Welcome back, baseball. We missed you.
Opening Day 2019 featured 15 games, sunny weather (except in Kansas City), good pitching and plenty of home runs and strikeouts. In other words, baseball in 2019 is going to look a lot like baseball in 2018. There were five shutouts, but despite one-third of the games including a zero, players homered once every 19.9 at-bats -- higher than last year's rate of once every 29.6 at-bats.
Let's take a quick snapshot of each game and ask one big question to take away from it:
What if Jacob deGrom gets better? As expected, deGrom and Max Scherzer, 1-2 in last year's National League Cy Young voting, locked up in a great duel. deGrom fanned 10 in six scoreless innings, and Scherzer struck out 12 and allowed two hits in 7⅔ innings. It was just the second time opposing Opening Day starters both reached 10 strikeouts, matching the feat accomplished by Sam McDowell and Dave McNally in 1970. Scherzer's one mistake: a first-inning changeup that Robinson Cano hit out to left-center in his first at-bat with the Mets, matching the number of home runs hit off Scherzer's changeup in all of 2018.
As for deGrom, he pitched out of a couple of jams. He got Ryan Zimmerman to line out to third with two on in the first and got out of a first-and-third jam in the third by striking out Trea Turner and getting an odd 5-4-2-5 double play courtesy of some bad baserunning from Victor Robles. In the sixth, with Turner on third with one out, deGrom struck out super-sophomore Juan Soto with an unhittable changeup:
The Mets ace now has 25 consecutive quality starts and a record 30 consecutive starts allowing three runs or fewer. While Scherzer will allow some home runs (23 last season), deGrom allowed just 10 in 2018. It's impossible to improve on a 1.70 ERA, but maybe deGrom is capable of the impossible.
What if Luke Voit is actually really good? Voit made his Yankees debut on Aug. 2, and from then to the end of the regular season, only Christian Yelich had a higher OPS. Only one American Leaguer hit more home runs than Voit's 14 in that span. He hit .333. Still, it felt like a Kevin Maas-type run: He couldn't be anywhere near that good, or the Cardinals wouldn't have traded him in the first place. The expectations for 2019 range from platooning with Greg Bird to ... well, maybe there is something more here. Starting at DH and hitting cleanup after a good spring training, Voit came up with two on in the first inning and launched a 428-foot home run off Andrew Cashner, a 112.6 mph rocket to center field:
New season. Same Luke. pic.twitter.com/NlIMOlGY0k— New York Yankees (@Yankees) March 28, 2019
Voit had a perfect day, reaching base in all four plate appearances: the home run, two walks and a hit by pitch. Of course, as one Orioles fan cynic posted on Twitter, "We always knew Luke Voit could hit Triple-A pitching." Tough job these days, rooting for the Orioles. Anyway, the Yankees set a major league record last season with 267 home runs. If Voit is the real deal and ends up winning regular playing time from Bird, and Gary Sanchez bounces back and Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar improve, don't discount the possibility of 300 home runs.
What if Josh Hader is all the Brewers have in the bullpen? The Brewers' bullpen deservedly received a lot of credit for the team's division title last season, as it ranked sixth in the majors in win probability added. However, with Corey Knebel (elbow ligament) and Jeremy Jeffress (shoulder weakness), part of last year's three-headed, late-inning monster, both on the injured list, Craig Counsell used Josh Hader for a six-out save to close a one-run lead. As he was so many times last year, Hader was perfect, retiring all six batters he faced, including four strikeouts. However, he required some help from Lorenzo Cain's dramatic, game-ending catch to rob Jose Martinez:
The Brewers are hoping Jeffress can return sometime in mid-April, but Knebel's status remains up in the air. He is going to decide Friday whether to have Tommy John surgery. With Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff in the rotation to start the season, the bullpen is already thinned from the group we saw last postseason. There were rumors that the Brewers were interested in free agent Craig Kimbrel, and given that the team is obviously in win-now mode, the shaky health of Jeffress and Knebel could bring Kimbrel to Milwaukee.
What if Andrew McCutchen is the best free-agent outfielder the Phillies signed? Give Bryce Harper props: He knows how to win over the fans. Harper made his Phillies debut wearing some glow-in-the-dark, florescent green Phillie Phanatic cleats:
McCutchen proceeded to lead off the bottom of the first with a home run off Julio Teheran, and the Phillies never looked back as Maikel Franco added a three-run homer and Rhys Hoskins put it away with a seventh-inning grand slam. Harper went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts.
Could McCutchen be more valuable than Harper? It's possible. He had the higher WAR in 2018. I love him in the leadoff spot, given his on-base ability. Maybe the bigger point here: The Phillies' season rides not just on Harper putting up MVP numbers but on all the offseason acquisitions putting up numbers. (For the record: I'll take Harper finishing with the higher WAR this year.)
