- In the second edition of Nine Innings, we examine the meaning of a few small sample sizes, build the 2018 All-MLB Team and more.
SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT: EVALUATING THE EARLY STORYLINES FROM BASEBALL'S OPENING WEEKEND
By Jon Tayler
Given the six-month marathon that baseball's regular season entails, it's never wise to draw conclusions from just a handful of 162 games. We're not here to hand Adam Eaton the NL MVP and crown Matt Davidson as the 2018 home run king, but there are a few storylines worth exploring after the first weekend of games.
Will Xander Bogaerts insert himself into the AL MVP discussion?
Should the Junior Circuit’s superstars make room for Bogaerts? What’s notable about the Boston shortstop’s blazing hot start isn’t just the numbers—eight hits in 17 at-bats, including five doubles and a homer, though he went 0-for-5 Sunday—but the authority with which he’s stinging the ball. Bogaerts’ contact has been of the loud variety: Five hits have come off the bat at 100 mph-plus, including his home run on Saturday that went out at 105. And that makes sense, given that he’s finally healthy after struggling with hand and wrist injuries last year.
The key will be making the right adjustments at the plate. Bogaerts didn’t swing much in the strike zone (or overall) despite seeing a ton of first-pitch strikes, instead trying to go after outside pitches with middling success. Bogaerts appears to be attacking the zone more in the first week of the season and making more contact there (and outside as well). If he can keep that up, the former top prospect has a chance to turn the hype into a true star season—one worthy of hardware consideration.
Can the Braves keep up their early offensive surge?
Atlanta’s bats made a hash of Philadelphia pitching this weekend, putting up 27 runs against a parade of Triple A arms and the shakier portions of the Phillies’ rotation (not to mention Gabe Kapler's free-jazz style of bullpen management). Those numbers are good for tops in the majors through the first weekend, and while that won’t continue, there’s reason to be optimistic about the Braves’ offense. Atlanta’s numbers last season weren’t special—4.5 runs per game, fifth lowest in the NL, and only 165 homers, third fewest in the majors—but that was with Freddie Freeman missing nearly two months and getting only 57 games from top prospect Ozzie Albies.
A full year from those two will help bolster things, as will a second-year adjustment from Dansby Swanson, who was putrid last season (.232/.312/.324) but is off to a hot start in 2018. Most importantly, super-prospect Ronald Acuña is coming soon, once the Braves are done manipulating his service time to suppress his salary. Atlanta will probably settle closer to the league’s middle than stay near the top, but putting runs on the board should be less of an issue this year than last.
Will the Tigers be baseball's worst team?
The Marlins stole the offseason headlines for their shameless tank, and the Pirates and Rays drew plenty of criticism, too. The Tigers didn’t spend the winter getting rid of their productive veterans, but that’s only because they didn’t have anyone left to trade. After ditching J.D. Martinez and Justin Verlander in July and August, Detroit was horrid, going 6–24 after Sept. 1. Things aren’t going much better in 2018, with the Tigers dropping their first three games to the Pirates. Lowlights so far: Getting a walk-off win overturned by replay; getting no-hit through the first six innings of their second game despite Pittsburgh starter Trevor Williams walking five batters; and giving up 22 runs in their first 31 innings of play.
There are some bright spots amid the gloom, such as Miguel Cabrera (5-for-14) looking like his old self and Michael Fulmer (one run allowed in six innings in his debut) appearing healthy. But the Tigers’ lineup is littered with dead spots, the rotation past Fulmer is a mess, and the bullpen is … well, a Tigers bullpen. Plenty of other teams had some ugly opening weekends, including the winless Reds, Padres and Royals. Detroit, though, might have them all beat, and though the team will stumble into some wins, the early results suggest it’ll be a long year in the Motor City.
HOMER HEADLINES: GIANCARLO STANTON BASHES HIS WAY THROUGH YANKEE DEBUT
By Connor Grossman
Home runs have always been a fixture of baseball, but never more so than they were last season. That's when a record 6,104 round trips were made around the bases, destroying the old record by 411 homers. With the newfound relevance of home runs in mind, we'll aim to provide a weekly overview of relevant home run figures and storylines in Nine Innings.
