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April 1, 2014

Overthinking It

Takeaways from Opening Day

by Ben Lindbergh

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There are only two possible stories to tell about Opening Day. There’s the boilerplate, “Boy, isn’t it swell to have baseball back” story, which is accurate (It is swell!) but nothing you haven’t heard after every other opener. And then there’s the small sample, confirmation-bias-based conclusion: Team X’s bullpen blew the game, so they’re bound to struggle to hold leads all season; Player Y had a three-hit day, so just as we suspected, he’s bound for a breakout. The fact is that there’s only so much about this season that we weren’t aware of before the first of Monday’s 13 contests kicked off, and we shouldn’t make too much of any occurrence (save for, say, a serious injury) just because five months of baseball withdrawal makes each pitch and swing seem momentous. It’s okay to let it all wash over us for a while, making the occasional mental note about things that could become significant, someday.

This article, then has no narrative. Behold, a bunch of bullet points from opening Day:

  • Tigers shortstop Alex Gonzalez—who made a meh diving play to his left in the seventh, then won the game with a walk-off single—started off on a more negative note when he flubbed a soft grounder in the fourth, prompting one patient, forgiving Tigers fan on my Facebook feed to post, “Alex Gonzalez [expletive] blows.” That statement may well turn out to be true, but it’s worth noting that the grounder he bobbled came off the bat of Norichika Aoki, the reigning king of the reached on error.

    As I noted this winter, Aoki easily leads the majors in reached on errors in his two major-league seasons; if we had added ROE to every hitter’s on-base percentage, Aoki’s OBP would’ve risen 12 points relative to the league. Aoki almost never strikes out, hits a ton of grounders to the left side of the infield, and has the speed to make fielders try to rush. A player with that profile will get more than his fair share of these:

    Aoki went 0-for-5 on Opening Day, but one of those outs is hiding some skill.

  • The first full day of replay went well. There were five reviews (four of them initiated by managers), two of which led to plays being overturned. Both reversed calls were close plays at first in close games: one force play, and one pickoff play. The second play was particularly pivotal, coming in a scoreless game with one out in the 10th. With the Cubs’ Emilio Bonifacio on first, the Pirates’ Bryan Morris threw to Travis Ishikawa at first, who tried a swipe tag. First-base umpire Bob Davidson called him safe, but Clint Hurdle challenged, and the play was rightly overturned.

    That change may have made a major impact. According to our win expectancy tables, a visiting team with a runner on first and one out in a tied game in the 10th (the scenario for the Cubs before the review) wins 51.7 percent of the time. A visiting team with no one on and two outs (the scenario for the Cubs after the safe call was wiped away) in a tied game in the 10th wins 40.2 percent of the time. That’s a significant swing, just from reversing an incorrect call. The Pirates went on to win on a walk-off in the bottom of the inning. Maybe they would have even if Bonifacio had been allowed to remain at first, but now we’ll never have to wonder. Inevitably, replay will inspire some controversy at some point this season, but it would take a whole lot of bad to outweigh the benefits.

  • Obviously, we have only a 14-game sample so far (expanded replay wasn’t available in Australia), but if the fears about challenges running rampant due to skewed incentives were going to be realized, we’d probably know pretty quickly. With only four manager challenges in 14 games, early indications are that skippers aren’t going to be asking for a review whenever a play looks remotely close, egged on by the lack of a penalty associated with failed challenges and the relatively scarcity of actual incorrect calls.

    Maybe what we failed to account for is the ease of determining the wisdom of a challenge before actually having to issue one. The manager has to issue the challenge before the pitcher steps to the rubber and the batter gets in the box (or within 30 seconds, if he wants to challenge a third out call). That leaves him plenty of time. Watch the video of the Bonifacio pickoff play: the play takes place at around the six-second mark, and Hurdle doesn’t emerge from the dugout until around the 29-second mark, after two replays have been shown and one broadcaster has concluded, “Oh, no, he got him.” He has to trot, but he’s already had time to make up his mind. Once he gets to Davidson, he challenges immediately.

    Compare that to Fredi Gonzalez’s approach before the first overturned call, a bang-bang force play involving Ryan Braun:

    Gonzalez dashes out almost immediately, after a signal from Freddie Freeman but before anyone has had time to see the replay. Then he starts stalling, very transparently glancing toward bench coach Carlos Tosca, who’s on the phone in the dugout. Eventually, Tosca gets word and does his best Commodus impression to indicate that the call was incorrect.

    At no point did either manager have to act on a hunch or play the probabilities; both Hurdle and Gonzalez knew, with something close to certainty, that their challenge would be successful. If that’s the norm, we won’t have to sit through as many frivolous challenges as we feared. Clearly, though, the replay relay system won’t always work as well as it did for Hurdle and Gonzalez. Rick Renteria challenged on a force play at first after stalling for time and glancing into the dugout just as Gonzalez did, and that initial call was confirmed.

