When you have been watching nothing but replays of last season and maybe the occasional spring training game, Opening Day lineups can seem like a big deal to a starving baseball fan.
It’s like your favorite team’s first impression on the fresh new season. For one beautiful day, everyone in the world focuses on the first day of the baseball season, on the lineup that the manager trots out there. A lot of the time’s it features a team’s best players, but it can also have Collin Cowgill.
Whatever you do, don’t your thirst for baseball fool you: Opening Day lineups are completely meaningless.
Between injuries, pitching matchups, and other circumstances, Opening Day lineups rarely mean anything in the grand scheme of a team’s season. The Athletic Cleveland’s TJ Zuppe and guest Jordan Bastian discussed this topic briefly in an episode of the Fielding Independent Podcast earlier this month, and it’s worth a listen.
They were specifically talking about Jason Kipnis missing Opening Day this season, and how much it really does not matter when you start digging around. Zuppe’s example was from just last year, when Marlon Byrd was in the Tribe’s Opening Day lineup. Remember Marlon Byrd? No, you don’t, because he only had 129 plate appearances before getting busted for performance enhancing drugs and vanishing like a roided out ghost. Don’t act like you remembered him just to make a cool-guy comment. Don’t do it.
“These Opening Day lineups sure are pointless,” I said to myself after listening to the podcast, “but I don’t think anyone has ever taken the time to analyse how pointless they are. I wonder why no one has spent multiple hours spanned over multiple days aggregating, sorting, and calculating a bunch of useless Opening Day lineup stats when they have so many better things they could be doing with their time. Probably because that’d be stupid and a waste of time.”
So, anyway, I did it. Here’s what I found.
Just for simplicity’s sake, and because it changed the landscape of how lineups are constructed, this data only goes back to 1973 — the first year the American League implemented a designated hitter. The Cleveland Indians’ first Opening Day DH was John Ellis, by the way, who was a lot like Carlos Santana in that he bounced around between catcher, first base, and designated hitter his entire career without every really sticking at a position. He was the complete opposite of Carlos Santana in every other way imaginable, but at least that comparison kind of works.
To get this information, I took the Indians’ Opening Day lineups page and put it on a big-ass spreadsheet (with a lot of help from patron saint Matt Schlichting) then collected plate appearances and FanGraphs WAR for each player. All mention of positions below, unless noted otherwise, are based on where they were Opening Day.
Starting right at the top, the leadoff hitter is probably what you expect out of baseball dating back to the ‘70s in that it was mostly outfielders. Of the 44 Opening Day lineups in this data set, 38 of the leadoff hitters were outfielders, including 30 center fielders. This is, of course, because of baseball’s mindset regarding speedy leadoff hitters for the last few decades, but it also does not hurt that the Indians have just had a lot of great outfielders. Kenny Lofton occupied the leadoff spot for most of the ‘90s (with one Marquis Grissom squeezed in there in 1997), and after a bit of Matt Lawton-Milton Bradley turbulence, the Indians were in the Grady Sizemore era for four glorious years afterwards.
The only non-outfielders to bat leadoff? Third baseman Toby Harrah (1979), designated hitter Miguel Dilone (1981), first baseman Mike Hargrove (1983), second baseman Tony Bernazard (1987), second baseman Julio Franco (1988), and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (2010). There’s a small caveat with these names, of course, since I am only using their positions listed on Opening Day. Miguel Dilone, for example, played almost 4,000 innings in the outfield over his career, but Rick Manning, Joe Charboneau, and Jorge Orta occupied the Opening Day outfield spots in 1981, forcing manager Dave Garcia to put him at DH.
Looking at WAR totals for Opening Day lineups, they steadily drop as you go further down the lineup, also as expected. Well, mostly. There’s a curious dip at the No. 2 slot for the Indians, even with Jason Kipnis averaging 4.9 WAR over the last two seasons as the No. 2 hitter on Opening Day.
The production of Opening Day leadoff hitters is, on average, 2.5 FanGraphs WAR. That drops to 1.8 WAR for No. 2 hitters then back up to 2.5 and 2.7 WAR for No. 3 and No. 4 hitters, respectively. From there, it’s a steady drop down to an average WAR of 0.7 for No. 9 hitters.
Much like the Indians’ leadoff hitters producing so well being because they had such great outfielders — and the consensus for managers was just to throw your center fielder at leadoff — their No. 2 hitters are so poor because there is not a history of great second basemen and shortstops, at least not on Opening Day. Combined, shortstops and second basemen make up 25 of the 44 No. 2 Indians hitters since 1973. The heyday of the position came, unsurprisingly, in the ‘90s with Omar Vizquel occupying the role from 1994 to 2004. The only year in that span that Vizquel did not bat second was 1996, when the immortal Julio Franco took the spot as the team’s first baseman.
