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The headline for this column is purposely misleading. it’s rooted in the conceit that anything could actually matter on opening day.
But when’s the last time less than 1 percent of something mattered for anything? We’re talking one game of 162. It’s a proverbial drop in the bucket.
Maybe you catch a glimmer of something — the smallest cause for concern or reason for optimism — but it’s usually invalidated within a week. If we approached opening day just like we approached some random day in June, maybe we’d recognize it for the nothingburger it is.
But you want reactions, and how could you not? It’s real, live baseball after a long winter without. Just understand that a more appropriate concept for an opening day reaction piece would be something like “stuff that might matter” or “stuff I could see mattering.” Of course, I’m also singling out events that almost certainly don’t matter, lest you think they do.
So whatever you want to call them — observations, takeaways, reactions, whatever — I have thoughts on all that transpired Thursday. And I’ll present them to you now in bullet point form.
Aces being disgraces
• After hardly pitching this spring, Chris Sale got pounded for seven earned runs and three home runs, falling well short of the velocity he showed last year. Obviously, concerns are high, but it’s too loaded of a topic to tackle in this short form, which is why I’ve dedicated a standalone piece to it.
• After months of me arguing he was definitively an ace, Zack Greinke was definitively not on a day when the Dodgers seemed destined for greatness, setting an opening day record with eight home runs. Not all of them came off Greinke, of course, but four of them did, which is more than he gave up in any start last year. I’d be more concerned if he wasn’t coming off an encouraging spring by his standards or if his average fastball velocity was any worse than at this point a year ago — when, by the way, he didn’t record his first quality start until his fourth outing, entering that day with a 5.29 ERA. What short memories we have.
• Blake Snell was another ace who didn’t have quite his usual stuff, striking out only three while serving up three homers with a fastball that was more than a mile per hour lower on average than a year ago. But the Rays hardly let him pitch this spring, which probably had something to do with it. In the interest of preserving their best pitchers’ health, teams are going to greater lengths to make sure the innings count, but in the case of Snell, Sale and maybe others, it seems to have compromised their readiness for the season. It probably won’t be an issue in the long run, but it’s a source of anxiety for Fantasy owners now.
• Miles Mikolas, who succeeded last year mostly because of his ability to keep the ball on the ground, served up three home runs to the Brewers. Of course, he gave up three in his first start last year, too, also in Milwaukee, and you see how that turned out.
• Greg Bird managed to salvage a three-strikeout day with a homer off a lefty in the eighth inning, but it was Luke Voit who starred for the Yankees, hitting a three-run homer in the first inning and walking twice. The fact he batted cleanup while Bird hit seventh also gives us a clue where the Yankees stand with the two, and it’s not a great sign for Bird.
• For having maybe the most impressive spring of any top prospect, walking more than he struck out while going 7 for 8 on stolen bases attempts, Victor Robles didn’t get the same attention as Pete Alonso, Fernando Tatis or Eloy Jimenez during the exhibition season, and slotting behind the pitcher in the Nationals batting order isn’t going to accelerate the hype. It’s worth the reminder, though, that no lineup placement is permanent. If Robles continues to demonstrate plus on-base skills, he’ll quickly rise to the top, especially when you consider that the Nationals current leadoff hitter, Adam Eaton, isn’t known for his ability to stay on the field.
• Byron Buxton got a similar vote of no-confidence, batting ninth for the Twins, despite an encouraging spring in which he made contact at a shockingly high rate. Again, if he’s as good as he can be, it won’t last.
• Pete Alonso not only got the start for the Mets but batted second, which newer lineup philosophies suggest is the best place for a team’s best hitter. And though Dominic Smith later replaced him on defense, manager Mickey Callaway revealed in no uncertain terms where the Mets stand on the two:
• Trendy breakout pick Franmil Reyes was in the lineup batting cleanup, which wasn’t so surprising with a left-hander on the hill. What was surprising, though, is that he started in place of Hunter Renfroe, another right-handed slugger. Could it suggest that Reyes is high in the outfield pecking order, perhaps even second behind Wil Myers, regardless of the opposing pitcher’s handedness? Time will tell, but given the upside, you should be eyeing this situation closely.
• The Brewers had a small lead heading into the eighth and ninth innings, and yet they stuck with Mike Moustakas at second base, which suggests they’re more comfortable with his defense there than I would have guessed. I’ll still be surprised if he’s truly an everyday player, but I’ll allow for the possibility.
• Mallex Smith hit only seventh in his season debut, with Dee Gordon dropping to ninth, but they’re both left-handed hitters who were facing Chris Sale. Presumably, at least one of them bats at the top of the lineup against righties, which is critical to their Fantasy potential given that runs is one of the few areas where you can hope for a worthwhile contribution. Of course, as two of the more prolific stolen base sources of the past few years, they’ll matter in Rotisserie leagues either way.
• Joc Pederson claimed the leadoff spot for the Dodgers against a righty and doesn’t look to be giving it up after homering twice. He may not play at all against lefties, though, at which point someone like A.J. Pollock might assume the top spot.
