Designated HitterApril 07, 2010
What Opening Day Tells Us (or not)
By Bill Parker

I totally understand where it comes from, but there's nothing quite like the elation and consternation that surrounds every little thing that happens on baseball's Opening Day. Every individual event is a good sign or a bad sign (or both); guy A got three hits and is ready to take a big leap forward; guy B took an oh-fer and is on the way out. This much attention won't be paid to a game again until October.

Ultimately, of course, we all know that there are 161 more of these (or 2415 of them league-wide, minus a few rainouts), and what happened in this one doesn't mean any more (or less) than what happens in any of the others. But just for fun, I thought I'd use my indispensable Baseball Reference Play Index subscription to look at some big opening day successes and failures and at what those players did for the rest of the season, and see whether any patterns emerge.

Two Homers

Albert Pujols managed to hit two out on Monday, to no one's surprise, and so did Garrett Jones. Since 2000, 24 other guys have done it a total of 27 times (including another by Pujols) with Dmitri Young hitting three out in 2005. The list includes prodigious sluggers like Bonds, Pujols, Guerrero, and Juan Gonzalez; guys having uncharacteristic power years like Shannon Stewart (who hit two out on opening day 2000, a year in which his 21 HR eclipsed his second best by 62%) and Ivan Rodriguez (who went on to hit 27 in just 91 games in 2000); and others like Felipe Lopez (who hit just 7 more homers in all of 2009) and Corey Patterson (11 more in 82 more games in 2003). Oh, and Chris Shelton (who got just 408 more PA in 2006 and has had just 145 more in the majors since) and Tony Clark (who had just 74 more PA and 2 more HR left in his 2009 season, and very likely his career).

In those 27 seasons, the players have averaged 27 home runs per season, one homer every 19.7 plate appearances, 33 homers per 660 PA. Over those 24 players' entire careers, they've averaged a homer every 22.9 PA, or 29 every 660.

So you could look at it a few ways. On one hand, guys who hit 2 homers on opening day see their season-long homers increase by 13.8% over their career norms, which sounds like a lot. On the other hand, they've already hit two of those, so for the rest of the season -- assuming they're healthy and good enough to play the season out at all -- they've only got two "extra" homers left. Basically, it seems to me, the fairest thing would be to expect them to hit from games 2 to 162 the exact same number of HR that you had expected them to hit all season long. The two on opening day are a nice bonus, but not a sign of a sudden transformation.

Four Hits (or more)

As a Twins fan, I was all set to start grumbling about Carlos Gomez's debut with the Brewers, but then I was reminded that in his first five games with the Twins, Go-Go did this. Gomez, Pujols and Carlos Gonzalez all went 4-for-5 on Monday. Just how little does that mean for their next six months or so?

Well, as you'd expect, darn little. 20 guys managed four hits on opening day last decade (two of them, Craig Biggio and Aaron Miles!!?!, got five -- and then Miles turned around and got 4 again the following year). And like the homer-hitters, they're all over the map. 2009's hit-collecting heroes were Adam Lind, who never looked back, and Emilio Benifacio, who never looked so good again.

In the seasons in which those 20 hitters collected four or five on opening day, they combined to hit nearly .291. In the years prior to that one (which I should've done above, no doubt, rather than looking at their careers as a whole -- and even better, I should be looking at only the preceding three seasons or so -- but it's too late now), they hit a shade over .280.

Seems fairly significant, but a lot of it is just that great opening day itself; give them one hit that day rather than four (or two rather than five, so we're subtracting 60 hits and 0 AB from the whole), and their collective single-season average drops to .284. And, a lot of it is driven by Derrek Lee, whose four hits on opening day 2005 was the kickoff to a campaign in which the theretofore .266 hitter hit .335; if we remove Lee from both sides of the equation, the other 19 were career .282 hitters who hit .288 that season (and if we then take three of their 4-5 opening day hits back out, the season average drops to .281, almost exactly their prior career averages).

All of which is to say that I don't think the data support a conclusion that a player who collects four hits on opening day is likely to perform better the rest of the season than he has in the past. It so happens that Gomez and Gonzalez might both be ready to break out in some way this season (and let's be honest -- if Pujols just decided to hit .400 this year and went out and did it, would you be that surprised?), and if they do, maybe you'll hear people say that you could see the change in them from day one of the new season.

But I don't think you could.

The Oh-fer

Seven different guys were saddled with oh-for-fives on opening day 2010, including some pretty big names: Jacoby Ellsbury, Denard Span (who swung the bat like he thought if he hit it it might find his mother again), James Loney, Skip Schumaker, Aaron Rowand, and the Cabrerae Orlando and Melky. Those seven guys went 0-for-35 with a walk (Melky's) and 10 strikeouts.

Every year there's a guy or two who surprises everybody by just stinking up the joint all year (or just for the first half), seemingly from day one. Last year it was Ortiz and Burrell. Seems like Paul Konerko has been that guy two or three times in his career. Are one of these seven going to be That Guy 2010?

