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April 2, 2013

What You Need to Know

An Offensively Good Start

by Daniel Rathman

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The Monday Takeaway
Clayton Kershaw spent the days leading up to yesterday’s season opener discussing an extension with the Dodgers, but the two sides were unable to come to terms, and talks—assuming the lefty enforced his previously announced deadline—were subsequently put on hold. The 25-year-old and his agent, J.D. Smart, may not have made a strong enough case at the negotiating table, but Kershaw let his arm—and bat—do all the talking on Monday afternoon.

For the first six innings, the showdown between the National League West rivals was a scoreless affair. Kershaw and Matt Cain were locked in a compelling duel, with the former flustering nearly all of the Giants’ hitters and the latter masterfully escaping each of the jams thrown his way. But pitching in and out of trouble pushed Cain’s pitch count up to 92 after six innings, and Bruce Bochy elected to pull his starter while Don Mattingly stuck with his. The latter was ultimately rewarded with a four-hit shutout, in which Kershaw needed only two more pitches to record 27 outs than Cain used to log 18.

Of course, when Kershaw stepped into the box against George Kontos to lead off the bottom of the eighth, the score was still 0-0. The greatest threat to Kershaw’s bid for an Opening Day shutout was not his pitch count, but rather his teammates’ inability to push across a run on his behalf.  So, Kershaw took matters into his own hands, becoming the first pitcher since Bob Lemon in 1953 to hit a home run and throw a shutout in his team’s opening game.

The Dodgers plated three more runs before that frame came to an end, but Kershaw hardly needed the help, as he coughed up only a one-out infield single in the top of the ninth. On a day when Chris Sale’s 7 2/3 shutout frames helped the White Sox to a 1-0 squeaker over James Shields and the Royals, and when Bryce Harper’s two home runs accounted for the Nationals’ entire output, Kershaw stole the show.

Along the way, he also became the first pitcher to hit an Opening Day home run since Joe Magrane in 1988, and trimmed his already-historic career ERA against the Giants from 1.37 to 1.28. The opening salvo in the National League Cy Young and MVP races has officially been fired. Kershaw will look to deliver a worthy encore when he gets the ball against the Pirates this weekend. 

Matchup of the Day
R.A. Dickey found a new home in a new division this offseason, but the first batter that he will face in tonight’s season opener versus the Indians is a familiar foe. Barring a lineup stunner from first-year manager Terry Francona, Michael Bourn—who made his way over on a four-year, $48 million deal in free agency—will dig into the box to open tonight’s game, bringing a 9-for-28 (.321/.355/.429) line against Dickey to the plate.

As the Matchup Analysis Tool page linked above shows, Dickey has thrown slightly fewer knuckleballs and slightly more sinkers in his encounters with Bourn than against left-handed batters on the whole, but those rates reversed in their most recent showdowns, and the overall pattern may simply be a small-sample blip. A more intriguing chess match would take place if (or when) Bourn were to reach base. That scenario would pit one of the league’s most prolific base-stealers against a pitcher who excels at preventing runners from swiping an extra 90 feet.

Bourn succeeded on 42 of his 55 stolen-base attempts last year, a 76.3 percent clip, but Dickey (and his Mets catchers) allowed only four combined thefts in his 233 2/3 innings of work. In fact, Dickey’s outstanding pickoff move deterred virtually all of the runners that reached base against him from even trying to steal, as his catchers faced only seven attempts all season. That’s an average of one steal attempt per 33 1/3 innings, or—using Dickey’s average of about seven innings per start—less than one attempt per five starts.

The 30-year-old Bourn, for all of his base-stealing prowess, is among the many speedsters that have chosen to sit tight at first despite abundant opportunities to run with Dickey on the mound. Francona, who played the running game relatively close to the vest during his tenure with the Red Sox, told Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer last week that while speed is one of the Tribe’s greatest assets, he expects his players to use it judiciously. If Bourn (or number-nine hitter Drew Stubbs) finds his way to first base, we could get our first insight into the 2013 Indians’ running (or not) strategy tonight.

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • Only four teams have yet to play their first regular-season games, and—since both of the remaining openers will be played indoors—all of them will shake off the dust before the day is over. The Orioles will kick off their 2013 campaign at Tropicana Field, where the Rays will counter Jason Hammel with David Price, who has not allowed a single home run to any active Baltimore hitter (3:10 p.m. ET). A few hours later, the new-look Indians will battle the new-look Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre, with Justin Masterson toeing the rubber against Dickey (7:07 p.m. ET).
  • If, as Crash Davis told Nuke LaLoosh, ground balls are the most democratic method of retiring opposing batters, then tonight’s Cardinals-Diamondbacks matchup is the Norway of pitching probables. Both Jaime Garcia and Trevor Cahill consistently rank among the top starters in the league when it comes to inducing ground balls, with each annually logging a worm-burner rate well over 50 percent. The one who is better able to keep the ball on the ground may prevail in the hitter-friendly confines of Chase Field, where Diamondbacks leadoff man Gerardo Parra went 4-for-5 with three doubles in the opener on Monday (9:40 p.m. ET).
  • Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu is tasked with a near-impossible assignment in game two of the Dodgers’ series against the Giants: He is taking the place of Zack Greinke, who is on the disabled list with a minor elbow ailment, and must follow in the footsteps of Kershaw, who did virtually all of the work in the first eight innings of Monday’s win. The 26-year-old southpaw’s conditioning came under fire early in camp, but he could silence any lingering critics by outdueling Madison Bumgarner to clinch a series win for Los Angeles this evening (10:10 p.m. ET).

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

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