What if the Angels don't have a lineup around Mike Trout? All the preseason talk about the Angels' playoff chances centered around the health of their starting rotation and ultimate effectiveness of their lineup, but it seems that there should be some concern about how many runs the Angels will score. Granted, the lineup on Opening Day was missing Justin Upton and Shohei Ohtani, but we already know Ohtani won't be back until mid-May or so. Plus, even with those two last season, the Angels were eighth in the AL in runs, and only four hitters (Trout, Ohtani, Upton and Andrelton Simmons) had an above-average OPS+.
In the big picture, if the team's run prevention is average, the Angels will need better-than-average offensive production. They will need a bounce-back season from Kole Calhoun, who was hitting leadoff on Thursday after a .283 OBP in 2018. They need a bounce-back from Zack Cozart, who played just 58 games and didn't hit much when he did play. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy had a terrible offensive season with the A's last year. Then there's Albert Pujols, who has a .243/.287/.397 line over two seasons. Does he have anything left?
What if this is the start of something big? I was on San Diego radio on Thursday morning, and enthusiasm for the Padres is sky-high, not just because of the Manny Machado signing but also with Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack making the Opening Day roster. The hosts asked about a potential surprise team in the majors, and I responded -- not just because I was on San Diego radio -- that maybe it's the Padres.
Now, there aren't many teams that fit the "surprise" description because the bad teams in the American League are so bad that it's unlikely one of them turns into a playoff contender. But the Padres? It's a long shot, but young pitching can come in a hurry, and maybe Eric Lauer (six scoreless against the Giants), Joey Lucchesi and Paddack turn into a solid 1-2-3 and the young bats such as Tatis and Franmil Reyes produce some numbers. Wil Myers hit a long home run off Madison Bumgarner on Thursday, but the top highlight for the Padres had to be Tatis' first big league at-bat and the first of his two hits:
What if Jose Berrios makes the leap? Yes, that Cleveland lineup was pretty sad: Tyler Naquin hitting third; Hanley Ramirez, released last season by the Red Sox, hitting fifth; Roberto Perez, a .168 hitter last year, batting seventh; Brad Miller playing second for Jason Kipnis; rookie Eric Stamets, who hit .202 at Triple-A, making his major league debut. That said ... Berrios was awesome. He fanned 10 and allowed two hits in 7⅔ innings and became the first pitcher in Twins history (since the franchise moved to Minnesota) to strike out 10 on Opening Day.
After the game, catcher Jason Castro said it was the best he'd seen Berrios with his changeup. Only one of the 10 strikeouts came on the changeup, but Berrios mixed it in effectively with that wipeout curveball. Batters hit .181 with a .596 OPS against his curve last year and .261 with an .857 OPS against his changeup. If he can have that consistent second off-speed pitch, he's going to improve on his 2018 All-Star campaign, in which he went 12-11 with a 3.84 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 192⅓ innings. If the Twins have a legit ace, that perceived gap between them and the Indians gets even smaller.
What if the Blue Jays can't get anybody on base? I turned this game on when both pitchers had no-hitters going in the fifth inning. Marcus Stroman lost his in the sixth, but Jordan Zimmermann took a perfect game into the seventh, and it was finally broken up on Teoscar Hernandez's two-out infield single on a soft grounder up the middle. It was the longest perfect game bid on Opening Day since Lefty Grove went seven innings in 1940. Anyhoo, Christin Stewart won it with a two-run homer off Daniel Hudson in the top of the 10th:
That Toronto lineup, though ... I have a feeling the Jays aren't going to have a good team OBP, and if you don't have a good team OBP, you're not going to score enough runs, even if you mash a bunch of balls over the fence (which the Blue Jays might do). Leadoff hitter Brandon Drury has a .314 career OBP. No. 2 hitter Randal Grichuk has a .298 career OBP and was .301 last year. No. 3 hitter Hernandez had a .302 OBP last year. No. 5 hitter Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had 59 strikeouts, nine walks and a .309 OBP. These are young veterans but not so young that you project big improvement. Maybe they will improve. You can't always predict baseball.
By the way, this 10-inning game lasted just 2 hours, 25 minutes. The Giants-Padres game lasted just 2:18. Indians-Twins also lasted 2:18. The A's-Angels game also lasted 2:18. It's amazing how much the pace of play picks up when there aren't any baserunners.
What if Justin Verlander never gets old? Before Thursday, there had been just two times when the previous season's Cy Young winner and Cy Young runner-up faced off on Opening Day. We had two more on Thursday! We didn't get a deGrom-Scherzer-like duel in this one, however, as the Astros pounded three home runs off Blake Snell, and Verlander shut down the Rays after Austin Meadows led off with a home run. Verlander went 20 batters before allowing another hit.
Verlander is 36, but there's a reason the Astros just gave him a two-year extension that runs through 2021: He's still a beast. His fastball averaged 94.5 mph, and his fastest pitch of 96.7 came in his final inning of work. But he relies less than ever on velocity, and only 41 of his 102 pitches against the Rays were fastballs. He threw 29 sliders, 20 curveballs and 11 changeups. He induced 23 swing-and-misses, the second-highest total on Opening Day behind Scherzer's 24. He has averaged 211 innings per season in his career, in an age when few pitchers get to 200 innings in any season (only 13 pitchers got there last year). He's great, he's durable, he's a future Hall of Famer. Yes, the Astros might just go places in 2019.
