Wow! Is there any better way to kick off a season than with 12 exciting, competitive games? I don’t think so. From Bryce Harper’s pair of homers, to Kershaw putting the Dodgers on his back, Opening Day was full of big performances as well. These are my starting nine from Opening Day 2013:
1) Josh Reddick’s beard
It’s majestic. I mean just look at the thing. Can his eyes even make their way through that hairy forest to see the pitches opposing hurlers throw? Is he going for the Johnny Damon circa-2004 look? I’m not really sure but I know I like it.
2) Clayton Kershaw as a dual threat
In the best game of the day the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw dualed the Giants’ Matt Cain to a draw through 8 innings. Neither offense could muster much more than a bloop single or two as the starters combined to strikeout 15 batters. By the start of the 8th inning the game was handed over to the Giants’ bullpen and George Kontos with Clayton Kershaw scheduled to lead-off. In a bold move Dodgers’ manager Don Mattingly decided to leave Kershaw in the game, eschewing a pinch hitter, and boy did it pay off. Kershaw hit an absolute blast to centerfield some 400-odd feet away for his 1st career homer, sending Dodgers’ fans into a frenzy. Los Angeles added 3 more insurance runs in the inning but Clayton Kershaw didn’t need them as he pitched a perfect 9th to grab the 4-0 victory.
Well it was wet, cold, stormy, and a whole lot of fun. I rode the train down to the stadium, which is a great way to get to the ballpark, with plenty of Cardinals fans around 10 AM in the morning, I looked at all the statues of the Cardinal greats, Stan Musial, Dizzy Dean, Enos Slaughter, Ozzie Smith, the Rajah and many more.
We walked around the stadium and stopped in a bar right outside for a bit. And then the rain started, and kept going and going and going. Patrick and I decided to have a few beers, try to warm up a little, and go into the stadium to get more cover, because the tent we were under was becoming too crowded. And the rain continued.
We got into the stadium, and decided to go down to the field. Nothing truly looks better than a major league field, prepared for Opening Day. It was beautiful, with its trim, elegantly cut grass and its well-manicured dirt; entirely free of rocks to ensure every hop is comfortable for the infielder. The lines foul lines freshly painted, surrounded by seats waiting to be filled, the St. Louis Arch in the background. But it was raining, and the scoreboard was flashing a delay message, informing us of at least a 1-hour delay in the festivities. And the rain continued.
After the 4th hour of standing in the rain, we made a smart decision. We would head back to Patrick’s house (a 10 minute drive), dry our rain-soaked clothes off get back quickly before the ceremony started. We executed our plan to perfection; drying off, ourselves and our clothes, warming up, and making it back just in time to catch the festivities. I grabbed a delicious bratwurst, headed to my seat, and took in my first Opening Day experience. And boy, was it a treat.
The players were given a miniature parade around the stadium, with each player driven around in a truck, and dropped off at home plate for his introduction. Fans robustly cheered all, saving the biggest for hometown hero David Freese and popular pitcher Adam Wainwright. After introductions, members of the last 4 Cardinals World Series teams came out and threw the first pitch. It was a great collection of Cardinals’ history, with Tony La Russa representing last year’s team, David Eckstein representing 2006, Bruce Sutter for 1982, and Bob Gibson for 1967. Finally, at around 4 pm the game would begin.
The game itself was mostly a one-sided affair. Adam Wainwright struggled with his control, and was tagged for 8 runs. He gave up a grand slam to Bryan LaHair, the new Cubs 1st baseman. Jeff Samardzija was in control for most of his start, except for the 5th innings. The Cardinals treated the hometown crowd in the 5th, scoring 5 runs, which would be their final tally. The rain continued slowly, off-and-on, for the latter innings. We were able to move seats, and get real close to the action for the last couple of innings. The Cubs bullpen was impressive, and the Cardinals didn’t muster so much as a scoring chance following the 5th. The final score was 9-5, and we were cold, and a little wet again. But most importantly, baseball is finally back in St. Louis, which was good enough for us.
–Jonah Keri has some interesting thoughts on a fairly new statistic created by Fangraphs called shutdowns and meltdowns, or SD/MD. Here’s an excerpt explaining the statistic a little bit.