The No. 2 spot for the Indians is propped by these great seasons from Vizquel and Kipnis (and a 5.9-win season from Harrah in 1982), but it’s also littered with sub-1.0 WAR seasons. A total of nineteen Opening Day No. 2 hitters finished the season with less than 1.0 WAR. That’s more than the leadoff hitter, as expected, but it’s also more than No. 3 (12) and No. 4 (10) hitters. The No. 2 spot also only produced one-hitter with a season worth 6.0 or more WAR — Vizquel’s peak in 1999 when he slashed .333/.397/.436 and played some of the best defense of his career.
No. 4 hitters producing so well over the years should be no surprise either, as it is historically the clean-up role for big power in the lineup. Players like Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, and Carlos Santana have occupied this spot and put up multiple 5.0-win seasons. The No. 4 spot on Opening Day has also produced the least amount of total dud seasons, with a mere five clean-up hitters finishing their respective years being worth a WAR in the negatives. Those unfortunate souls would be Charles Spikes (1975), Boog Powell (1976), Joe Charboneau (1981), and Cory Snyder (1990).
Not a single Cleveland Indians player who started Opening Day in the seventh, eighth, or ninth slots ever finished with a WAR of 6.0 or higher. Two No. 5 hitters, Manny Ramirez in 1999 and Michael Brantley in 2014, accomplished the feat, as well as two No. 6 hitters, Jim Thome in 1995 and 1996.
When looking at raw playing time in terms of plate appearances, the first three spots in the Opening Day lineups are the only ones with even the slightest hint of a signal that players will stick around. Again, going as far back as 1973, 26 leadoff hitters finished the season with at least 500 plate appearances, 29 No. 2 hitters, 31 No. 3 hitters, and 30 No. 4 hitters. The one-through-four spots in the lineup also produced a lot of players with 600 plate appearances: 17 for leadoff hitters, 21 No. 2 hitters, 23 No. 3 hitters, and 24 No. 4 hitters.
Very rarely have the five-through-nine hitters produced 600 PA seasons. Combined, 39 players (or around 18 percent) who batted fifth or lower on Opening Day have stuck around for a full season's worth of plate appearances. You would be hard-pressed to find great seasons tucked away in there, as well. A 2014 Yan Gomes, when he was worth 4.4 wins while batting ninth on Opening Day, will occasionally pop up, but the bottom half of the Opening Day lineup is mostly reserved for the Collin Cowgills, Rafael Santanas, and Felix Fermins of the world. A third of the batters who have started Opening Day in those five-through-nine slots finished the season below replacement level.
Here are some other random observations:
- Jack Hannahan was third among position players in WAR in 2011. It was a dark time.
- The best season, by Opening Day lineup WAR, was 1999. Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Roberto Alomar, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, David Justice, Travis Fryman, Wil Cordero, and Sandy Alomar Jr. combined for 34.4 WAR.
- By far, the worst was 1991. Even with Albert Belle and Carlos Baerga combining to be worth 5.6 WAR, the Opening Day lineup’s total for the year was a mere 3.2 WAR.
- Since 1973, catchers occupied the No. 9 slot 12 times on Opening Day. From 1948 to 1973, it was the pitcher every time.
- The most plate appearences from any player who batted leadoff on Opening Day was Grady Sizemore; he finished 2006, his first season batting leadoff, with 751 PA. The least was 12 years later when Nyjer Morgan finished 2014 with 52. He’s the only Opening Day leadoff batter to finish a season with fewer than 100 plate appearances.
- Manny Ramirez batted fifth or lower on Opening Day in five of his eight seasons with the Indians. His 7.5-WAR season as an Opening Day No. 5 hitter in 1999 accounts for 11 percent of the total WAR accumulated by all Opening Day No. 5 hitters. The ‘90s, man.
So what did we learn with all of this? Hitters at the top of the lineup are generally good and hitters at the bottom of the lineup are generally bad. Er, time well spent?
Ok, we also learned that even in those top-three spots in the lineup, where the best-of-the-best typically play, about 65 percent of them stick around for more than 500 plate appearances in any given season. And it only gets less predictive the lower you go in the lineup.
Bottom line: don’t fret Opening Day lineups, or even lineups in the first few weeks of the season. They don’t matter.