Johan Santana's Historic Opening Day Snub
in history to be benched on Opening Day.
In 2004, Johan Santana won the AL Cy Young Award for the Minnesota Twins.
He received a perfect 28 of 28 first place votes, breezing by Curt Schilling and Mariano Rivera. His 228 innings pitched was second most in the American League while his 2.61 ERA lead the AL among qualified starters. He struck out 30.1% of the batters he faced. Pedro Martinez, the next closest in the American League starter, had struck out 25.1%. Santana was amazing. And yet...
On Opening Day 2005, Johan was on the bench.
The Twins opted to start Brad Radke instead. Radke had been the club’s Opening Day starter for six straight seasons entering the year and had started eight of the previous nine season openers. He signed a two-year $18 million deal with Minnesota in the ’04-’05 offseason to keep him from taking his talents to Boston or Anaheim who were rumored to have offered more. He had been looking for a three-year/$33 million deal from the Twins, but opted instead to take a discount to stay. The Twins paid him back by giving him the Opening Day start.
According to a Chicago Tribune article from April 2005, manager Ron Gardenhire said he made the decision to start Radke over Santana on Opening Day almost immediately after Radke re-signed with the club.
"There wasn't a conversation about it," Gardenhire said. "Radke's here, he's starting Opening Day. It's not about slighting anybody. It's about the respect that the guy's earned since he's been here."
The article continues saying that Radke didn’t expect to start Opening Day, and that Santana had no problem with it given Radke’s tenure with the team. But there is a problem with it—it had never happened before and hasn’t happened since. Santana is the only unanimous Cy Young Award winner in history to be benched on Opening Day.
There have been 22 other unanimous Cy Young Award winners and only two others failed to start the Opening Day game in the following season. Sandy Koufax in 1967 because he retired, and Orel Hershiser’s first start of 1989 was pushed back due to flu symptoms.
If we widen the net to all Cy Young Award winners, there have been 104 starting pitchers who won the award since it was established in 1956 and played in the following season—so not counting Koufax’s retirement season or the two 2018 Cy Young Award winners since this year’s Opening Day hasn’t happened yet. There were also nine relievers, but they didn’t start because, you know, they didn’t start games.
Of those 104 starters, three were unavailable on Opening Day due to injury, three were holding out at the start of the season because of contract disputes, and one was mired in a league investigation into gambling. Zooming in a little closer, three more of the remaining pitchers started in game two because they were behind Hall of Fame teammates in their team’s rotation. Mike McCormick started behind Juan Marichal in 1968, Mike Flanagan started behind Jim Palmer in 1980, and John Denny started behind Steve Carlton in 1984.
None of this was the case with Santana. He was healthy, not in a contract dispute, and—while I like Radke as much as the next guy—he was not stuck behind a future Hall of Fame pitcher. Which means our list of comparable Cy Young Award winners has been pared down to 94 pitchers. Of those 94, only 11 failed to start Opening Day the following season, this includes Santana in 2005. This means that 88% of Cy Young Award-winning starters meeting our criteria took the mound on Opening Day in the following season.
|Cy Young Award Year||Pitcher||Following Season's Opening Day Starter with Reason|
|2013||Max Scherzer||Justin Verlander - he was very good (although 2014 was a rough season)|
|2004||Johan Santana||Brad Radke - of course|
|2004||Roger Clemens||Roy Oswalt - he had a longer tenure with Houston & finished 3rd in the 2004 Cy Young Award voting|
|2002||Barry Zito||Tim Hudson - he was roughly as good as Zito throughout their stretch in Oakland|
|1990||Bob Welch||Dave Stewart - he finished in the top 4 of Cy Young Award voting in the four previous seasons|
|1985||Bret Saberhagen||Bud Black - Saberhagen's youth? I don't know, this one is similar to Santana|
|1981||Fernando Valenzuela||Jerry Reuss - this too seems to be youth and is similar to Santana|
|1974||Catfish Hunter||Doc Medich - Hunter joined the Yankees in the offseason thanks to a fluke that let him out of his contract with Oakland, it’s possible team or league politics played a role|
|1969||Mike Cuellar||Dave McNally - he finished 4th in the Cy Young Award voting in 1969, so they were similarly skilled|
|1964||Dean Chance||Fred Newman - like Radke, Newman was clearly worse than Chance, I couldn't find a real reason|
|1960||Vern Law||Bob Friend - he & Law were comparable pitchers, but this is similar to Santana’s snub|
There you have it. And remember, of those players on this list, Santana was the only unanimous Cy Young Award winner prior to his Opening Day snub. Will it ever happen again? Certainly it will in the infinite monkey theory of baseball, so I will say “yes” because unless the sport ends entirely, no one can say I am wrong.
- Oldgoat_MN and h2oface like this