What if Kyle Freeland goes 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA again? You don't want to read too much into a well-pitched game on the road at pitcher-friendly Marlins Park against a Miami lineup that isn't exactly the '27 Yankees (or even the 1990 Yankees). Still, Freeland is a guy everyone projects for a major regression for two reasons: 1. He pitches at Coors Field, and 2.85 ERAs at Coors Field aren't exactly a regular thing. 2. He isn't a big strikeout guy for 2019 baseball.
But you know what? He strikes out enough guys (he ranked 78th in strikeout rate among the 140 pitchers with at least 100 innings last season). He induces soft contact (13th-lowest average exit velocity among those 100-inning pitchers). I think he's going to be good again, and that's one reason I picked the Rockies to win a wild-card spot for the third straight season.
What if the Reds have more depth than we realize? The top five hitters in the Cincinnati lineup went 1-for-18 with two walks, but the bottom of the order picked them up, as Jose Peraza homered, Tucker Barnhart reached twice, Jose Iglesias had two hits, and Derek Dietrich delivered the game's big blow: a pinch-hit, three-run homer off Pirates reliever Richard Rodriguez in the bottom of the seventh:
OK, so that's a classic Great American Ball Park home run. But they all count. With Scooter Gennett injured, Peraza slid over to second, and Iglesias started at shortstop. Dietrich has a career 109 OPS+, so that's a nice bat coming off the bench. Once Nick Senzel reaches the majors from his stint in Triple-A purgatory, this team will have more depth. The Reds even have a new supersub in pitcher/center fielder Michael Lorenzen, who ran for Jesse Winker and stayed in the game as a defensive replacement (he didn't pitch). The Reds will need a lot to go right, but this team is much deeper than it has been in recent seasons -- in the starting rotation and beyond.
What if the Dodgers set a National League record for home runs? Wow. The Dodgers crushed eight home runs, which ties the franchise record for any game (the Shawn Green four-homer game in 2002) and sets an Opening Day record for any team (the old record was six). It was good to see Corey Seager go yard in his first regular-season game since last year's Tommy John surgery, and Joc Pederson and Kiké Hernandez each hit two. Here are all eight:
You might recall that the Dodgers got off to a slow start last year, with a 16-26 record through May 16. Through those 42 games, they hit just .238/.318/.387 with 39 home runs. The rest of the way, they hit .254/.338/.461 with 196 home runs in 121 games. The Dodgers' 235 home runs marked the third-highest total in NL history (the 2000 Astros hit 249). Imagine if the Dodgers slug like this from the get-go. Maybe they didn't need that Bryce Harper guy.
What if Javier Baez doesn't swing at everything? Baez went 2-for-5 with two home runs and four RBIs, as last year's MVP runner-up began his season on a strong note. I'm on the "regression is likely" side of things with Baez, as it seems unlikely that he can hit .290/.326/.554 with 83 extra-base hits, given his approach at the plate (167 K's, 29 walks).
Here's what I mean. I did a quick search on Baseball-Reference.com, looking at all players with at least 500 plate appearances, fewer than 30 walks and at least 125 strikeouts. Baez's .881 OPS was the highest of the group, and only four of the 44 players had an .800 OPS. But Baez also came close in 2017, with a .796 OPS. He's such an outlier that he's hard to compare to other players. The point: Maybe he can repeat last season. Of course, he could improve with better plate discipline, and if that happens, that 2-3-4 of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Baez could be as lethal as any trio in the NL.
What if speed does kill? I don't think the Royals will be that good. I don't think the White Sox will be good. But the Royals are more likely to be interesting than the White Sox, thanks to their speed. We saw some of that on Thursday, as Whit Merrifield stole two bags and Adalberto Mondesi legged out two triples. (Billy Hamilton, alas, went 0-for-4.) In a sense, this team is more 2015 Royals than the actual 2015 Royals were.
What if something isn't right with Chris Sale? You know Red Sox Nation is in full panic mode after the Mariners pounded Sale for seven runs, including three home runs, in three innings (the Mariners hit five in the game). Tim Beckham was 0-for-15 with nine strikeouts against Sale -- and he homered off him twice. Beckham is also the early leader in bat flips:
Sale didn't allow three home runs in a game in all of 2018, and he allowed more than one just once. He did have a four-homer game and a three-homer game in 2017, both in September, when he tired down the stretch. By Game Score, this tied for the sixth-worst start of Sale's career. He has had starts this bad before -- just not very often. Of concern: He averaged 95 mph with his fastball last season but averaged 92.3 on Thursday, maxing out at 94.5. He also lacked command and was giving up rockets left and right. Otherwise ...
As they say, however: It's a long season. Never, ever overreact to Opening Day.