Last week the Kansas City Royals announced Luke Hochevar as their Opening Day starter, which certainly made for a happy day for the Hochevar family, but considering his career 5.60 ERA probably didn’t send Royals fans flocking to purchase 20-game plans.
I’ll be honest: I love hearing the official announcements of all the first-game starters. Why? Because I heard about Luke Hochevar and it sent me searching for the most improbable Opening Day starters of the past decade.
10. David Wells, Red Sox, 2005
Wells, of course, had a long and successful career, but how did he end up drawing the first start following Boston’s historic 2004 World Series title, considering he wasn’t on that team? Well, Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets, Derek Lowe left for the Dodgers, Curt Schilling had an injured ankle that meant he wasn’t ready and Terry Francona simply decided to give the ball to Boomer (against the Yankees, no less) rather than holdovers Tim Wakefield or Bronson Arroyo.
9. Carl Pavano, Yankees, 2007
Pavano hadn’t pitched in 643 days when he drew the start. Why? Chien-Ming Wang had pulled a hamstring, Andy Pettitte was battling back spasms and Mike Mussina had pitched too late in spring training. So it was Pavano drawing the start, “the same Pavano whose many ailments have included a bruised buttocks,” as the New York Times heralded. Pavano started the game, started again seven days later … and that was it for his 2007 campaign.
8. Jimmy Haynes, Reds, 2003
Haynes was a hotshot prospect coming up through the Orioles system but like a lot of pitching prospects of that era melted under the barrage of longballs. He drifted to Oakland, Milwaukee and finally Cincinnati, where he put together a superficially good 15-10 season in 2002, thus drawing the 2003 opener. He really wasn’t that good in ’02: 210 hits allowed in 196 innings, a 126/81 strikeout/walk ratio and 1.48 WHIP. He went 2-12 with a 6.30 ERA in 18 starts in ’03.
7. Runelvys Hernandez, Royals, 2003
Hernandez was known as Fat Elvys for his ample body mass. He had a decent rookie season in 2002, with a 4.36 ERA in 12 starts, and was really the only option for the Royals, since Paul Byrd, their only good starter, had signed with Atlanta. Despite Fat Elvys drawing the opener and Darrell May eventually leading the club with 10 victories, the Royals had a surprising 83-79 record in 2003, their only winning season since 1994.
6. Ryan Drese, Rangers, 2005
Drese drew the start after going 14-10 with a 4.20 ERA in 2004. Under Rangers standards of that time, that was a pretty awesome season. Believe it or not, that was the third-best ERA of any Rangers starter from 2000 to 2008 (behind only two seasons by Kenny Rogers). Drese lasted just 12 starts and was released with a 6.46 ERA after getting into an in-game scuffle with catcher Rod Barajas.
5. Mike Maroth, Tigers, 2003
As a rookie in 2002, Maroth had posted a 4.48 ERA in 21 starts and struck out an uninspiring 58 hitters in 128.2 innings. Among pitchers with at least 75 innings, that was the second-lowest strikeout rate in the American League. However, considering the ’02 Tigers had lost 106 games, that was good enough to draw the opener. The Tigers lost that game 3-1 on their way to a 1-17 start and 119 losses -- 21 of them by Maroth.
4. Mark Hendrickson, Marlins, 2008
Hendrickson has lasted nine seasons in the bigs despite a 5.02 career ERA, splitting time as a starter and reliever. He started for Florida even though he’d gone 4-8 with a 5.21 ERA with the Dodgers the previous year. The Marlins didn’t have a lot of good options. Dontrelle Willis had been traded to Detroit and their No. 2 guy in ’07, Scott Olsen, had posted a 5.33 ERA. Rather than go with a youngster, Hendrickson drew the start.
3. Omar Daal, Phillies, 2001
The Phillies have come a long way in a decade. This one was weird since Daal had led the majors with 19 losses in 2000, pitching for Arizona and Philadelphia. The Phillies’ best starters in 2000 had been Randy Wolf and Robert Person. Curt Schilling was traded to Arizona during the season for Daal and others, and it appears the Phillies held Wolf for the home opener in the fourth game of the season.
2. Ron Villone, Pirates, 2002
This one caught my eye since Villone spent most of his career as a reliever. He’d spent 2001 with the Rockies and Astros, starting in just 12 of his 53 appearances, and not pitching very well with a 5.89 ERA. He’d had a 5.43 ERA with the Reds in 2000, mostly as a starter. After losing 100 games in 2001, the Pirates signed him as a free agent and made him their Opening Day starter. He lasted just seven starts before moving back to the bullpen.
1. Dewon Brazelton, Devil Rays, 2005
Easily the worst pitcher on our list, Brazelton had an 8-25 career record with a 6.38 ERA. He’d been the third overall pick in the 2001 draft, taken just after Joe Mauer and Mark Prior, and just ahead of Gavin Floyd and Mark Teixeira. He’d won six games in 2004 with bad peripherals (64/53 strikeout/walk ratio), despite which Lou Piniella gave him the ball on Opening Day. He actually pitched pretty good matched up against Roy Halladay, allowing three runs in 7 1/3 innings with no walks and four strikeouts, but drew the loss. It would be the last good outing of his major league career. He made seven more starts, allowing 31 runs, and then made 12 relief appearances, giving up runs in 11 of them.
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