WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As spring training neared its conclusion, a reporter mentioned to Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez that Max Scherzer was not precisely on schedule to start on opening day.
"He’s going to be lined up," Martinez said with a laugh. "Come Thursday at 1:05, he’ll be on the mound."
Of course he will. Scherzer is, after all, one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and runner-up last season. So it makes perfect sense that when Washington hosts the NL East rival New York Mets this week, Scherzer will take on the pitcher who topped him in the NL voting, Jacob deGrom.
"It definitely has its prestige," Scherzer said. "It’s symbolic. It’s an honour to get the ball in that situation."
That’s because even in this data-driven age in baseball, when analytics and analysis are supposed to be replacing "gut feel" and sentiment when it comes to making any and all decisions, granting an opening day start to a particular pitcher because of his status rather than his statistics is something of a remnant of a bygone era. So what if your team, say, is facing an all-righty lineup? If a right-hander seems like the proper guy to send out there for Game 1, managers tend to do it.
"There’s still a hierarchy on your pitching staff. And certainly when you have established, veteran guys, it still matters to them," said Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch, who will use Justin Verlander on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Rays and 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell. "It also matters to your team. People want to name guys ‘aces."’
The choice is often an obvious one, such as for Mets-Nationals and Astros-Rays.
Other times, though, it can get complicated, and this year is no exception.
Take the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their natural pick would be Clayton Kershaw, but the lefty is beginning the season on the injured list. Walker Buehler and Rich Hill were ruled out, too. So the World Series runners-up the past two years are going with Hyun-Jin Ryu against Zach Greinke, an easier pick for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Sometimes, there’s not a bevy of optimal options. Coming off a 115-loss season, the Baltimore Orioles planned to go with Alex Cobb to face the New York Yankees on Thursday, before the righty had groin soreness in his final exhibition tuneup Sunday. Cobb was 5-15 with a 4.90 ERA in 2018.
Fact is, Baltimore’s top two other starters — "top" being relative, of course — also each took at least 15 Ls a year ago. Yankees manager Aaron Boone counters with Masahiro Tanaka, because Luis Severino is sidelined with right shoulder inflammation.
It’ll be Tanaka’s fourth start in the past five opening days for New York, which went 0-3 in his others.
"Obviously, if you’re given the opportunity to pitch on that day, you want to go out and do your best," Tanaka said through a translator. "If you look back, I don’t think I’ve necessarily been good on opening days."
Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais went away from tradition for his team’s opener against the Oakland Athletics in Japan last week, bypassing Felix Hernandez, who had made 10 consecutive Game 1 starts, the longest active streak in the majors and surpassed by only four pitchers in history (Hall of Famer Jack Morris holds the record of 14 in a row).
Hernandez, the 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner, boasts a 1.53 ERA in opening day appearances but struggled this spring, to the tune of a 15.95 ERA.
"We try to take as much of the emotion out of it as you can," Servais said, "and do what’s best for our ballclub."
Still, King Felix did not hide his displeasure at giving up a slot he’d held for a full decade. Instead, Marco Gonzalez and Yusei Kikuchi started for Seattle in the two overseas games that officially got the season going.
As much as getting that initial pitching assignment clearly counts for something to many, Houston’s Hinch knows the next 161 games are equally valuable in the standings.
"We should continue to make it a big deal to start on opening day," Hinch said. "And we should make it a bigger deal to take your 33, 34 starts and go wire-to-wire."