As Joe Strauss reported in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Chris Carpenter has a bulging disc in his back and Kyle Lohse will get the Opening Day start for the reigning World Series champions.
That prompted this tweet from Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus: "Meaningless info, but I wouldn't mind if someone compiled a list of defending WS champs opening day starters to see where Lohse ranks."
Ah, meaningless info, my specialty, As you would suspect, Kyle Lohse will rank near the bottom of the list of guys who have gotten the ball for the defending champs' first game. Below is the list of Opening Day starters for the team that won the World Series the previous season (since 1950).
It's quite a list, filled with Hall of Famers, Cy Young Award winners and World Series MVP's. There are some interesting entries in here. As far as I can tell, only three were not on the previous year's championship club, David Wells (2005 Red Sox), Roger Clemens (1999 Yankees) and Woodie Fryman (1977 Reds).
Wells signed with Boston after spending the '04 campaign with San Diego. Curse-breakers Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe signed with the Mets and Dodgers, respectively, and Curt Schilling had an injured ankle which left Boomer with the assignment. He was knocked around for four runs on ten hits in four and one-third innings at Yankee Stadium as he was beaten by Randy Johnson, who was making his New York debut.
Clemens joined the Yankees after a February 1999 trade sent him from Toronto in exchange for Wells, incidentally, as well as Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush.
Fryman was an Expo in 1976 as the Big Red Machine won their second straight title. He was dealt with reliever Dale Murray to Cincinnati in a highly unpopular trade for dynasty mainstays Tony Perez and Will McEnaney. Fryman won the snowy opener, but he abruptly retired in July only to return upon being traded to the Cubs that offseason.
Yet I digress. Back to what inspired this post. Will Kyle Lohse be the worst Defending Champ Opening Day Starter since 1950?
Looking at the above list, a few candidates jump out. I've picked seven guys to break down along with Lohse:
Brett Myers (09 PHI)
Daisuke Matsuzaka (08 BOS)
Livan Hernandez (98 FLA)
Juan Guzman (93 TOR)
Tom Browning (91 CIN)
Tim Belcher (89 LA)
Woodie Fryman (77 CIN)
Here they are listed according to their average seasonal Baseball Reference WAR:
Guzman was coming off of three seasons in which he averaged 3.9 bWAR and posted a 40-11 record and 129 ERA+. After subpar '94 and '95 seasons, he bounced back with a big year in '96 as won the AL ERA crown (2.93) and set a career high in bWAR with a 6.5 mark that was fifth in the league among pitchers and tenth among all players.
Matsuzaka was a big-ticket signing in 2007 and he pitched well for the Red Sox in their championship year. Beginning with his OD start in 2008, he had a strong sophomore campaign, going 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA that was the third-best mark in the AL. His 5.1 bWAR ranked fifth in the circuit as he led the league in H/9 (6.87) and walks (94)*.
*Matsuzaka is one of 17 pitchers to lead the league in walks with a H/9 that low. The five guys to do it more than once are just who you'd suspect: Nolan Ryan (5 times), Sam McDowell (3), Bob Turley (3), Randy Johnson (2) and J.R. Richard (2)
I was very surprised to see Tim Belcher get the OD start for the Dodgers in 1989 over Orel Hershiser, who was coming off his amazing scoreless innings streak and postseason run. Hershiser had the flu, however, so Tommy Lasorda went with Belcher. The righty finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 1988 and posted a 4.2 bWAR in '89 while leading the circuit in shutouts with eight.
It was the beginning of the end for Tom Browning in his OD start in 1991. He averaged 3.5 bWAR from 1988-90, going 48-26 in that span (highlighted by a perfect game in 1988) while leading the NL in starts each year. After he helped lead Cincy to their surprising World Series win over the vaunted A's, things went downhill as he posted an 87 ERA+ over the next four seasons. In 1994, the southpaw broke his left arm throwing a pitch to Archi Cianfrocco in one of the more gruesome MLB injuries in recent history. His comeback bid with the Royals the following season lasted only two games.
Hernandez burst onto the scene with the Marlins in 1997 and became the fourth player to win the LCS MVP and World Series MVP in the same postseason.*
*There are now six players to win both MVP's, all in the National League: Willie Stargell (1979), Darrell Porter (1982), Orel Hershiser (1988), Livan, Cole Hamels (2008) and David Freese (2011)
Livan getting the World Series MVP in 1997 was an odd call. He registered 5.27 ERA, but won Games One and Five thanks to a combined 15 runs of support. Meanwhile in seven games, Moises Alou hit .321 (9-for-28) with three homers and an 1.101 OPS.
Since that postseason run, he's been average. His career record is 174-176 and his ERA+ stands at 96. Still, you gotta' tip your cap to a guy who's been able to hang around this long with middling stuff, and it sure is fun to watch him hit (and run the bases). He signed with the Astros over the winter and he's said he wants to be the right-handed Jamie Moyer, so he'll keep going out there until no one else will take him.
Myers was making his third straight OD start for the Phillies. He had posted bWAR's of 2.8 and 3.9 in 2005 and 2006 and pitched the team's first game of 2007 before moving into the closer role. He switched back into the rotation in 2008 upon Philly's acquisition of Brad Lidge, who played a key part in making the Phils defending champs in '09. He has since gone to the Astros, where he will be a closer once again in 2012.
Those six guys are a mixed bag, but generally solid, particularly when they made their Opening Day start. So I'm eliminating them from the running and making it a two-horse race between Fryman and our man Lohse.
As mentioned earlier, Fryman struggled in Cincinnati after enjoying a 1976 season in Montreal in which he ran up a 4.2 bWAR and made the All-Star team at 36. After his pseudo-retirement from the Reds, he had two rough months with the Cubs before finding himself north of the border again. He was traded back to the Expos and rejuvenated his career, posting a 154 ERA+ from 1979-81 (from ages 39-41!).
Lohse (one of three active Native-American major leaguers along with Jacoby Ellsbury and Joba Chamberlain) has had an up-and-down career, registering an ERA+ higher than 100 in only four of his 11 seasons. After five-plus years as a back-of-the-rotation guy in Minnesota, he was dealt at the 2006 deadline to the Reds, who were only 3 1/2 games behind St. Louis and leading the wild card race. He went 3-5 with a 4.57 as Cincy faded down the stretch and finished 80-82.
He was on the move at the deadline in 2007 as well, going to the Phillies. They fared better than the Reds did, surging past the collapsing Mets with a 13-4 mark to reach the playoffs.
The righty signed with the Cardinals in 2008 and had his best season yet under the tutelage of Dave Duncan, going 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA and 2.4 bWAR. After an ineffective 2009 and 2010, he bounced back with a very good 2011. He topped his '08 bWAR with a 2.6 mark and went 14-8 with career-bests in ERA (3.39) and BB/9 (2.01).
In three postseason starts during the Cards' miracle title run, he was blasted to the tune of a 7.82 ERA, taking the loss in two games and a no decision in the Albert Pujols three-homer game.
With a career record of 102-106 and an ERA+ of 94, Lohse's top similarity score comps are Brett Tomko and Jeff Weaver, which sounds about right. Even with his serviceable 2011 season, I will declare that when Kyle Lohse takes the mound on April 4 in the first game at Marlins Park, he will become the worst Defending Champion Opening Day Starter in recent history.
*** PART TWO covering the defending champs from before 1950!