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  • Our long national nightmare is over. Opening Day is finally here, folks.
By Tom Verducci
March 28, 2019

Opening Day of the 150th season of Major League Baseball is here. It should be a national holiday, though for those of us who love the game we don’t need an official proclamation to regard it as such.

The season is bound to surprise us (see 2018: Braves, A’s, Rays, Brewers, Christian Yelich, Blake Snell, Max Muncy, Kyle Freeland, Miles Mikolas, Shohei Ohtani, et al). Let’s not ruin the serendipity and start picking surprises. Instead, to get you ready for the season, here is what you can expect from 2019:

1. Another class of impact rookie hitters

Until last year, there had never been a season with more than two under-21 players who hit 20 homers. Then last year five youngsters did it: Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Rafael Devers, Juan Soto and Gleyber Torres.

This year the plug-and-play rookies will include Vlad Guerrero Jr., 20, of the Blue Jays; Fernando Tatis Jr., 20, of the Padres; Victor Robles, 21, of the Nationals; Eloy Jiménez, 22, of the White Sox; Brendan Rogers, 22, of the Rockies; Nick Senzel, 23, of the Reds; and Pete Alonso, 24, of the Mets.

Mid-level veterans claim they are getting squeezed economically by owners, but the truth is they are getting squeezed by young players. Clubs are much more willing to trust young players now because young players can produce right away.

From 2010-18, plate appearances for under-25 players increased 32%. Where do you think those at-bats are coming from? Older players. The two biggest seasons in history for most home runs and RBI for under-25 players have each occurred in the past two years.

2. Craig Kimbrel decides a pennant race … eventually

By now he knows he’s not getting Kenley Jansen money and by now he won’t be ready to pitch in April. So how do you make the best of a bad situation? Kimbrel should wait until July to sign. It’s after the draft, so the compensation pick for signing him goes away, he’ll be fresh, he can get himself ready in 3-4 weeks, and every year contending teams are looking for a closer in July.

In this case you can get a Hall of Fame-quality closer without giving up any talent. Kimbrel could get a prorated deal at a high AAV that brings back some of the money he’s lost, and negotiate a one- or two-year player option so he has some security.

“The one move that has made the most sense for months has been Kimbrel to the Red Sox,” one executive said. “And simply the only reason it hasn’t happened is the CBT (Competitive Balance Tax). There’s something not right about that.”

3. A Wild Trade Deadline ... or Not

Remember, no more August waiver trades. July 31 becomes a full stop, the one and only trade deadline. That could force more clubs to make deals rather than punting a few weeks. (Imagine the value of Madison Bumgarner to contenders in July.) But it also could influence teams to stand pat. The Nationals, for instance, thought they were contenders in July last year. Only a few weeks later did they pull the plug and trade Daniel Murphy. You also might see more minor league trades and trades for injured players, so a contender can stock its bench for September.

4. More Sliders

The effect of velocity on depressing offense has been overrated. Over the past four years velocity, use and spin rates of fastballs have remained relatively stable. The big leap in pitching in the Statcast era has been made with sliders.

From 2015-18, slider usage increased 20% while pitchers added 291 rpms to the average slider. The batting average against sliders has dropped from .216 to .209.

I don’t know what’s going on in Detroit, but the Tigers threw way more sliders last year than any other team (26.5%). The Cubs, by far, threw the fewest (7.3%).

5. More four-man outfields

Sluggers such as Joey Gallo and Bryce Harper will see more of them because why defend the infield groundball against many of these guys? Shifts are designed to catch hard-hit balls, not softly hit balls. Gallo had 18 groundball hits the entire 2018 season.

6. More openers

The taboo against openers is fading because the strategy works—maybe not four times through a rotation, but once or twice around it fits. The Yankees’ Chad Green could be the next Ryne Stanek.

7. More souvenirs, fewer balls in play

This is my favorite stat from the 2018 season:

Balls in play (AB – HR – SB + SF): 119,875

Foul balls 125,753

That means when you go to a game you have a better chance of fielding a batted ball than the players on the field. (Disclaimer for the literal-minded: many foul balls don’t make it into the stands, but you get the point.) The average game had 49.3 balls in play (a record low) and 51.7 foul balls.