• Not only did Adam Jones homer in his Diamondbacks debut, but he hit leadoff, which is an interesting development given that Steven Souza’s knee injury has opened the door for him to play every day. If it’s every day with the sort of volume expected for a leadoff hitter, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t be relevant in five-outfielder leagues. Ketel Marte could be the one who bats there against righties, though.
• The Athletics acquired Kendrys Morales from the Blue Jays just the day before, so they may not have been able to slot him in the lineup for an afternoon game. But it’s worth noting that, even against right-hander Trevor Cahill, Chad Pinder got the start at second base with Jurickson Profar sliding over to first. Also, on-base specialist Robbie Grossman was in the lineup for the first time after the Athletics faced two left-handers in Japan. He hit leadoff and stole a base.
• Rowdy Tellez returned from the minors to assume the DH role following the Kendrys Morales trade Wednesday. While he may not have demonstrated it consistently in the minors, he has an interesting power profile, having homered four times in 70 at-bats for the big club last season and five times in 50 at-bats this spring, so consider him about on the Ryan O’Hearn level of sleepers.
• The Indians had Leonys Martin batting leadoff, Tyler Naquin batting third, Hanley Ramirez batting fifth, Brad Miller starting at second base and some guy named Eric Stamets starting at shortstop. Kind of puts Jose Berrios‘ gem into perspective, doesn’t it? Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana have Fantasy appeal, of course, but they’re going to have to sustain themselves until Francisco Lindor returns, which could impact their run and RBI totals.
Aces being aces
• Hard-luck loss for Max Scherzer, who had arguably the best pitching line of the day but happened to go against the reigning NL Cy Young winner, Jacob deGrom, who also lived up to the billing. Perhaps it’s confirmation bias, but it feels like an unusual number of aces end up tripping over themselves on opening day. Nice to see two follow the script.
• Were reports of Madison Bumgarner‘s demise greatly exaggerated? Though his velocity — most notably on the pitch that lost the most, the cutter — wasn’t at all improved, the effectiveness was. He coaxed 15 swinging strikes, equaling his season high from a year ago, which is especially noteworthy against a lineup that featured four high-contact bats (Ian Kinsler, Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer and Manuel Margot). It led to nine strikeouts in seven innings, which was actually one more than he had in any start last season. Heavy emphasis on that cutter, seemingly at the expense of his four-seamer, had a role in the performance, which suggests he may have benefited from the element of surprise. More data is needed, as goes without saying.
• Justin Verlander had shied away from his changeup in recent years before bringing it back this spring, and though he threw it only 11 times in a dominant showing Thursday, the Rays whiffed at five of them. As if the 36-year-old ace needed any more weapons.
• In a battle of ace hopefuls, Luis Castillo got the better of Jameson Taillon, leaning as heavily as ever on his first-rate changeup. One possibly encouraging sign is that he appears to have abandoned the two-seamer he introduced last year, which only served to make him more hittable. He still may need some variety, having thrown his breaking ball just 13 percent of the time in this one, but ditching a bad pitch is sort of like adding a good one.
Closer or poser?
• Presumptive closer David Robertson entered in the eighth inning with the Phillies boasting a seven-run lead, which certainly isn’t how you’d normally see a closer used. But he was already warming up when the lead was only three. Seeing as Josh Donaldson, Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna were due up for the Braves, it had the look of a higher-leverage situation than the ninth inning, and that’s a big deal to manager Gabe Kapler. It suggests to me that Robertson is indeed first in the bullpen pecking order but that Seranthony Dominguez will also get his share of saves since there is no true closer.
• Josh Hader recorded the Brewers’ first save sans Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress, but it was of the two-inning variety, which means it’s not something they’ll be asking him to do every day. Junior Guerra, another closer candidate, worked the sixth and seventh innings. I still think the job ultimately goes to Jeffress or Craig Kimbrel, assuming Knebel is out for the year.
• Brad Boxberger recorded a one-out save for the Royals after Wily Peralta, Jake Diekman and Kevin McCarthy all did their best to blow a five-run ninth-inning lead. Manager Ned Yost has been reluctant to declare a closer, but suffice it to say the early favorite is out to an early lead.
• Raisel Iglesias tried to convert a two-inning save but became erratic in the ninth and needed to be bailed out by Amir Garrett and David Hernandez, who ultimately notched the save. It happens. There’s no reason to suspect Iglesias’ job is in danger at this point.
Stolen base escapades
• Trea Turner‘s three stolen bases offered a strong first impression that manager Dave Martinez’s ambitious plans for him may be more than just talk. As I’ve often said, stolen bases are maybe the one area where a player can increase his output simply by deciding to increase his output. Martinez may have said he wants Turner to attempt 70 steals this year, but right now he’s on pace for 70 times 7.
• Adalberto Mondesi reached base twice, on a double and a triple, and it’ll be hard for him to steal 50 bases if he keeps doing that.
• Good to see Whit Merrifield steal two bases, though. Yup, the defending steals champions from each league are showing no letup so far.
