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March 31, 2011

Overthinking It

Assessing First Impressions

by Ben Lindbergh

Nothing says Opening Day quite like a forecast for 40-degree drizzle, but that's what most of us who aren't smart enough to be Padres fans can look forward to as we head to the park (or the office*) today. (The same goes for a few other scattered souls—like Massachusetts native Marc Normandin—who are smart enough to root for the Padres but not smart enough to live within 3000 miles of San Diego.) Even though Opening Day bunting doesn't inspire the same emotions when viewed through a curtain of freezing rain, a new season's arrival is something to celebrate no matter what the weather (which could always be worse).

We know that today's events have little bearing on the rest of the season. Still, after been deprived of meaningful baseball for so long, it's only natural to be tempted to ascribe undue importance to every early outcome, treating each first game as a microcosm of the upcoming season for the teams and players involved. To help us resist that forward-looking impulse, let's look back at last year's Opening Day activities with an eye toward whether they could have told us anything about what lay in store. In hindsight, Opening Day results can appear either strangely prophetic or unintentionally humorous. Let's look back at the events of April 5th, 2010—the first day on the 2010 schedule with something approaching a full slate of games—and retroactively assess some observations that could have been made at the time, alternating between the spot-on and the off-base.

Hit: The Phillies’ bats and Roy Halladay are a winning combination.

The Phillies thrashed the Nationals 11-1 last Opening Day, as Roy Halladay went seven with nine strikeouts and two walks. All that was left was to rinse and repeat. Six months later, the Phillies had scored the second-most runs in the league en route to winning the NL East, the Nats had scored the third-least on their way to the cellar, and Roy Halladay had earned his first Cy Young Award (though he didn't know it yet). In this case, games 2-162 didn't tell us much we didn't already know.

Miss: Casey Kotchman and the Mariners are offensive juggernauts.

The Mariners scored a respectable five runs in the process of putting down the Athletics last Opening Day, and like many a team, their offensive efforts were spurred by a slugging first baseman, as Kotchman went 2-for-4 with a double, driving in four runs. That didn’t seem like the opening act to a historically awful offensive season, but as it turned out, crooked team totals and multi-hit Kotchman performances would both be in short supply: the M’s went on to score the fewest runs of any squad in a non-strike year since the 1971 Angels and Padres, and Kotchman finished with a line that only a superb defensive shortstop could post without blushing.

Hit: Felix Hernandez should get used to no-decisions.

Okay, so we can salvage at least one observation from that Mariners-A's game that held up over the rest of the season: King Felix failed to get the win, which would become a familiar refrain throughout his Cy Young season. In this instance, he didn't pitch particularly well, qualifying for a quality start but walking six before coming out after 6 2/3. He was far more effective in most of his subsequent outings, but he still won only 38.2% of them. The culprit, of course, was low run support: Hernandez finished with the lowest qualifying run support among AL starters at 3.1 runs per game. His run support on Opening Day? Three runs.

Miss: Josh Johnson can’t get anyone out.

Johnson started off the season with a subpar outing, walking four and allowing four runs over five innings, which left him with a 7.20 ERA. If aliens had been in attendance at Citi Field last Opening Day—which would have been only slightly more difficult to explain than what Jenrry Mejia was doing there—they might have thought they were watching one of the league’s lesser starters. Another 178 innings later, he finished with the NL’s lowest ERA. Then again, I might not be giving the aliens enough credit, since a civilization capable of mastering interstellar travel might not be so prone to drawing conclusions from small sample sizes.

Hit: The Jason Heyward hype should be believed.

Two Opening Days ago, a top Braves outfield prospect—Jordan Schafer—homered in his first major-league game, then spent the remainder of the season failing to meet the expectations generated by that nationally televised tater. Last Opening Day, history repeated itself, but Heyward’s first-at-bat homer didn’t mark the beginning of the end. After a spring spent denting cars in Grapefruit League parking lots, Heyward’s successful debut sent expectations into the stratosphere, and he didn’t disappoint.

Miss: Garrett Jones is for real, after all.

Minor-league journeyman Jones had a shockingly productive rookie campaign in 2009 after spending parts of five seasons at Triple-A. His unlikely performance didn’t make many believers—in Baseball Prospectus 2010, we wrote, “His track record doesn’t suggest he’s a .550 slugger,” which was a nice way of putting it—but after he went deep twice off Vicente Padilla on Opening Day, some nagging doubts could have begun to surface in the minds of Jones deniers. Order was restored shortly thereafter, as the first baseman showed his Quad-A colors by hitting .245/.304/.403 the rest of the way.

