Monday, March 2, 2015

Starting Opening Day Might Not Be An Honor

When Twins pitchers and catchers reported to spring training, new manager Paul Molitor wasted little time in naming Phil Hughes as the team's Opening Day starter. This seems like a no-brain decision for the manager after the season Hughes compiled in 2014. Among pitchers in the American League, he finished in the top 10 in WAR, innings pitched, wins, and strikeouts. He did all of this while setting the all-time strikeout-to-walk ratio record.

In recent memory, the honor of being the Twins Opening Day starter hasn't always translated to a positive performance on the field. From 1996 through 2007, all but one season opener was started by either Brad Radke or Johan Santana. Since that point, the Twins have trotted out a combination of Livan Hernandez, Francisco Liriano, Scott Baker, Carl Pavano, Vance Worley, and Ricky Nolasco.

Most of these players ran into their share of bumps and bruises in the season that followed their Opening Day assignment:
Hernandez (2008): 10-8, 5.48 ERA, 139.2 IP, 54 SO, 29 BB, 1.63 WHIP
Liriano (2009): 6-4, 3.91 ERA, 76.0 IP, 67 SO, 32 BB, 1.40 WHIP
Baker (2010): 15-9, 4.37 ERA, 200.0 IP, 162 SO, 48 BB, 1.19 WHIP
Pavano (2011): 9-13, 4.30 ERA, 222.0 IP, 102 SO, 40 BB, 1.36 WHIP
Pavano (2012): 2-5, 6.00 ERA, 63.0 IP, 33 SO, 8 BB, 1.40 WHIP
Worley (2013): 1-5, 7.21 ERA, 48.2 IP, 25 SO, 15 BB, 1.99 WHIP
Nolasco (2014): 6-12, 5.38 ERA, 159.0 IP, 115 SO, 38 BB, 1.52 WHIP

Hernandez would be traded before the season ended. Liriano spent more time pitching in the minors than on the big league roster. Baker actually had one of his best statistical seasons of his career. Pavano got progressively worse and he hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2012. Worley would be done in Minnesota after 2013. Nolasco is under contract through 2017 and is almost guaranteed a spot in the Twins rotation coming out of spring.

From 2008-2010, the Twins were able to overcome a poor season from their Opening Day starter to still finish in the top two in the AL Central. The last four years have been rough in Twins Territory and that's definitely reflected in the numbers compiled by their season's first starter. Starting pitching has been a weak spot and it's something the front office has tried to address over the last two off-seasons with big contracts for Ervin Santana along with Hughes and Nolasco.

Hughes is going to have to buck a rough recent trend if he doesn't want to be added to the Pavano-Worley class of Opening Day starters. After a record breaking season, it seems likely for Hughes to come back down to earth a little as the season progresses. He just needs to try and avoid the pitfalls of his Twins Opening Day  predecessors.

Moving forward it will be interesting to see how Molitor approaches the selection of his Opening Day starter. Former Twins manager Ron Gardenhire usually liked to stay loyal to the more veteran player on the team even when that player might not have been the best option.

For this season, Molitor had an easy choice with Hughes. Santana's the shiny new toy in town but Hughes has built up more of a following in Minnesota. In the grand scheme of a 162-game season, one start at the beginning of the year doesn't make or break a club.

It would still be nice for Hughes to end a long drought of poor seasons from the Twins Opening Day starter.

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