To figure that out, SD/MD leans on a concept called win expectancy — the likelihood (expressed in percentages) that your team wins a game. The Indians are up 4-1, ninth inning, bases empty, nobody out. What is their win expectancy at the time? (Answer: 96.8 percent — drag your mouse over that chart at the top of the page to find win expectancy by situation throughout the game.) Perez tosses two-thirds of an inning, yielding three hits, two walks, and three runs, before leaving with the score tied 4-4. What is the Indians’ win expectancy now? (Answer: 52.2 percent) Perez has dropped his team’s win expectancy by 44.6 percent. For that — or any pitching performance in which a reliever hurts his team’s win expectancy by 6 percent or more — you earn a meltdown. Raise your team’s win expectancy by 6 percent or more and you earn a shutdown.
This might sound a bit complicated, but it really isn’t. By using 6 percent as the cutoff, you get a stat that runs on a similar scale to saves and holds. Elite closers and setup men will rack up 35-40 (or more) shutdowns and very few meltdowns, just as a dominant closer can earn that many saves, while blowing very few. If you’ve ever watched poker on TV, you’ll see a player’s odds of winning a hand rise or fall by a certain percentage based on the cards the dealer flips over. Same easy-to-follow concept here: If you retire the side 1-2-3 in a big spot (say, two runners on, none out, and you enter with the game tied in the seventh), you get a shutdown, just as hitting your nut flush on the river will usually win you a hand. The only difference is the pitcher has more control over the outcome in this case, rather than it being left to random chance.
The key is that SD/MD puts closers and other members of your bullpen on even ground. That way you don’t end up overpaying for a pitcher who happens to record the final out of a ballgame.
It is a very interesting way to rate relief pitchers and makes much, much more sense than the save statistic. As Keri also goes on to point out SD/MD gives more weight to higher leverage situations, like bases loaded in the 8th with one out in a 3-2 game, compared to easy save situations like a 5-2 lead, no one on in the 9th. If more teams payed attention to this statistic the use of relievers could change. Instead of using your best pitcher, the closer, to start the 9th, teams could be more inclined to use them to end rallies earlier in the game.
–Tom Verducci has some good thoughts this week concerning pitch counts and the size of Marlins Park. He has noticed that every big league team has adopted the 100 pitch mark as the gold standard for removing a pitcher from the game.
How is it possible that in 10 years all 30 teams agree on the same one-size-fits-all philosophy when it comes to pitching? How could Johnson, Garcia and Hernandez — all of whom compiled prolific careers — do in one day what the entire industry could not do in the subsequent decade? And how could every organization agree on the same philosophy while pitchers do not remain healthier and leads are not better protected under this bowing down to the pitch count? What does it say about advances in nutrition, biomechanics, medicine and other sciences that pitchers have become less productive?
He also discusses the recent trend of building large ballparks, and the effect it could be having on offense. If Marlins Park plays as big as it feels, that would mean that 5 of the last 7 ballparks built all play favorably towards pitcher. Only Citizens Bank in Philly and Yankee Stadium are hitter havens, both ranking in the top-10. With larger ballparks and mandatory steroid testing there has been a big drop-off in the number of runs scored over the past decade. This is something to keep an eye on.
-Also from SI.com, Joe Lemire discusses why he thinks the Joey Votto contract is good for the Reds and good for baseball. Interesting thoughts and some good quotes, particularly near the end when Votto discusses his disdain for the DH.
-Over at IIATMS, they discuss Joe Girardi’s bizarre decision to intentionally walk Sean Rodriguez for Carlos Pena with 2 outs in the 1st inning! It ended just like it should have, with Pena crushing a CC Sabathia offering to give the Rays a 4-0 lead. Girardi explained that didn’t care much for the matchup between Rodriguez and Sabathia, especially since Pena hasn’t hit CC well. Going into the at-bat, Pena was a .114 hitter, going 4-34 with 2 homers, but its still a poor decision to walk a shortstop to face a power hitting 1st baseman.
–Rob Neyer discussed Mark Trumbo’s difficulties at 3rd base last night. Trumbo appears uncomfortable at 3rd and his struggles defensively will be worth keeping tabs on.
–Big League Stew discusses the baseball that Yoenis Cespedes annihilated in his stateside debut last night. Cespedes hit an impressive 462 foot homer, and showboated a bit after, but good grief was that a blast.
–Tim Brown has some notes discussing Albert Pujols debut for the Los Angels Angels. Pujols had an 0-fer with 1 walk, but LA was still able to win the game 5-0.
-Some fun numbers from Mop-Up Duty about the 16 inning Opening Day affair between Toronto and Cleveland.
