Baseball is back! That’s right, our cold, winter-long nightmare is finally over. The Red Sox started their quest for a ninth World Series championship yesterday with a win against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rick Porcello threw 6.1 strong innings, and the Red Sox offense exploded for five runs in the fifth inning, capped by a majestic three-run home run by Andrew Benintendi. Dustin Pedroia extended his opening day hit streak to eight, while Mitch Moreland continued his hitless ways on opening day. Of course, prior to the game there was the usual pomp and circumstance that comes with Opening Day, and it was fantastic. Chris Sale, who hasn’t thrown a meaningful pitch in a Red Sox uniform, got an ovation. The Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots were honoured. Tom Brady threw a ball to Dustin Pedroia. Everyone did their job. I am not typically one who enjoys all of the extra shenanigans that come around and within a baseball game, but Opening Day is just different. Every year, it is a special day that sets all of us off on the seven-month journey that is a major league baseball season. It got me wondering about Red Sox’s Opening Days past.
Yesterday’s win over the Pirates brings the Red Sox’s record in their Opening Day games to a perfectly even 58-58-1 (since 1901). And yes, you read that correctly, the Red Sox have a tie on Opening Day. In 1910, when baseball was not really the same as the baseball we watch and love today, ties were a thing that happened. The Red Sox went on to earn four more ties that season. Odd stuff. Opening the 2017 season in Fenway Park was great; nice for the fellas to be home to start the year. This has not typically been the case. The Red Sox have been on the road for 76 of their 117 Opening Day games – essentially two out of every three years – and it has been tough sledding: they are 34-41-1 when game one is played on the road. Starting at home, as they did yesterday, has been a much nicer way to begin the season, and indeed it was yesterday.
Those are the easy wins, which are certainly enjoyable for Red Sox fans. But there are also the back-and-forth, high-tension games that finish the Red Sox’s way, which are enjoyable in a different way and great wins for the team.
Yesterday’s win was great, but what was the best Red Sox Opening Day win? Well, it depends on how you want to measure it. By run differential, the Red Sox have had two ten-run wins on Opening Day. The first, in 1919, was a 10-0 shutout of the Yankees, then the second came in 1973, when the Sox again put it on those rival Yanks, winning 15-5. Those are the easy wins, which are certainly enjoyable for Red Sox fans. But there are also the back-and-forth, tight, high-tension games that finish the Red Sox’s way, which are enjoyable in a different way and great wins for the team. To find these sorts of games the average leverage index (aLi) can be used. By this measure, the 1969 win over the Orioles, the 1941 and 1930 wins over the Washington Senators, and the 2008 win over the Athletics (in Tokyo! More on this game below) involved the most tension. Because they were taut affairs, but ended in a Red Sox win (read: relief) they can be considered among the best wins. As a point of reference, yesterday’s win ranks as the 16th most tense Red Sox Opening Day win by aLi.
But as their overall Opening Day record shows, there have been just as many losses as wins over the years, and the losses can make all that nice stuff I said about Opening Day seem not so nice. For example, the Red Sox took a 10-1 drubbing in 1960 at the hands of the Senators. There have also been some ugly game-ones recently: a 9-2 loss to the Yanks in 2005, which was thankfully on the road and didn’t muck up the 2004 World Series ring ceremony. Ring Day ended with a glorious 8-1 win over those same Yankees. Another recent rough start to the season was the 7-1 loss to the Royals in 2007, which Red Sox fans can just file away as a prime example that seasons with Opening Day beatings can still end on a very positive note. As for the really tense games that didn’t end the way the Red Sox would prefer, the top three (by aLi) involved the Baltimore Orioles: 2014, 1966 and 1989.
What about the individual heroes and goats of Opening Day? I said I would come back to that (ridiculous) journey at the start of the 2008 season to play a series in Tokyo. The reason that game requires another mention is that, by Win Probability Added (WPA), it had two of the top three Opening Day performances by a Red Sox batter (since 1913). Manny Ramirez, who went 2-for-5 with two doubles and four RBI that day, took top spot, and two spots below Manny is Brandon Moss, who went 2-for-5 with a home run and two RBI in that game. Manny and Moss really carried the offense that day. Maybe that ‘08 trip helped facilitate Manny’s return to baseball in Japan. Interestingly the second and fourth best performances also came in one game, as Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia stood out in the 9-7 win over the Yankees in 2010.
On the pitching side of things, WPA is not really the best measure to use for this sort of exploration, as GameScore does a better job. By GameScore, Lefty Grove’s 87 in 1940’s 1-0 win over the Senators was the best Opening Day performance by a Red Sox pitcher. Pedro Martinez’s domination of the Mariners in 2000 (82 GSc) is not too far down the list in fourth, with Dennis Eckersley’s 1981 start (81 GSc) right behind it. Eck getting a job with Oakland really hurts the NESN broadcast. Thank goodness for park sounds.
While Pedro had three of the 15 best Opening Day starts, he also had the worst. In 2002 he got lit up by the Blue Jays for eight runs on nine hits in just three innings pitched (13 GSc). Another Red Sox pitching legend shows up on the wrong end of an opening day outing, as Roger Clemens had a rough 4.2 innings against the Tigers in 1994, allowing – just like Pedro’s rough day – eight runs on nine hits. Even the greatest ones have bad days, folks. As for the batters who had ugly opening days, first baseman Tony Horton was really costly in that high-leverage loss to the Orioles in 1966 I mentioned previously. Horton cost the team almost half-a-win with his 0-for-6 that included two ground ball double-plays. More recently, by going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in an opening day loss to the Rangers in 2011, Carl Crawford offered the earliest possible sign that his tenure in Boston was not going to go well. I was so excited for the Carl Crawford signing. It still hurts me how poorly it went.
Alas, there has been good and there has been bad on Opening Day. Yesterday, certainly goes down on the good side of the ledger, as the Red Sox won, Andrew Benintendi looked like a star, and reigning Cy Young winner Rick Porcello was sharp. Hopefully it is a sign of the season to come. But really, it is just the first step in the journey and ultimately, despite all the hoopla that comes with Opening Day, the game counts the same in the standings as each of the games that come after it. Nevertheless, due to the excitement of opening day, the start of a new season, and having baseball back in our lives, those first games can end up standing out in memory. Yesterday was another Opening Day in the books. It really is so great to have baseball back.
Photo by Greg M. Cooper – USA TODAY Sports