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Washington Nationals make the right call to start Scherzer on opening day

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On Monday, the Washington Nationals announced that Max Scherzer will get the nod on opening day against the New York Mets. While Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg would also have been excellent choices, the Nats made the right call by giving their big ticket free agent the honor.

Giving Max Scherzer the opening day start will give the Nationals a terrific chance to market their new star pitcher.
Giving Max Scherzer the opening day start will give the Nationals a terrific chance to market their new star pitcher.
Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Opening day is about pomp and circumstance.  It's a celebration of the return of meaningful baseball after a long offseason and seemingly endless spring training.  It's an opportunity for the fans to get giddy about seeing this year's roster parade around the field and give them many standing ovations before the team has even done anything.  It's a chance to try and energize the fans and help us acquaint ourselves with the team before the long 162 game journey that lies ahead.  Finally, it's about new beginnings.... Yes, even Phillies fans can think they have a chance on opening day.  They're tied for first!

Once you take all of that away and look at it simply from a baseball perspective: It's just one game out of 162.

Almost every team in the majors would love to have Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, or Jordan Zimmermann atop their rotation this season.  In other words, the Nats really couldn't have gone wrong here.  We still don't know what the rotation will look like behind Scherzer, but we can safely assume that Strasburg and Zimmermann will make the other two starts in the Nats opening series.  We're going to see them soon.  Given good health (knock on wood), Scherzer and whoever starts Game 2 will probably end up making 33 starts this season... whoever ends up starting third will make 32.  Particularly given the depth of the Nats rotation, it just isn't that big a deal.

But... But.... This means Scherzer will always be facing the opposing aces

As many people often point out, this is a myth.  Last season, Stephen Strasburg was the Nationals opening day starter.  He didn't miss a single start all season long.  Let's have a look at just the first two months and see who Strasburg squared off against....

Date Opp. Opp. SP Opp. OD SP
3/31 Mets Dillon Gee Dillon Gee
4/5 Braves Julio Teheran Julio Teheran
4/10 Marlins Tom Koehler Jose Fernandez
4/15 Marlins Tom Koehler Jose Fernandez
4/20 Cardinals Shelby Miller Adam Wainwright
4/25 Padres Robbie Erlin Andrew Cashner
5/2 Phillies Cliff Lee Cliff Lee
5/7 Dodgers Dan Haren Clayton Kershaw
5/12 Diamondbacks Bronson Arroyo Wade Miley
5/19 Reds Mike Leake Johnny Cueto
5/24 Pirates Gerrit Cole Francisco Liriano
5/30 Rangers Colby Lewis Yu Darvish

In the first two months last season, Strasburg faced just three opening day starters (Gee, Teheran, Lee).  It took two whole turns through the rotation before Strasburg drew the Marlins number five starter... twice in a row!  In fact, he faced more number five starters (5) than number one starters (3) in the first two months of the season.  Simply put, there are a lot of variables that can throw off the whole expectations of having an "ace vs. ace" matchup.

  • It's rare to see two teams always have the same off days
  • There tend to be more off days early in the season.  Weather tends to be more of a factor early in the year.  Most teams have a scheduled day off directly behind their home opener to guard against potential weather concerns for their own fans' opening day.
  • Because of the more frequent off days early in the year, teams that don't have a lot of starting pitching depth often try and keep their top guys on regular rest and occasionally skip their fifth starter.
  • Injuries and player promotions/demotions happen.  These can occasionally alter when other pitchers take their turn in their respective rotations.

Regardless of who the Nats had picked to start on opening day, that pitcher won't always be facing the opponent's top starter.  Could it happen more often than it did with Strasburg early last season?  Absolutely.  Will it?  I can't answer that with 100% accuracy.  The Nats had three excellent choices to be the nominal ace in the rotation, so in baseball terms this is unlikely to be all that important of a decision.

What does it really end up coming down to, though?

If you'd like, I'll talk briefly about Max Scherzer's talent.  He won the 2013 AL Cy Young Award.  Over the past two seasons, Scherzer's 3.02 ERA ranks 11th in the majors.  His 2.79 FIP ranks sixth.  His 10.46 K/9 ranks second.  Scherzer also ranks fifth in pitcher fWAR (15.3) over that span.  He's a terrific pitcher, and his recent on-field production does compare favorably compared to Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg.  However, on-field performance isn't the only reason that Scherzer was the choice.

The Nats made a significant financial commitment to Scherzer to bring him to Washington over the next seven seasons. While his performance on the field (above) will be the most important factor in making sure the Nats get a lot of bang for their buck, they're also counting on him being a popular star in the D.C. market....

  • The organization wants there to be a certain buzz in the park when Scherzer takes the hill.
  • They expect to sell a ton of number 31 jerseys this season... many of the people who want Strasburg or Zimmermann jerseys already have them.
  • Scherzer is locked up through 2021, whereas Zimmermann (free agent after this season) and Strasburg (free agent after 2016) aren't guaranteed to be Nationals beyond the next couple of seasons.  You market for the future as well as the present, and we know that Scherzer will be representing the Nationals brand for the next seven seasons.
Nothing will endear Max Scherzer to the fans in Washington, D.C. like being a key contributor on a championship club.  However, opening day does give the Nats a chance to put him front and center on a day where more casual fans tune in to watch the game than they do throughout the regular season.  They're absolutely right to put their new star in the spotlight.... even if the actual baseball implications are pretty minimal.