Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/1/13
Sunday was the beginning of the 2013 MLB regular season, and it kicked off with a bang, as the Astros bombed the Rangers and we all learned a lesson about the real value of a one-game playoff. Not like the stakes were the same, so the game was managed differently from how it could’ve been, but in any one given game, a team like the Houston Astros can beat a team unlike the Houston Astros. Of course, it should be noted that the difference between the Astros and the best team in baseball might be like the difference between a city’s best restaurant and a city’s 29th or 30th best restaurant. That 29th or 30th best restaurant is probably still a very good restaurant! It’s just outclassed relative to the elite. It still beats the hell out of Hardee’s. Monday is more of a baseball extravaganza, with several games on the schedule, none of which involve the Astros. Monday feels more like a true opening day, and below, I’ve assembled some quick thoughts based on some of the early games. I didn’t watch a single inning from spring training so, for me personally, baseball couldn’t feel more fresh. It will feel like this for the rest of the day, and then tomorrow, it will feel like baseball as usual. Savor the feeling of today, or tomorrow. The Red Sox are shifty Behold, an infield defensive shift: There was an article some weeks back talking about how the Red Sox are going to utilize a lot more defensive shifts this season, now that they’re under new on-field management. John Farrell, of course, was the manager in Toronto, where he utilized a lot of defensive shifts. So we already knew the Red Sox were going to be shifty, but just in case you thought they were full of crap for some reason, above there is proof they weren’t lying to the media. That’s Will Middlebrooks, essentially playing shortstop. Will Middlebrooks isn’t a shortstop! Intuitively, shifting is smart. Intuitively, shifting should be obvious. By the numbers, it’s not quite that easy to demonstrate its effectiveness, but it still strikes me as being worthwhile so this is going to be fun to monitor over the course of the season. And then, come season’s end, we can confidently assert that we don’t have a sufficient sample size to draw meaningful conclusions. Baseball! The Nationals have defense The Nationals played the Marlins, and the Nationals started Stephen Strasburg. So of course the Marlins got shut out on opening day. The Marlins are terrible and the Nationals are not and Stephen Strasburg is not. But here’s how close the Marlins came to taking a very early lead: It’s a great diving stop by Ryan Zimmerman, with a runner on third base. Zimmerman then makes a weird throw over to first, where Adam LaRoche digs the ball out of the dirt. Nobody here needs to be told that defense is significant, but in this instance good defense quite literally saved the Nationals at least one run. The Marlins were this close to jumping out in front of Stephen Strasburg. Bryce Harper‘s hot zone Bryce Harper is a superstar at 20 years old. Before a lively home audience, Harper knocked two dingers on opening day, providing all of the Nationals’ offense. Following the second one, Harper gave a curtain call. The first dinger came against a breaking ball, in this location: The second dinger came against a breaking ball, in this location: You don’t ever want to miss your spot against Bryce Harper, if you’re a pitcher. But you especially don’t want to miss your spot there, against Bryce Harper. Harper will beat the crap out of you, or at least out of the baseball you released. Bryce Harper isn’t that kind of abusive. Kicking off with Chris Denorfia Early Monday, the Padres played against the Mets. Jon Niese got the start for New York, and leading off for San Diego was Chris Denorfia. Niese’s first pitch was a fastball roughly down the middle, and Denorfia swung and singled into left. As we discussed not long ago, it’s uncommon for a batter to swing at a first pitch, or at a season’s first pitch. Denorfia didn’t care, or he specifically took advantage of that trend, and the maneuver paid immediate dividends. Niese’s second pitch, incidentally, was bunted fair. Both of Jon Niese’s first two pitches of the 2013 season were put in play. CC Sabathia is to be monitored Sabathia is coming off elbow surgery, and he didn’t have a full, complete spring. Still, he drew the nod for opening day in The Stadium against the Red Sox, and Sabathia twice threw pitches that PITCHf/x considered to be 92 miles per hour. One was 91.7, and one was 91.5. Those were Sabathia’s fastest pitches, as his fastball hovered around 88-90. A year ago, in the first inning of his first start, Sabathia topped out near 95 miles per hour. It is entirely too early to say it’s time to panic about CC Sabathia. Sabathia, given his track record, has probably earned the benefit of the doubt. But it’s not too early to say Sabathia should be monitored going forward. This is, for the analytical writer, a sort of cop-out line that doesn’t mean anything. It’s the only option in between “worry” and “don’t worry”. With Sabathia, for now, do something in between those two things. Jackie Bradley Jr. is super disciplined, or not Making his major-league debut in New York against an established southpaw ace, the odds were against Jackie Bradley Jr., but at this writing he’s already drawn two walks. The first included this two-strike pitch, which took some real discipline to lay off: Bradley laid off another quality slider later in the plate appearance. It was an impressive appearance. Then later on Bradley struck out swinging at this: What do we know for sure about Jackie Bradley Jr., now? He won’t swing at every pitch out of the zone, and he won’t not swing at any pitches out of the zone. He will chase some percentage of the time, just like every baseball player ever. Bradley, last year, had as many walks as strikeouts in the minors, but then he had 14 more strikeouts than walks in Double-A so this, too, will just have to be monitored. One can be forgiven for chasing against CC Sabathia. Giancarlo Stanton is to be monitored We’ve never been able to find much of anything with regard to the effects of lineup protection. We don’t know how it might show up in the numbers. On opening day, in Washington, the Marlins had Giancarlo Stanton batting third, and Placido Polanco batting fourth. We might be able to see something in the numbers, because it’s hard to imagine a hitter being less protected than that. Stanton is elite, and most of the rest of the Marlins are pretty bad, especially with Logan Morrison on the disabled list. It’s going to be interesting to see how Stanton is pitched to for the next while. On the other hand, here’s his first at-bat against Strasburg: With a runner in scoring position, Stanton was given a mashable fastball, as much as any Strasburg fastball can be a mashable fastball. Based on the Polanco thing, you’d think Stanton would’ve been pitched around. Strasburg came right after him and Stanton nearly took him deep. So one way or another, this will be interesting. It won’t prove anything conclusively, but if Stanton excels with no one behind him, that’s going to be some compelling evidence. Because there won’t be anyone behind him.
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