Every spring, every Major League team names an Opening Day starting pitcher. By definition, he has been judged to be the best on his staff. It's an honor that is greeted with fanfare in the present and used as a reference point in the future.
Still, there are no guarantees in baseball. And what has happened since to the 30 starters who were chosen for that ceremonial yet significant role is a handy reminder of that reality.
Opening Day starters at the break
|Jon Lester||Red Sox||8-6||4.58|
|David Price *||Rays||3-5||3.94|
|R.A. Dickey||Blue Jays||8-10||4.69|
|Vance Worley **||Twins||1-5||7.21|
|Chris Sale||White Sox||6-8||2.85|
|Matt Harrison *||Rangers||0-2||8.44|
|Jered Weaver *||Angels||3-5||3.63|
|Brett Anderson *||Athletics||1-4||6.21|
|Ricky Nolasco ***||Marlins||5-8||3.85|
|Jonathon Niese *||Mets||3-6||4.32|
|Johnny Cueto *||Reds||4-2||3.33|
Twenty had losing records at the All-Star break. Wait, we understand that wins and losses are an imperfect measuring stick of a starter's performance, since a pitcher's record relies so heavily on run support and help from the bullpen. Look at the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg. He was 5-7 despite a 2.99 ERA.
How about this, then? Nine of the 15 NL pitchers had an ERA higher than the 3.77 league average. And six on the AL side were above their league's 4.08 mark.
The news isn't all bad, of course. A half-dozen Opening Day starters made the All-Star team, and seven ranked in the Top 30 in overall ERA. Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, a check mark in both categories, led the way with a spectacular 1.98 ERA. Justin Verlander, Justin Masterson, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Adam Wainwright. Take a bow.
On the other hand, Edinson Volquez of the Padres ranked 91st of 92 qualifying pitchers, with a 5.74 ERA.
That list doesn't include pitchers who don't have enough innings to be eligible for the rankings. The Twins, for example, had high hopes for right-hander Vance Worley when they got him from the Phillies last offseason. Later, they announced he'd start the opener.
"He's got the makeup for a No. 1, for sure," catcher Joe Mauer said at the time. "He's a pretty cool customer out there. From what I've seen, it doesn't look like much rattles him. But I think that comes more from his preparation, how hard he works."
The Vanimal was 1-5 with a 7.21 ERA when he was optioned to Triple-A Rochester on May 23.
"He has to pitch better than that," manager Ron Gardenhire said, explaining the decision to send Worley to the Red Wings. "He needs to get the ball down and start making quality pitches. Every time he makes a bad pitch, they make him pay for it."
Or consider left-hander Cole Hamels. He's considered such a big part of the Phils' future that he was locked up with a $144 million contract extension last season before he could become a free agent. With Roy Halladay -- his 10th consecutive Opening Day start last year tied him with Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Steve Carlton for the fourth-longest streak in MLB history -- coming off an injury-riddled season, Hamels was the obvious choice to get the ball when the regular season started.
At the end of June, Hamels was 2-11 with a 4.58 ERA. Some of that could be attributed to offensive woes. Part could be attributed to bad breaks. But a lot of it was that Hamels wasn't making consistently good pitches.
"He's totally healthy," manager Charlie Manuel noted. "There's definitely nothing wrong with him. His velocity is there."
It got to the point where pitching coach Rich Dubee gave Hamels an extra two days between starts as a "mental break." And it seemed to help. Hamels was sharp in his final three outings before the break.
Matt Cain has been one of baseball's best over the last few years. In 2012, his 2.79 ERA was fourth lowest in the league. He threw a perfect game.
This year, Cain has struggled with location. Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle noted that Cain has pitched with bone chips or spurs before and asked Giants manager Bruce Bochy if he's doing the same now.
"I'm sure he does. But it hasn't affected him as far as I know. He's fine," the manager replied.
Even when Ricky Nolasco got the Opening Day assignment for the Marlins, who are in the midst of an extreme roster makeover, there was rampant speculation that he'd be gone before the Trade Deadline. Sure enough, he was sent to the Dodgers for three prospects on July 7. The Fish had already decided that they wouldn't spend what it would take to keep Nolasco when he became a free agent at the end of the season.
"Part of where we're at as the Marlins right now -- with our young pitching, our young team, where we are in the standings -- it just made sense for Ricky to move on," explained Miami president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest when the deal was announced. "We have a stable of young pitchers here that we're going to carry forward with. Ricky was not part of the plan. I don't say that disrespectfully at all. It was just part of the business."
Injuries are part of baseball. But Rangers left-hander Matt Harrison made only one more start after his Opening Day assignment. He's since undergone two surgeries to repair herniated discs in his back. The Royals' James Shields, Jonathon Niese of the Mets, Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto, Jered Weaver of the Angels and Oakland's Brett Anderson have also missed turns due to injury.
Which goes to prove once again that anything can happen in baseball. Even to pitchers who start on Opening Day.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.