Totals across the game (through Sunday, April 1)
Home runs: 109
Games played: 50
Home runs per game: 2.18
Total home run pace in 2018: 5,297
Home run record set in 2017: 6,104
Difference in projection: -807
1. Charlie Blackmon, Rockies: 3 HR
1. Matt Davidson, White Sox: 3 HR
3. 16 players tied with two home runs, including Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, and ... Tyler Austin.
1. Nationals: 8 HR
2. White Sox: 7 HR
2. Rockies: 7 HR
2. Twins: 7 HR
Home run of the week
Not only did Stanton do the unthinkable (but completely expected?) in his first at bat as a Yankee, but he rocketed this home run with a faster exit velocity (117.4 mph) than any other ball put into play this season, according to StatCast.
THE BEST THING I SAW LAST WEEK
By Jon Tayler
To hit a home run off Clayton Kershaw is to do the difficult; to homer off Kenley Jansen is to accomplish the damn near impossible. The Dodgers’ ace lefty did give up 23 round-trippers last year, but his career home-run-per-nine rate is a miniscule 0.6. Jansen, meanwhile, is almost impossible to square up: Just five of the 258 batters he faced last year, or a smidge under 2%, were able to take his cutter deep. As you can imagine, both are hard to beat with homers: Since Jansen’s rookie season in 2010, he and Kershaw rank 15th and seventh, respectively, in home-run rate among all pitchers with at least 450 innings pitched.
But that didn’t daunt Joe Panik. On Opening Day, the Giants’ slap-hitting second baseman—who came into the year with only 30 homers in 1,818 career plate appearances, or one every 61 trips to the dish—launched what ended up being a game-winning solo shot off Kershaw at Dodger Stadium. The next night, he pulled the same trick, victimizing Jansen to un-tie a scoreless game in the ninth. In doing so, he became just the eighth player in the last eight years to collect a homer against each pitcher, joining this odd yet august club:
There are some expected names present and some true puzzlers as well, and to that list, you can now add Panik, no one’s idea of a power hitter yet one of the few in the last decade to solve two of the league’s most unhittable pitchers. Panik is a fine player who was an integral part of a World Series champion, and he looks like the result of someone trying to grow a clone of Buster Posey in a lab but getting only 80% of the way there. But you would’ve had a hard time imagining him here, his first two homers of the season coming against that level of dominance. That’s the fun of the game, though: There’s always a chance you get something unexpected, like Joe Panik, the Giants’ giant slayer.
RANK 'EM: ESTABLISHING THE ALL-MLB TEAM ENTERING 2018
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
This week's ranking isn't a traditional one. Using each position's assigned scoring number (1 = pitcher, 2 = catcher, 3 = first base, etc.), the goal for this ranking was to establish the best player at each spot on the diamond as a new season gets underway. The results are sure to be controversial, so feel free to tweet us your 2018 All-MLB Team @SI_MLB.
1. Clayton Kershaw: This depends on what the ranker or viewer considers the key tools to be the “best pitcher.” Is it the ability to dominate a big game? If so, then Madison Bumgarner or Justin Verlander will earn this distinction. Is it which pitcher has the best “stuff” in baseball? If so, then Stephen Strasburg is your man and Yu Darvish isn’t far behind (Lance McCullers is a strong dark horse). But if you think the best pitcher in baseball is a master of his craft—one who attacks hitters differently every time he sees them, who rarely surrenders hard contact and who keeps hitters off-balance whenever they’re in the box—then Clayton Kershaw is the guy.
It’s not just Kershaw’s ability that makes him the best pitcher in the game; it’s his ability to pitch to all quadrants, intelligently approach every hitter and maximize his chance at success in every at-bat. The only pitchers who rival Kershaw in this regard are Felix Hernandez (who is unfortunately declining) and Max Scherzer.
2. Buster Posey: I’d rather put Gary Sanchez here, but Posey remains the elder statesman until at least the end of 2018. His reliability with the bat and intelligence in handling a staff (which Sanchez definitely can’t do right now) gives him an edge over Willson Contreras, too.
3. Joey Votto: It’s hard to not award this to Paul Goldschmidt, but we haven’t seen a hitter of Votto’s brilliance before. The man never pops up. He might be the most intelligent baseball player of the generation.
4. Jose Altuve: Please tell me one thing that he cannot do and then we’ll discuss who could possibly rival him for this spot. Altuve is underrated with the glove and is one of the greatest natural and instinctive hitters that the game has ever seen.