Pitching, folks, is really, really, really good.


Correa is Back

Carlos Correa left the batting cage after a round of BP recently and immediately checked the video on an iPad on a tripod next to the cage.

“Making sure my load is right,” the Houston Astros shortstop said.

Correa, 24, endured a down season last year while limited by a back injury. He hit .239 in 100 games and slugged .405, a steep decline from .550. Correa said the injury forced him to amend his swing to get through the season.

“I wasn’t able to get my hands back where they should be,” Correa said. “I had to be short to the ball. I was trying to do whatever I could. When I did square up a pitch, it wasn’t 113 [mph exit velocity] like it should be. It wasn’t the same. I’d be like, ‘I got that one’ and it would be a flyball [out]. I’m looking for 113-116.”

Correa is seeing those exit velocities again this year, thanks to a return to full health. The iPad confirmed it: Correa this year is physically able to get his hands back and create a full load and pass at the baseball.

Hitting metrics make obvious what Correa was feeling last year: he simply was unable to hit the ball as hard as usual:

Year Avg. Exit Velocity # of 100+ MPH Contact Pct. of all contact
2017 90.4 106 5.6%
2018 88.2 65 3.4%

The injury-marred season took some buzz away from one of the great young stars in the game. Through age 23 seasons for shortstops, Correa is third all-time in all home runs (behind Alex Rodriguez and Cal Ripken), fourth in RBI (Rodriguez, Arky Vaughn and Travis Jackson) and fourth in WAR (Rodriguez, Vaughn, Ripken).


Hey, Batter-Batter … Swing!

Remember how Ian Happ of the Cubs started last season by hitting the first pitch of the year for a home run in Miami? Here’s my advice for Brandon Nimmo of the Mets when he sees the first pitch from Max Scherzer Thursday in Washington: swing.

And there is data to prove why that’s a good idea.

Phillies hitting coach John Mallee recently had an interesting question for me: “Did you know that the first pitch of the game is about two miles an hour slower? So why not swing at it?”

That sounds like a popular myth, but in today’s game we have actual measurements for just about everything, including the velocity of the first pitch of the game. It turns out Mallee is just about right: the first pitch is 1.1 mph slower than the average fastball (1.2 mph slower for four-seamers).

The average major league fastball last year was 92.8 mph. But the average fastball on the first pitch of the game (both teams) was 91.7 mph. And pitchers throw a fastball on the first pitch 94% of the time.

Most pitchers simply pour a fastball over the heart of the plate to start the game as a matter of routine. And most hitters take it as a matter of routine. That’s a mistake. Cookies should never be wasted.

When hitters do swing at the first pitch of the game they hit .386 with a .753 slugging percentage. Now ask yourself this question if you are leading off the game: why take the first pitch if there’s a 94% chance it’s going to be a fastball—a below-average fastball at that—and you hit almost .400 against it?

Ir reminds me of the story Boston manager Alex Cora told me about getting Mookie Betts to be more aggressive last season. In January, three months before Opening Day, Cora told Betts, “Chris Archer is going to throw you a fastball down the middle on the first pitch of the game and you’re going to swing at it.”

Three months later, Tampa Bay’s SP Archer threw a fastball on the first pitch of the game. It was 93.1 mph—1.5 mph below his average of 94.6. Betts crushed it, only to have Rays CF Kevin Kiermaier make a running catch in centerfield.

Hitters like Betts are learning not to concede hittable fastballs in an age when pitchers are spinning the ball more than ever. So why concede one just because it’s the first pitch of the game?

The best first-pitch, first-inning leadoff hitter last year was Scott Schebler of the Reds. He was 7-for-11 ambushing the first pitch, including two home runs. Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals, otherwise know for patience and long at-bats, was 6-for-10 when he ambushed pitch No. 1.


A New Way to Train

Soft toss is dead, at least in the Minnesota Twins organization. It may be dying everywhere else. The club removed the hitting drill for all of its teams, based on the perfectly sound logic that in games hitters do not see baseballs thrown from that angle—so why practice it?

