Johnny Was Here

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Remember Jimmy Haynes? What about Cory Lidle, Paul Wilson, and the immortal Joey Hamilton?

Wait…never mind. Here we were, basking in the glow of a glorious Opening Day victory against a division rival on the strength of a late-game, upper-deck home run and another dominant (if too brief) performance by the Cuban Missile. Then I had to go and ruin everything by mentioning some of the lesser lights of Cincinnati Opening Days of yore.

Well, I don’t feel guilty about it. After all, how can we appreciate the Opening Day brilliance of Monday’s starter, Johnny Cueto, if we don’t remember those who preceded him? I hear what you’re saying: There are actually any number of ways to appreciate Cueto’s outstanding performances without dredging up the painful memories of The Jimmy Haynes Experience.* Perhaps you’re correct. On the other hand, I’m sure that Haynes’ family will enjoy seeing his name within the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine as a reminder of his Major League glory days. Don’t be so selfish, dear reader.

*Haynes took the loss on Opening Day 2003, surrendering six runs on five hits and three walks in four innings of work. You may remember that as the first Opening Day in Great American Ball Park history. I certainly can’t forget it, since I have a panoramic photo of the first pitch at GAB in my office at work. Yes, I look at Jimmy Haynes throwing a pitch every single day of the work week. Kill me now.

If Monday’s game versus Pittsburgh was Johnny Cueto’s final Opening Day game as a member of the Cincinnati Reds—though we should continue to hold out hope that it wasn’t—he certainly went out with a bang. It was the fourth consecutive season that Cueto toed the rubber for the season’s first pitch; he twirled seven shutout innings, permitting just four hits and a walk while striking out ten Bucs.

Those ten whiffs were a career-high for Cueto on Opening Day, and (as Joel Luckhaupt noted) it’s tied for the second-highest total ever for a Reds pitcher. Only Gary Nolan had more; as a 20-year old on Opening Day 1969, Nolan struck out 12 Dodgers, but took the defeat in a 3-2 loss. Mario Soto fanned 10 Cubs in 1982, but also dropped a 3-2 decision, one of many, many losses for the Redlegs in that forgettable season.

Cueto, in fact, has three of the top five single-game strikeout performances in Reds Opening Day history, including his performances in 2013 (9 Ks) and 2014 (8 Ks). In terms of career numbers, Cueto is at the top of the Reds heap in Opening Day strikeouts, with 31, which bests Soto’s total of 29, and Jose Rijo’s 24 (another tip of the cap to Joel for that one).

What does this all mean? Well, nothing, really. It’s just for funsies, as the kids say. (Surely they say that, right?) But, as you know, Opening Day is a special day in the Queen City. The Reds always play at home. There’s the annual Findlay Market parade downtown; it’s practically a holiday, for crying out loud. So while these numbers are essentially meaningless (small sample size, you know), they’re special in their own way. Because Opening Day is special to us.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s delve quickly into some other points of interest about past Reds Opening Day starters. As we mentioned, Cueto has gotten the call to start the season’s first game four times. Soto made six such starts, between 1982 and 1988; that’s more than any other pitcher in club history. Two Reds since 1900 have started five Opening Day games: Aaron Harang (five in a row, from 2006-2010) and Pete Donohue (five consecutive, 1923-1927). Meanwhile, the list of Reds who, like Cueto, started four Opening Day games reads like a who’s-who of standout pitchers over the history of this franchise: Rijo, Nolan, Tom Seaver, Ewell Blackwell, Tom Browning, Paul Derringer, Bucky Walters.

Shifting gears a bit, if you look at Opening Day starts by Game Score, a formula developed by Bill James to measure the strength of an individual pitching performance, Johnny Vander Meer’s 1943 start rises to the top of the list. In a 1-0 win over St. Louis, Vander Meer pitched 11 shutout innings, surrendering only two measly singles (game score: 91). Now that’s a way to start a season.

Frank Pastore’s 1980 performance was nearly as good (86 game score), a complete game shutout in which he allowed only three Atlanta hits, striking out five without walking a batter. For comparison purposes, Cueto’s performance on Monday receives a game score of 78, which is the fifth-best in Reds Opening Day history. In fact, all four of Cueto’s starts rank within the top 20, by game score, in more than a century of Opening Days.

Among the worst performances in club history were Brett Tomko in 1999 (3.2 IP, 6 runs allowed on 8 hits and 3 walks; game score 19), Aaron Harang in 2006 (5 IP, 9 runs, 6 ER, 8 hits, 3 walks; game score 19), and Tom Seaver in 1979 (1.2 IP, 7 R, 4 ER, 6 H, 1 walk; game score 20). And, to complete the circle, Haynes’ game score in 2003 was 28.

But back to Cueto. All season long, we’re likely to be hoping against hope that Cueto will step onto the GABP mound again on Opening Day 2016. If we’re being honest with ourselves, however, we have to concede that it’s starting to look unlikely. The Reds and Cueto weren’t able to work out a contract extension before the season, and Cueto is going to command a hefty salary increase, thanks to the fact that he’s been the second-best pitcher in the National League for the last couple years.

Hope springs eternal this time of year. I wouldn’t mind seeing Cueto lower his Opening Day ERA next year—which currently sits at 0.64—while still wearing a Reds uniform. And while we’re hoping, let’s end with this nugget: The Reds won on Opening Day in 1919, 1940, 1975, 1976, and 1990. Do those years look familiar? They should, because Cincinnati went on to win the World Series in each of those seasons.

You’ll notice that the Reds won on Opening Day, in thrilling fashion, in 2015 too. So yes, I’m saying what you think I’m saying: Go ahead and start printing those World Series tickets. The stars are aligned.

Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. 

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