlighted names. Those are the ones that remind us that some guys become Opening Day aces by virtue of luc...Well, maybe not luck. Let's use the phrase "twists of fate" instead.

Julio Teheran is starting for the Atlanta Braves because Kris Medlen got hurt. That's the same reason Miley stepped in for Patrick Corbin down under. Ditto Dillon Gee for Jon Niese, Tanner Scheppers for Yu Darvish and Sonny Gray for Jarrod Parker.

So no, it's not guaranteed that a team's best pitcher is also going to be its Opening Day starter. It would be if the injury bug didn't exist and didn't hate good pitchers, but it does and it does.

Still, for the most part, we can see that one aspect of the conventional wisdom about Opening Day starters rings true: Experience does count for something. 

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
CC Sabathia is about to make the 11th Opening Day start of his career.

Of the 30 pitchers to draw Opening Day assignments this year, 19 have made at least 100 career starts. Included among those are 16 of the only 97 active pitchers who have made at least 150 career starts. And, really, only two of the guys filling in this year are total newbies: Gray and Scheppers.

With baseball being a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately enterprise, it's equally unsurprising to see that recent success also counts. Of the 30 opening starters, 22 threw at least 180 innings last year, and 19 of 30 were good for at least 3.0 RA-9 WAR (that's WAR based on runs allowed per nine innings, as opposed to FanGraphs' usual FIP-based WAR).

So by and large, we're looking at a collection of experienced starters who pulled their weight in 2013. That's more than you can say about a lot of starters out there, so this year's crop of Opening Day starters at least has that going for them.

But to get a better idea of what being an Opening Day ace is all about, we need to perform a sort of science experiment that combines all 30 of this year's Opening Day starters into a single entity, next to which we can place the average starting pitcher.

Which we can do, beginning with a simple look at how this year's Opening Day starters performed compared to the average MLB starter in 2013:

2014 OD Starters vs. Average 2013 Starter
Split K% BB% GB% HR/FB ERA
OD Starters 21.7 6.9 45.8 10.0 3.33
MLB Starters 18.9 7.4 44.6 10.8 4.01

FanGraphs

Those first four categories—strikeouts, walks, ground balls and home runs—influence pitching success the most. The Opening Day starters owned each of them, so their big advantage in ERA adds up.

The gap in strikeouts stands out the most, though, and it's not an optical illusion. In all, 22 of this year's Opening Day starters did better than the league-average K% for starters in 2013. Quite the majority.

Which isn't surprising. If we take a look at some key indicators, we see that this year's Opening Day starters were legitimately hard to hit:

2014 OD Starter Stuff vs. 2013 Average Starter Stuff
Split FBv O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Swing% Z-Contact% Overall Contact%
OD Starters 92.1* 31.7 65.8 64.9 86.6 78.9
MLB Starters 91.3 30.7 68.1 65.1 88.1 80.7

FanGraphs

The FBv column is self-explanatory (hint: fastball velocity). The others are plate discipline statistics. O-Swing% and O-Contact% show how successful a pitcher (or pitchers) was at getting swings and limiting contact on said swings outside the strike zone. The Z-Swing% and Z-Contact% metrics are the same for inside the strike zone.

So the overall message here: This year's Opening Day starters have better velocity than most and were hard to hit both in and out of the zone in 2013.

Ah, yes. The asterisk. That's there because I removed R.A. Dickey from the equation. That's his punishment for averaging 81.9 miles per hour with his heat last year, which is only twice as hard as all of us can throw on a good day.

Most of the others threw much harder, as 19 of 30 topped the 91.3 mph average for starters and only Gee, Scott Feldman and Jered Weaver joined Dickey in averaging under 90 miles per hour.

Despite the notion that velocity isn't everything, it is good to have it. If you have it, you have a larger margin for error and, apparently, a larger chance of one day being given an Opening Day start.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

The extra fastball velocity helps explain the difficulty in hitting this year's Opening Day starters in 2013. Beyond that, it helps that they didn't throw as many fastballs as the average starter:

2014 OD Starter Repertoires vs. 2013 Average Starter Repertoire
Split FB% SL% CT% CB% CH%
OD Starters* 54.1 14.3 6.6 11.6 12.1
MLB Starters 56.4 12.7 5.8 11.0 12.0

FanGraphs

Note: Since knuckleballers are the opposite of all things normal, here I just removed Dickey from the equation entirely.

Once again, we're not looking at an optical illusion. A majority (17 of 30) threw fewer fastballs than the average starter in 2013. Only nine threw fastballs over 60 percent of the time, a mark topped by 48 starters who logged at least 100 innings last year.

The increased willingness to go to secondary pitches helps explain the whiffability of this year's Opening Day starters. But it also helps explain the extra ground balls and, by extension, the relative dearth of home runs. Research by Harry Pavlidis for The Hardball Times found that breaking balls and off-speed offerings have a higher ground-ball and lower fly-ball likelihood than fastballs.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

Granted, it also helps that some of this year's Opening Day starters are sinker merchants. Notably: Feldman, Justin Masterson, Francisco Liriano and, to a somewhat lesser extent, David Price and Felix Hernandez.

Now, when it comes to the command of this year's Opening Day starters, there actually is an optical illusion at work with that composite 6.9 BB%. That's there mainly thanks to Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright and Price, who combined to walk, like, four hitters all year. In all, only 16 of 30 actually tied or did better than a 7.4 BB% in 2013.

Still, we can dive a little deeper into the command of this year's Opening Day starters and find some pretty good stuff.

2014 OD Starter Command vs. 2013 Average Starter Command
Split F-Strike% Zone% Strike%
OD Starters 61.4 45.3 64.6
MLB Starters 60.6 44.7 63.9*

FanGraphs

*Since there's no available split for starting pitchers, that's for all pitchers in general.

F-Strike% is first-pitch strike percentage. Those Zone% stats measure how many of a pitcher's (or pitchers') pitches actually found the strike zone. And then, of course, there's overall strike percentage. Only three categories this time, but three more nods toward this year's Opening Day starters.

Here's the familiar refrain that the general rule doesn't apply to everyone. Liriano had the third-lowest Zone% among starters with at least 150 innings pitched. Yovani Gallardo was in that same neighborhood and finished with the lowest overall strike rate among this year's Opening Day starters at 60.4 percent.

Still, we are looking at a "majority" situation here, as 19 of 30 did better than the average MLB strike rate. A somewhat lesser majority (17 of 30) met or exceeded the average Zone% of 44.7.

So what does it take to be an Opening Day starter?

In some cases, convenient twists of fate. Sometimes being an Opening Day starter is about being the next-best man for the job rather than the best man.

But for the most part, experience and recent success count for about as much as you'd think they would. Beyond that, it helps to have some zip on your fastball, some trust in your secondaries and the ability to do what you want with both.

In other words: It's about being a darn good pitcher.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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