What Makes an Opening Day Ace in Major League Baseball?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 31, 2014

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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
TeamNameAgeThrowsCareer GS2013 IP2013 RA9-WAR
LADClayton Kershaw26L182236.08.8
KCRJames Shields32R251228.26.0
MIAJose Fernandez21R28172.25.7
STLAdam Wainwright32R185241.25.4
CWSChris Sale25L59214.15.4
PHICliff Lee35L311222.25.3
SEAFelix Hernandez27R269204.15.1
SFGMadison Bumgarner24L115201.14.4
BALChris Tillman25R84206.14.1
DETJustin Verlander31R266218.14.0
BOSJon Lester30L220213.13.9
PITFrancisco Liriano30L167161.03.8
CLEJustin Masterson29R150193.03.8
ATLJulio Teheran23R34185.23.6
COLJorge de la Rosa32L159167.23.5
LAAJered Weaver31R231154.13.3
WASStephen Strasburg25R75183.03.3
TBRDavid Price28L147186.23.1
ARIWade Miley27L69202.23.0
SDPAndrew Cashner27R32175.02.7
NYMDillon Gee27R81199.02.4
TORR.A. Dickey39R173224.22.4
TEXTanner Scheppers27R076.22.4
HOUScott Feldman31R131181.22.1
MINRicky Nolasco31R212199.12.0
CINJohnny Cueto28R16060.21.6
OAKSonny Gray24R1064.01.5
CHCJeff Samardzija29R66213.21.4
MILYovani Gallardo28R179180.21.0
NYYCC Sabathia33L415211.00.8

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. 

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

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
OD Starters21.76.945.810.03.33
MLB Starters18.97.444.610.84.01

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
SplitFBvO-Swing%O-Contact%Z-Swing%Z-Contact%Overall Contact%
OD Starters92.1*31.765.864.986.678.9
MLB Starters91.330.768.

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.

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
OD Starters*
MLB Starters56.412.75.811.012.0

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.

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
OD Starters61.445.364.6
MLB Starters60.644.763.9*

*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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