Hit: Paul Konerko has plenty left in the tank.

Entering 2010, Konerko appeared to be firmly ensconced in his decline phase, as even the former 40-homer man's 30-homer days seemed behind him. Unfazed by his unfavorable position on the aging curve, Konerko went 1-for-2 with a home run and two walks on Opening Day and kept up the attack on opposing pitchers all season, improbably completing a career year at age 34. Whether or not his contract status had anything to do with his offensive resurgence, Konerko's successful walk year earned him a new three-year pact.

Miss: Joel Zumaya will get through a season without gruesomely injuring himself.

Zumaya got through a scoreless inning last Opening Day, maxing out at 102 mph and vulturing a win in the process. Best of all, he did it without generating another one of our injury database’s more usual entries. He saved that for June 28th, when he fractured his funny bone in a way that left no one laughing.

Hit: There's a new Jered Weaver in town.

Weaver has been a valuable starter since the moment he made the majors, but he took things to a new level last season by dialing up his strikeout rate, which Eric Seidman wrote about at length last July. That strikeout stuff was in evidence as early as Opening Day, when Weaver struck out six Twins in six innings, approximating the 9.4 K/9 he’d finish with after four seasons in which he’d reached no higher than the mid-seven range.

Miss: Kendrys Morales will continue to round the bases without incident after hitting home runs.

Morales made it safely to home plate after going deep off of Jose Mijares on Opening Day in a game the Angels already led by two runs. Despite demonstrating sound base-rounding practices in a low-leverage situation, Morales would crack under the pressure of completing the circuit safely in a tie game in extra innings on May 29th, when he fractured his left leg after hitting a walk-off grand slam against the Mariners.

Hit: Brandon Wood is a bust.

Wood went 0-for-4 with 3 strikeouts on Opening Day, and though he burned through almost 240 more major-league plate appearances before his season came to a merciful end, he never made much more contact than he had on day one.

Miss: The Cardinals are still the class of the NL Central

The 2009 Cardinals won 91 games and finished first in the Central, easily outdistancing the fourth-place Reds. Although Cincinnati entered the season with a bit of buzz, the first matchup between the two seemed to reinforce the status quo, as the Cardinals won handily, beating up on Aaron Harang in support of Chris Carpenter. St. Louis did little to relinquish their crown in direct competition, finishing with a 12-to-6 lead in the season series, but the Reds edged them out by five games in the Central standings nonetheless. If one had had to handicap the respective MVP chances of Joey Votto and Albert Pujols at the end of Opening Day, Pujols would have had a comfortable lead, even based purely on in-season performance: Votto homered in game one, but Pujols went deep twice. Of course, Votto ended up with the hardware, though Prince Albert won the slightly less lucrative (though no less distinguished) NL WARP title.

Enjoy Opening Day, but remember to practice safe prognosticating. Whatever happens before this evening’s final out is recorded, it should be safe to draw at least one conclusion from the day’s activities: since we’re kicking things off earlier than April 5th this time around, we won’t see November baseball.

*I've never understood the widespread attachment to afternoon games on weekdays. I see the appeal of a lazy day at the park filled with friends and cold beverages, but in my experience, work and school make it difficult to follow along with most of these matchups, let alone attend them. At some point during the 2010 playoffs, I was glued to my desk at the office during a day game. A TV behind and above me was showing the game, but I couldn't catch anything without whipping my head around in a violent Mike Fetters-like motion that became painful after an inning. While I was mulling the cosmic unfairness of being called away from my couch in October, a co-worker sitting across from me looked up from his screen long enough to remark, “Man, I love day baseball,” then went right back to staring at spreadsheets instead of the game (in true sabermetric fashion), leaving me to spend a few unproductive minutes wondering why he wouldn't prefer that the players waited until he could actually watch them take the field.

I'm going to chalk this up to a principle perhaps best expressed by Joe Posnanski: “Baseball is absolutely never better in any era than it is when you are 10 years old.” When most of us were 10, more games were on during the day, so maybe it's natural to resist the trend toward primetime viewing. I say bring on the night games, which is (one of the reasons) why I could never be a Cubs fan.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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