• Ronald Acuna stole only two bases in the 42 games in which he didn’t bat leadoff last year. He’s 1 for 1 this year. Manager Brian Snitker said the reigning NL Rookie of the Year is free to run all he wants out of the cleanup spot, which makes sense strategically even if the Braves’ history doesn’t back it up. If current leadoff man Ender Inciarte gets off to his usual slow start, though (and he went 0 for 4 with three strikeouts in this one), Acuna may find himself back in his preferred role soon enough.
Other performances of note
• Javier Baez homered twice and — news flash — may not be a bust this year. Or he may be. Too early to say. But a friendly reminder that, if he isn’t, the warning signs were still there. That caution flag is worth raising when the basis for comparison is a second- or third-round pick. But hey, I was happy to take him in the fourth round in one of my latest drafts. The risks may not be so obvious, but the rewards certainly are.
• Tim Beckham is your major-league home run leader, having added a second and third after hitting one in Japan. Please don’t fall for it. He’s a 29-year-old with a near 30 percent career strikeout rate who slugged .374 for the Orioles last year.
• Kolten Wong would have ranked among the least likely candidates for two home runs on opening day. He hit only one in all of spring training and hasn’t reached double digits in a season since 2015.
• Something is clearly wrong with Justin Turner, who went 0 for 5 on a day when Max Muncy, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger and Austin Barnes each homered once and Joc Pederson and Enrique Hernandez twice. I’m kidding, of course. This one game will have no bearing on whether or not he wins the batting title, which is the sort of hope you can reasonably have for him.
• Among the Dodgers’ abundance of home runs, Enrique Hernandez’s two and Austin Barnes’ one stand out. Hernandez was surprisingly named the starting second baseman at the end of spring training and showed why with these two blasts against right-handed pitchers, who he has historically hit worse than lefties. Barnes, meanwhile, was a popular breakout pick a year ago after showing big OPS potential as Yasmani Grandal‘s backup, but faltered in part because of injuries. Neither figures to play quite every day, but both have more upside than their ownership rates would indicate.
• After hitting a grand slam in what was technically the season opener in Japan, Domingo Santana had another home run and another four RBI in this one. He has already struck out five times in 16 plate appearances, though, so while I wouldn’t suggest he’s not worth the trouble in a five-outfielder league, there are reasons to be wary of the performance.
• In what was the most startling pitching performance of the day, Jordan Zimmermann one-hit the Blue Jays over seven innings, throwing just 70 pitches before exiting. It came on the heels of an impressive spring showing in which he had 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings and seemed to making strides with a changeup … which he threw exactly once in this start. While it may be true he’s healthier now than he has been in years, it’s too many years for you to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially for a start in which he was facing a rebuilding lineup, featured more or less the same arsenal and didn’t miss many bats.
• Jon Lester may have succeeded in a tough pitching environment Tuesday, but it was in spite of stuff that appears to be even more on the decline. He averaged less than 90 mph on his fastball, a drop of nearly two miles per hour from last year’s already diminished velocity. And while I wouldn’t put it past a long-term success like him tweaking his approach to compensate for a decline in skill, he doesn’t seem to have a new trick for missing bats, like the one Cole Hamels unveiled to interrupt a similar decline pattern last year.
• Eric Lauer had a strong showing this spring, but nothing in the arsenal really jumps out at you. The fact he struck out three, generating just five whiffs, against the Giants‘ lineup of bottom feeders puts his six shutout innings in perspective.
• Kyle Freeland, who spent a full season defying the ratios en route to a fourth-place NL Cy Young finish last year, delivered more of the same Thursday, two-hitting the Marlins. But Miami is a much different environment than Colorado and the Marlins lineup a much different caliber than the ones he’ll typically be facing. Status quo, as far as Fantasy goes.
• Julio Teheran fell an inning shy of a quality start, but struck out seven, once again boasting a 25 percent whiff rate on his slider with an uptick in velocity across the board. He’s still a middling pitcher for Fantasy purposes, but he was at his best once his slider turned the corner last year, compiling a 3.68 ERA with nearly a strikeout per inning over his final 15 starts.
• Granted, he was facing the Tigers, but Marcus Stroman looked as good as he did all of spring training, and it’s reasonable to suggest he wasn’t right physically all of last year after rushing back from a shoulder injury in spring training. As one of the game’s best ground-ball generators, he profiles as worthwhile innings eater, even if the WHIP is on the high side and the strikeout rate on the low side.
• Brad Keller offers a similar profile, if without quite the track record of a Stroman, and his seven shutout innings against the White Sox went a long way toward validating his 3.28 ERA over 20 starts last year. But again, you have to expect the WHIP to be a little on the high side and the strikeouts on the low side.
• Maybe it’s just because of a pair of off days during this first turn through the rotation, but Max Fried, the Braves’ presumptive fifth starter, worked an inning of relief for the Braves. We still don’t know that Touki Toussaint won’t take that turn the first time it comes up, but I suspect, given the surplus of options, it’ll be a revolving door all season.
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