  • Last year, anecdotal evidence—namely, a handful of teams batting their best hitters second—prompted Sam Miller to investigate whether teams had begun to follow the sabermetric prescription for the type of hitter to stick in that lineup slot (one of the team’s three best batters; better than the guy hitting third) over the old-school baseball understanding (scrappy, slappy, bat-control guy). On the whole, the evidence was inconclusive.

    Yesterday’s evidence suggested that there hasn’t been a seismic shift over the offseason. Only two teams (arguably) had their best hitter batting second: the Angels (Mike Trout) and the A's (Josh Donaldson). Almost a third of teams had a no. 2 hitter whom PECOTA projected to post an on-base percentage under .315.

    Juan Lagares, .286
    Junior Lake, .287
    Kurt Suzuki, .301
    B.J. Upton, .304
    Jimmy Rollins, .306
    Kolten Wong, .309
    Travis Snider, .310
    Brandon Phillips, .311

    No, the difference between a traditional order and an “optimal” one is rarely big enough to make the difference between a playoff appearance and a near-miss, but if teams are going to take the trouble to hire a new kind of coach to make sure they get an extra edge on defense, you wonder how long it’ll be before the manager’s sovereignty over the lineup card starts to slip.

  • Yes, Ryan Braun received a standing ovation from Brewers fans, which might have been mildly surprising if we hadn’t already seen the same reaction whenever Barry Bonds has poked his head out at AT&T Park. Some people with large platforms were outraged that Braun wasn’t publicly pilloried. Others interpreted the warm welcome as evidence that fans don’t care about PED use nearly as much as the shriller members of the media do.

    Either response is a stretch. All we learned on day one of the Braun Reputation Rehabilitation Tour is that Brewers fans aren’t aliens wearing skin suits, like Edgar the Bug from Men in Black. They’re human, and like the humans who root for every other sports team, they’ll forgive almost any infraction committed by a player who’s produced for them in the (recent) past. Like many questionable characters before him, Braun will be beloved at home and booed on the road. It’s the way these things work, and it’s not a larger referendum on How Fans Feel.

  • A few months ago, I tried to debunk the myth that Greg Maddux debuted with an “average arm” and succeeded purely thanks to pinpoint command and a perfect feel for pitching. That belief took root during Maddux’s twilight years, when he lost velocity and looked a little doughy, but as the scouting reports I cited made clear, he had above-average heat as a young pitcher.

    I’ll keep banging that drum, but Greg, that gut you’re growing isn’t making it any easier:

    At this rate, we’re a few years away from hearing that Maddux made the Hall with an average arm and Sidney Ponson’s physique.

  • Cliff Lee’s lackluster win-loss records in a few of his best seasons—14-13 in 2009, 12-9 in 2010, and 6-9 in 2012, when he led the National League with a 7.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 2011 innings—made him something of a focal point of the “kill the win” campaign. It was ironic, then, that Lee went to 1-0 yesterday after allowing eight runs to the Rangers on 11 hits and one walk. Sometimes the universe says it’s sorry.

  • Yesterday, Sam Miller wrote about Mike Trout’s ridiculous line against Felix Hernandez. With his second swing against King Felix last night, Trout went deep, making the head-to-head record even more lopsided. Sam observed that Hernandez had tended to pitch Trout low and away, but in the first faceoff between them on Monday, Felix went sinker in, sinker low and over the middle, and slider in. The slider went a long, long way.

    Hernandez got Trout to fly out in the third and strike out on nine pitches in the fifth, but he didn’t risk showing him a second slider.

  • Official most exciting major leaguer Billy Hamilton raised our hopes even higher during a .327/.381/.527 spring, but he was manhandled on Opening Day, striking out in all four of his plate appearances. To some extent, it’s a reminder that Hamilton isn’t a lock to get on base regularly, but it’s mostly a reminder that Adam Wainwright is really hard to hit. Wainwright got Hamilton looking with a cutter in the first, then swinging with curveballs (two of them in the dirt) in the third, fifth, and seventh. So, now we know Hamilton’s secret: he can’t hit Wainwright’s curveball. Which makes him a lot like, oh, everyone else in the majors.

  • The latest example of Bryce Harper’s aggressive play potentially putting him in danger:

    Please play for two decades, please play for two decades, please play for two decades…

  • Starling Marte (who fell for a deke) and Carlos Gomez each had a pretty terrible TOOTBLAN (and according to the TOOTBLAN tracker, they weren’t alone). Gomez was gunned down on an outfield assist that looked like this:

    It’s a rule on the internet that everything has to be about Yasiel Puig, so: Next time Puig gets overly aggressive and runs into an out, remember that he’s much younger than Marte and Gomez. That sentence has two possible points: first, that Puig (like Marte, but even more so) is still inexperienced and should be expected to screw up, and second, that some guys never stop making baserunning mistakes. As performance flaws go, it’s one of the less crippling ones.

  • If you’d asked me yesterday to name three things capable of killing Toronto in 2014, there’s a good chance that I would’ve listed starting pitching, injuries, and defense (PECOTA projects the Blue Jays to rank 29th in FRAA). We’re one game in, and:

    1) R.A. Dickey, who’s supposed to be the team’s best starting pitcher, walked six in five innings after a spring in which he walked 10 in 14. Dickey hadn’t walked six in a start since September 2011 (although that time, he allowed one run over 7 2/3 frames).