5. Nolan Arenado: If he continues on his current trajectory, he’ll retire as one of the greatest defensive third basemen of all-time along with averaging 30 HRs and hovering around a .300 career batting average. Unlike the Rockies who preceded him, Arenado’s home/road splits aren’t nearly as disparate as those of Todd Helton, Charlie Blackmon and Larry Walker.
6. Carlos Correa: He’s 23 years old and has elite power, defense and ability to hit to all fields. There is no more promising player in the game than Correa, who is the only one who could conceivably approach Mike Trout as the game’s foremost talent.
7. Marcell Ozuna: It’s the shallowest position in baseball, but Ozuna is a five-tool talent worthy of recognition. Now that he’s in St. Louis instead of wasting away in Miami, the Dominican star should have the chance to compete for an MVP award with his blend of power, speed and Gold-Glove defense.
8. Mike Trout: There’s actually nothing that he can’t do. Some have criticized him for a weak throwing arm. They are wrong. Others say he strikes out too much—his strikeout totals have declined every year since 2014. By the time he retires, he could conceivably be the best player in the history of the game. Ignoring him is a grave mistake. Just watch these defensive highlights and then realize Trout, at age 26, has higher career WAR than Joe Mauer, who is a former AL MVP playing in his 15th big league season.
9. Bryce Harper: Mookie Betts is a reasonable choice for this spot because of his defensive value, but Harper remains one of the true game-changers because of his power. Until he learns how to stay healthy for a full season, however, Betts could be more valuable in the long run.
QUICK HITS ON THE NL EAST
By Connor Grossman
1. The Nationals are 3-0 and might never lose a game until the NLDS rolls around. OK, obviously that was a poor attempt at humor, but it's likely going to take a while before Washington truly exposes any glaring cracks in its roster. Adam Eaton has gotten off a roaring 8-for-13 start to the season after playing only 23 games last year.
2. No team emerged with a better run differential from the season's opening weekend than the Braves, who finished a series with the Phillies +15. Atlanta isn't likely to sit in the spotlight for long, so let's savor this moment to peel the curtain back on the team's offensive surge. No player hit more than one home run in the series and by far the top performer was Ryan Flaherty, a 31-year-old infielder who went 7-for-13 against the Phillies with three doubles. He needs one more hit to equal his entire 2017 total.
3. The Mets have an intriguing mix on their roster, one that could flirt with a postseason berth if—and this is a mighty, mighty if—the key contributors can stay healthy. Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard looked solid in their debuts, along with Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Lagares, and newcomer Adrian Gonzalez, all of whom buoyed New York's offense against the Cardinals. Solid start for the Mets.
4. If any team were to go winless in its season-opening series, the Marlins seemed to be a pretty safe bet against the Cubs. Turns out Miami finished its four-game series with the same 2-2 record held by the Yankees, Dodgers, and yes, the Cubs. The Marlins eked out a 17-inning, 2-1 win in the season's second game but looked far more impressive Sunday, blanking Cubs starter Jose Quintana in his 2018 debut, 6-0.
5. The Braves' successes go hand-in-hand with the Phillies' failures. Look no further than first-year manager Gabe Kapler if you're looking to play the blame game, but the manager cannot be entirely to pinned for a getting team outscored 27-12 in three games. Philadelphia's pitchers were far from dominant, not to mention outfielder Pedro Florimon, who had to pitch in Sunday 15-2 shellacking. Kapler's bullpen mismanagement has already come under plenty of fire and will continue to, but perhaps he deserves a little slack in his first week as manager.
ROUNDTABLE: How should players interpret Scott Kingery’s six-year, $24 million deal with the Phillies before making his major league debut? A smart decision by an unproven player to secure life-changing money? An indictment on free agency and the flaws that were exposed this offseason?
Jon Tayler: Using Kingery’s new contract to reflect on free agency can only go so far, given that, at his absolute best, the Phillies’ rookie infielder was still six years away from putting his services up for bidding. For as bad as things were this winter, it’s hard to extrapolate all the way out to 2024 and suggest that things will stay the same. But it certainly counts as a vote of no confidence in the financial system that young players are locked into: six years of servitude, the first two to three of which they earn pennies (anywhere from the major league minimum of $545,000 to about $1 million per season) relative to what they produce. And even in arbitration, a player can still only make so much, especially if he isn’t a superstar.
