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Carlos Martinez starting on Opening Day means everything (or nothing)

What history tells us about winning the first game of the season

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

News broke yesterday that Carlos Martinez will get the ball to kick off the Cardinals’ season on April 2 when they host the Cubs. This will be the first time that Adam Wainwright will have a seat on the bench in a Cardinals opener since Kyle Lohse took a no-hitter into the 7th to commemorate brand new Marlins Park in 2012. Martinez will also only be the fifth different Cardinal to start an opener since 2001 (Matt Morris, Chris Carpenter, Lohse, Wainwright). For his part, Wainwright is taking the news in stride. From Jenifer Langosch’s column yesterday:

"I think he earned it with the way he pitched last year, and the year before that," Wainwright said. "Vice versa, the way I pitched last year, I didn't earn that. I thought it was well-deserved."

Wainwright is correct, of course. Take a look at the traditional or advanced statistics since Martinez became a full-time starter in 2015 and they all point to him getting the nod. In fact, it’s probably not even close but for the fact that Wainwright is a beloved veteran, a genial gent, with more quality starts on his resume than most every other Cardinals pitcher in history. And that’s why there were plenty of (pretty justified) “this is a new era for the Cardinals”-type columns in the wake of this news.

Symbolism aside, a lot of people argue that it doesn’t really matter who starts Opening Day (within reason - Jhonny Peralta would be an odd yet novel choice), and they might be correct. If by some miracle all five starters went through an entire season without disruption then the number one and two starters, in this case Martinez and Wainwright, are looking at 33 starts and three through five (Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha) would get 32. The stated goal is usually to get 30 starts, so, I suppose, from that standpoint the starting pitcher on Opening Day is pretty meaningless.

Looking at that first game in a vacuum though, most of us would agree that Martinez is the staff’s best pitcher. And most of us would also agree that if you want to win a single game, then you want your best pitcher on the mound. Like we’re all okay with that, right? Assuming that’s the case, then let’s examine the historical impact of that first game to decide if we really want Martinez on Opening Day.

Here are the facts (Note: I’m using “facts” in the most liberal sense of the word.):

Fact #1: Winning the opener means the Cardinals will win less games.

It’s true. Going back to 1980*, the Cardinals are 19-18 on Opening Day. In the 19 seasons in which they won the opener, they averaged 85.8 wins; in the 18 seasons they lost the opener - 87.1 wins (the three seasons cut short due to labor stoppage were pro-rated for a 162-game season). Why that’s one whole win difference - 87 wins vs. 86 wins. Particularly relevant here because 87 wins would have gotten the Cardinals into the postseason in 2016. Instead they only won 86 and stayed home. Maybe they should have lost their opener last season...and hold up my sources tell me they did. What kind of backwards formula is this?

*I only went back to 1980 because I was getting tired.

Fact #2: Winning the opener gives the Cardinals a (slightly) better chance of making the postseason.

Since the Cardinals became established in the National League in 1892, they have made 28 appearances in the postseason, and they won their opener in 15 of those seasons. Fifteen wins to 13 losses - that’s a .536 winning percentage, almost the same winning percentage the team would have had if they only could have won 87 games in 2016, which, in case you haven’t heard, would have qualified them for the postseason.

Fact #3: Winning the opener gives the Cardinals a better chance of winning the World Series.

The Cardinals have won 11 World Series titles and won their opener in seven of those seasons (1926, 1931, 1934, 1944, 1967, 1982, 2006). The four outliers were 1942, 1946, 1964, and 2011. I’ll have to take a closer look but my guess is the team really turned it on those four seasons in games 2 through 154/162.

There you have it, inarguable and perfectly reasoned facts. If you value regular season success over the postseason, then you might not want the Cardinals’ best pitcher on the mound to kick off 2017. But if you prefer postseason appearances - sometimes ending in a parade - then you should be thrilled that Carlos Martinez will get the start next Sunday. That he has a 3.02 ERA while striking out nearly 23% of batters faced in 375 innings since becoming a starter in 2015 certainly helps, too.