There are 68 guys who went at least 0-for-5 in opening days since 2000, and that's too many for me to check, so I'm going to keep the sample similar to the above and go from 2006 on. That gives us 27 names -- 25 0-for-5s, and Jason Bay and Placido Polanco each went 0-for-6 in 2008 (Polanco racking up an eye-popping -.354 WPA).

Let's see...this group of guys actually put up better batting averages in their oh-fer year than they had previously; they were career .267 hitters who, that season, hit .274. But the takeaway point here is that there's just no correlation with anything at all. Matt Holliday started off the 2007 season 0-for-5 and had the best year of his career, finishing second in the MVP voting. Jose Reyes started 2006 0-for-5 and made the jump from .273/.300/.386 to .300/.354/.487. On the other hand, Andruw Jones' opening day goose egg was the harbinger of his sudden collapse in 2007. Jeff Francouer started his first full season with a big zero, and ended up showing his true colors after a promising half-season in 2006. Travis Buck had a promising partial year in '07, but '08 was awful from day one, and he's never recovered. JJ Hardy and Ryan Doumit had nightmarish 2009s, and both of them got started on it straight away. David Dejesus' bad start to 2007 led to his worst batting average by 20 points and worst full-season OPS by nearly 60.

Interestingly, a couple other guys had kind of famous collapses either the year before or the year after their oh-fer start. Alfonso Soriano came up empty to start 2008, but wasn't terrible until 2009. Jason Bay's 0-for-6 in 2008 looked like a carryover from his awful 2009, but he came back strong. Other guys are just bad hitters -- Jason Kendall, Willie Tavaras. And a lot of others were just their normal, every-season selves having a bad day.

So if a guy has a really, really bad opening day, is that a bad sign? Well, it's not a good sign. And for some guys, it certainly seems to be the beginning of very bad things. But for many more, it's just a bad day. If you think you can tell one apart from the other, go ahead and take your chances.

The Auspicious Debut

Since 1920 (as far back as BBREF goes for these purposes), there have been 30 guys who (a) made their major league debut on their team's opening day and (b) hit a home run in that game. (Nobody's ever hit two or more.) Jason Heyward, the Jay Hey Kid, was the 30th.

I'm not going to mess with a spreadsheet for this one, but it's a good idea to take a look at that list. A couple really good players on the list. Orlando Cepeda, Ken Boyer, Luis Gonzalez, Will Clark. And a lot of guys I've almost never heard of. And Jordan Schafer, and Kosuke Fukudome, and Kenji Johjima, and Travis Lee.

On the other hand, sorting the list by age tells a different story. Heyward was the second-youngest ever to do it, less than a month behind Hall of Famer Cepeda, and the next guy to have done it was nearly a year older (though it's worth noting it's a guy who totaled 79 PA in the big leagues). But it's not like he's surrounded by great players on that list. He just happens to be right behind one guy who was really good for a fairly long time.

The point is, as I guess the point of all of this was: Jason Heyward might be every bit the special player everybody thinks he is, but one home run -- even one 450-foot home run in one's first-ever at bat -- doesn't prove it, or even provide particularly strong evidence of it. If there's anything we can learn from any of these opening day stats or events, it's months (or, in Heyward's case, years) before we know we can learn those things, and that they weren't just random blips. Opening day is just about the greatest day of the year, for all kinds of reasons. But I think I'd find it even greater if people didn't get in quite such a tizzy over one day (or even one month, or two, but that's another post) in a looooooooong season.

Bill runs the blog The Daily Something, featuring a largely sabermetrics-focused post on some topic related to baseball five days a week. You can become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.


Thanks very much for posting this.

Immediately noticed two silly errors: misspelled "Bonifacio" (the linking tool clues you in to that right away), and of course Bay's 0-for-6 in 2008 would be a carryover from 2007, not 2009.

Interesting. But why did you limit your study to hitters? Since a hitter gets only 4 or 5 opportunities to show what he can do in a typical game, it's not surprising that you can't conclude much of anything from less than a 1% sample.

A starting pitcher is different. Each start represents about 3% of his season. Moreover, the very fact that he starts on opening day means that he is perceived as the ace of the staff. If he has a bad day it could have much greater significance than if Pujols or Mauer takes an oh-fer. The D'backs season pretty much ended a year ago when Brandon Webb went down, even though they ended up winning the game.

Thanks for the comment, James. Frankly, the one reason I limited it to hitters was that there weren't really any huge standout pitching performances this opening day (and no huge flops either, as far as I remember). I'm sure it would be at least as interesting, though...

Tuffy Rhodes had 3 homeruns for the Cubs on opening day against the Mets in 1994. I remember a real good opening day game Willie Davis had for the Dodgers years ago when I was a kid.

It doesn't have anything to do with opening day or even the major leagues for that matter, but the most eye popping numbers for a hitter over a short stretch of games that I recall were put up by Calvin Pickering in Triple A. In a four game series, in 15 at bats, Pickering went 10 for 15, with 7 homeruns, and 19 RBI. In the major leagues, Frank Howard when he played for the Senators once hit 10 homeruns in 20 at bats.