In soft toss a coach sits or stands behind a screen from close range and underhands a soft “pitch” to the hitter. In game situations the typical pitch is delivered six feet off the ground and arrives on a downward plane. Cage work for Twins hitters now involves tee work, hitting off pitching machines or hitting off coaches throwing overhand.

Similarly, the Phillies have revamped their hitting drills to take “as many competitive swings” as possible, Mallee said. The goal is to recreate game velocity and pitch angles. Philadelphia put a radar gun on the batting practice pitches of its coaches, then did the math to figure out how close from the hitter the coach should stand when throwing BP to best simulate a major league fastball.


End of Camp Notes

— Remember the name Drew Anderson. A former 21st pick, Anderson, who turns 25 this month, is a righthanded pitcher who quietly impressed the Philadelphia staff in camp. Anderson has added a cutter and velocity to his fastball, which has hop at the top of the strike zone. With a standout spring training, he has pitched his way into the team’s plans as starter sooner rather than later. 

— Here’s another name to remember: Willians Astudillo, the utility player for the Twins with freakish bat-to-ball skills. Last year Astudillo saw 299 pitches and swung and missed only 16 times, only three times with two strikes. He’s 5’ 9”, 225 pounds, on his third organization, and has surprising power. Picture Jose Altuve with 60 more pounds. He did not have a good spring training, but his hitting skills are too good for the Twins not to find at-bats for him. “When you look around, you just don’t see many comps, if any, to him,” said Twins president Derek Falvey.

Willie Calhoun was upset not to make the Rangers’ roster. Technology might help him become a better hitter. Watch the Rangers outfielder take batting practice and you see him hit balls to rightfield with hooking action—like a golfer hitting a draw. The Rapsodo device, which measures velocity and spin of the ball off the bat, shows that Calhoun’s hits have too much side spin, which reduces carry as opposed to the preferred north-south backspin. The problem is that Calhoun hits with an over-grip, creating too strong of a top hand—similar to Jason Heyward. Texas hitting coach Luis Ortiz has Calhoun experimenting with an axe-handle bat to weaken his grip.

Yu Darvish tweaked the grip on his splitter and has added a tick to his fastball, giving the Cubs a sign that he can be an impact pitcher after a lost 2018 season. Questions remain about how Darvish responds on the days he doesn’t have his “A” game or when adversity strikes

The Cubs and Red Sox are playing a dangerous game: they’ll need the first two months of the season to see how their bullpens shake out. Both will need some trial-and-error time to lock in on roles. 

— Boston starter Rick Porcello is thrilled about his new changeup. Last season Porcello lost the feel for the pitch in the second half of the season. You can see that in how the spin rate on the pitch went up by almost a hundred rpms after the All-Star break, from 1,733 to 1,814. (Increased spin is bad for a changeup; taking spin off a pitch deadens it to help it sink more.) This spring his throwing partner, Eduardo Rodriguez, showed him his two-seam changeup grip. Porcello switched from his traditional four-seam grip to the two-seam grip. The results have been encouraging. The ball comes out of his hand with very little spin, looking and acting like a splitter.

Bryce Harper has all the makings of a slow start in Philadelphia: late start to spring training, few plate appearances and the pressure of trying to make a big first impression with a new team. The big-ticket item last year, Giancarlo Stanton, hit .227 and slugged .455 in his first 34 games after his trade from the Marlins to the Yankees. After the typical break-in period, Stanton hit .276/.351/.524—right in line with his career slash line of .268/.358/.548. By the way, how long is that 13-year commitment between the Phillies and Harper? Only two outfielders have ever played that long with the Phillies, none in the past 75 years: Chuck Klein (14 years, the last in 1944) and Cy Williams (13, the last in 1930)

— I don’t know how much Pittsburgh shortstop Erik González ever will hit, but I’ll say it again: his hands are among the softest I’ve ever seen among infielders, which makes him the perfect fit for the sinker-loving Pirates. Last year Pittsburgh slipped off their groundball game. They dropped from second to 15th in MLB in getting outs on the ground.

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)