Yesterday saw quite a few excellent games on Opening Day Act 2. Let’s go over a couple of games between AL East and AL Central teams.
In Detroit, the battle between Justin Verlander and Jon Lester, the aces of the Tigers, and Red Sox, lived up to the hype. Verlander picked right up where he left off, allowing only 2 hits, walking 1, and striking out 7 in 8 scoreless innings. His dominance was fueled by his curveball, which was hellacious, and he struck out 6 of the 7 batters on the pitch. Lester was no slouch either, allowing only a solitary run in the 7th before being pulled.
But almost predictably the Red Sox bullpen imploded. With the injury to Andrew Bailey and the conversion of Daniel Bard to a starter, the relief corp in Boston is ridiculously thin. In 2 innings of work, 4 pitchers combined to give up 4 hits, 1 walk, striking out nobody, and allowing 2 runs. When Vincente Padilla is the first man out of the ‘pen in a 1-0 game in the 8th, that is not a good sign.
Jose Valverde, who was a lucky 49-49 in saves a year ago, was also abysmal. He threw 1 awful inning allowing both Red Sox runs on 3 hits, but it didn’t matter. The Red Sox pen would not allow itself to be victorious on this day, and Alfredo Aceves gave up the winning hit to Austin Jackson with the bases loaded in the 9th to send the Tiger fans home happy.
In the best game of the day, the Blue Jays and Indians played an Opening Day classic, a 7-4, 16-inning brawl won by Toronto. The game appeared to be a tidy 4-1 Indian win , mostly due to the spectacular pitching of Justin Masterson, who was a Jose Bautista solo shot away from a shutout. He struck out 10 and only allowed 3 base runners over the course of 8 innings. The 9th is when things got interesting however.
In the top of the 9th, Chris Perez, the nominal closer for Cleveland, came in and immediately made the game an interesting affair. In only 2/3s of an inning he walked 2, gave up 3 hits, and allowed 3 runs to score. At his best, Perez is a mediocre closer who has had only 1 truly good season, back in 2010. The rest of the Indian’s bullpen, particularly Tony Sipp, impressed, which is a good sign. If Cleveland reshuffles their bullpen, and makes another pitcher the closer, good things will happen.
With a potential win in reach, John Farrell, Toronto’s manager, immediately got creative with his defense. In the bottom of the 9th he moved his outfield around, and put Jose Bautista at first. Bautista played the position with grace, looking comfortable, and making a few plays. In addition to his positional versatility, Bautista also did what he does best: mash the ball and get on base. He was 3-4 with 2 walks, a homer, and 2 RBIs.
The longer the game went on, the more creative Farrell got with his defense. In the 12th inning, after Cleveland loaded the bases with 1 out, Farrell made a particularly ballsy call. He decided to sub in Omar Vizquel for leftfielder Eric Thames. Then he decided that instead of positioning Vizquel in the outfield, he would put him near the base at second, shifting the shortstop Escobar into the hole. It was the rarely used 5th infielder strategy, and boy oh boy, did it totally pay off.
On the very first pitch, Asdrubal Cabrera smacked a grounder right into the hole on the left side of the infield, exactly where Escobar had been positioned. Escobar rifled the ball to second, where Kelly Johnson made the turn to complete the double play. If not for Farrell’s heady managing the game would have been over then and there, a 5-4 win for the Tribe.
The game continued into the 16th inning when JP Arencibia came up to bat with 2 runners on. Arencibia had a 1-1 count when he thought he was given the sign to bunt. He failed miserably on his bunt attempt, and was left with a 2-strike count. The next pitch, he made Cleveland pay depositing a 3-run blast into the left field seats, giving Toronto the winning runs. “For some reason, I thought I got the bunt sign,” Arencibia said. “That got me in two strikes. Then I was just trying to hit the ball. I happened to hit it hard and got it out of the park.” Either way it was an exciting game and a great way to start the season.
-Prince Fielder got a base hit in his first career at-bat as a Tiger.
-Omar Vizquel was greeted warmly by the Indian fans every time his name was announced. He also played 1st base for the second time in his illustrious career, after technically entering the game as a leftfielder.
-Colby Rasmus made an excellent diving catch in centerfield in the 5th inning, but made a near fatal mistake in the 9th. On a potentially catchable ball, he got confused, and let it skip by for a double. The play at worst would have been a single and Rasmus looked like he could not decide between making a diving attempt or picking it up on one hop. Its more boom-or-bust play out of the former highly-touted prospect.