Kingery has bypassed that entire unpleasant process and secured his financial future, and you can’t blame him for that. What is worth examining—and changing—is the process by which MLB stiffs its best and brightest young players, thus forcing them into a position where the only safe choice is to sacrifice future earning potential for current security.
Connor Grossman: I applaud Kingery for setting himself and his family up for life by taking the safe road. He may very well turn out to be an improved version of Dustin Pedroia, worth hundreds of millions more than he signed for with nothing to do but wait out his contract. Emotions are still high, however, after a contentious offseason between the players and owners, and it's understandable that players may believe the Phillies front office capitalized on free agent anxiety by locking up Kingery for years to come at supposedly a team-friendly price.
Baseball offers no guarantees to most players. If I'm Kingery, take the millions of dollars and worry about the potential for regrets later on. Any regrets will likely mean something good has happened, anyway.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: It's Scott Boras's worst nightmare that players are now inclined to accept these team-friendly deals, but the 2018 offseason is going to alter all contract negotiations until the next round of collective bargaining. For Kingery, who might be the next Ian Kinsler or simply a league-average infielder, to secure his contract of the future is positive for him and the Phillies. It's a worrying omen for other players of his age and statistical profile, though. This offseason taught us that teams will no longer pay for past performance; as a result, teams are going to offer their youngest talent underwhelming team-friendly extensions as scare tactics. The MLBPA has a mess on its hands until the new round of CBA negotiations arrives.
REPLAY PROBABLY SCREWED THIS UP: RELIVING THE DRAMATIC, BIZARRE REVIEW THAT SAW THE TIGERS GO FROM WINNERS, TO MANAGER-LESS, TO LOSERS
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
Ron Gardenhire earned the ignominious, if hilarious, distinction of getting ejected in his first game as the Tigers manager. The veteran manager later joked that he'd try to become the first manager to be ejected in 162 consecutive games. Gardenhire was tossed after Detroit's (initial) game-winning hit was overturned on replay. JaCoby Jones's single to drive in Nick Castellanos was close—he appeared to narrowly avoid a tag from Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli—and Castellanos was ruled safe as the Tigers rushed the field to celebrate. And then came a four-minute review. And then the brain trust in New York overturned the call, which led to Gardenhire rushing the umpiring crew, kicking dirt onto the plate (a strong throwback move) and being ejected.
Gardenhire was right to be furious. The overturned call unnecessarily cost Tigers a victory (they remain winless) and appeared to violate the primary principle of replay review: Anything too close to call is not to be overturned. From every angle, Cervelli never clearly tagged Castellanos (though he possessed the ball before Castellanos touched the plate. Home plate Tony Randazzo called Castellanos safe, and it should have stood. Had Randazzo called him out, that should have stood too. Replay should exist to confirm a correct call or overturn a missed one; anything inconclusive means the original call stand. The most egregious example of replay overreach came during last year's NLDS, when Jose Lobaton's foot may have momentarily skipped off the first-base bag in the eighth inning of a one-run game. Replay review is a positive contribution to today's game, but for a sport that's trying to solve pace of play issues, this kind of extended (and eventually wrong) review is a bigger issue than counting mound visits.
TWEETS OF THE WEEK
Incredibly cool story by the Dodgers and SportsNet LA.
Hear about the incredible story of #Dodgers minor leaguer @alka_SMELTZer who survived cancer at the age of 9 and his special connection with a current Dodger.— SportsNet LA (@SportsNetLA) March 30, 2018
This story & more on an all-new #BackstageDodgers tonight after the post-game show. pic.twitter.com/76ZKaB5xtp
Wondering if Ichiro's still got it? Ichiro's still got it.
The Blue Jays seized the first chance they could to honor the late Roy Halladay and retire his number.
Yankees radio voice John Sterling waited all offseason to unveil this Italian phrase.
Welcome to baseball in 2018.
Still wondering what all the hype was around Shohei Ohtani? Let this tweet be your guide. The Japanese phenom won his major league debut Sunday afternoon against the A's, allowing three runs on a three-run homer over six innings, retiring 15 of the final 16 batters he faced. If Ohtani can harness the raw filth of his repertoire, his ceiling is a much higher than a No. 3 starter.