    2) Jose Reyes hit the DL with a hamstring strain for the fourth time. It’s his eighth DL appearance for leg-related reasons, and his ninth DL appearance overall. One more and he gets a free trip to the 15-day.

    3) As for the defense, this happened:

    All of which might mean relatively little. It was just a bad day to be a Blue Jays fan with any degree of self-doubt.

  • If pressed for four things that could kill Toronto, I might’ve mentioned Ryan Goins, who took over for Reyes at short and went 0-for-3. PECOTA projects Goins for a .280 OBP and .228 TAv, which would suggest that he’ll hurt the Jays whenever he plays. But with one February article about how he’d revamped his offensive approach over the winter under the tutelage of new Jays hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, Goins became the latest test case in my lifelong quest to determine how much to believe in mechanical flaw fixers. How he does this season will probably disproportionately (and irrationally) affect whether I believe in the next weak hitter who claims to have discovered what was holding him back.

  • A tip of the cap to Henry Blanco, who retired yesterday and immediately accepted a position as a Diamondbacks coach, belatedly making his headshot match his job. By OPS+ (his was 67), Blanco was the second-worst-hitting catcher since World War II, minimum 3000 plate appearances (ahead of only Mike Matheny,who may have had as many as 25 concussions.) Amazing what being an above-average framer and an above-average blocker with a 43 percent career caught stealing rate can do.

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

Related Content:  Opening Day

13 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

oldbopper

How did I ever live without BP? After watching Carlos Gomez challenge Jack Cust and Ruben Rivera for the top spot on the list of All-Time worst base running plays I came across TOOTBLAN. Upon googling this acronym I almost died laughing. It is a good thing I am retired because I need a couple of hours every day to read the fabulous stuff you guys write.

Apr 01, 2014 09:23 AM
rating: 5
 
hyprvypr

This Billy Hamilton should have spent the ENTIRE Winter working on bunts of all kinds. There's no reason a player with this kind of speed can't simply cause carnage by laying own at least one bunt a game(and show it often).

Apr 01, 2014 09:40 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

That was one of his goals this spring.

Apr 01, 2014 09:43 AM
 
jalee121

SSS aside, this White Sox fan was very pleased with Jose Abreu's at bats yesterday.

Apr 01, 2014 10:16 AM
rating: 1
 
caminante1

It reads that Clint Hurdle requested a replay in the 10th inning. I thought that after the 6th inning, the umpire decides when to have a replay.

Apr 01, 2014 10:45 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

After the sixth, the crew chief can initiate a review, but the manager can still issue a challenge if he has one remaining.

Apr 01, 2014 11:01 AM
 
newsense

"PECOTA projects Goins for a .280 TAv and .228 TAv,"

You might want to check that.

Apr 01, 2014 11:15 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Right, .280 is his projected OBP.

Apr 01, 2014 11:17 AM
 
Eddie

Excellent article. This is why I subscribe.

Apr 01, 2014 12:24 PM
rating: 0
 
DetroitDale

In addition to the "accomplishments" you listed for Alex Gonzalez, he also tripled in Alex Avila to tie the game, setting up his heroic walk-off. This is the kind of thing that got Brandon Inge and Don Kelly a ton more fans and at bats than men of their modest skills should have had. Expect a lot of "clutch" arguments to be made on AGonzo's behalf, even as his average sinks to it's true level.

The "confirmation bias" problem from this game will be that the team's trading of speed for defense was the right move, that they won a game the would have lost because they got a key base hit instead of waiting for homers. It's only one game, and the real problem last year was not the offense, but the bullpen (which didn't get fixed by signing Nathan). The only problem with the offense was not the "clogging of the basepaths" we heard about ad nauseum, it was the outs on the basepaths, running themselves out of innngs, much like Nick Castellanos did when he wasted his leadoff single trying to make double out of it. Killing that rally had as much to do with Gonzo's heroics as Aoki did.

Or maybe I'm just suffering from a different form of confirmation bias :-)

Apr 01, 2014 14:08 PM
rating: 0
 
pft1957

"Rick Renteria challenged on a force play at first after stalling for time and glancing into the dugout just as Gonzalez did, and that initial call was confirmed."

It should not have been though. I mean, when they can't get it right on replay, there is something wrong. I understand a tag play since they can be hard to tell in 2D, but a force out at 1B? Just freeze frame it and you can see he was safe

Apr 01, 2014 23:49 PM
rating: 0
 
gjhardy

Kurt Suzuki drove in all three MIN runs in Game 1 while batting in the second slot. This is probably the worst possible outcome for MIN fans, as it will justify Gardenhire's outdated thinking for about four months, and he will continue to plow empty ABs into a player with a career OPS of .685. It's bad enough that Suzuki is going to get 400 ABs playing ahead of Pinto, who has a much higher ceiling…we think. We may never know.

Gardenhire's decision to bat Suzuki could be one of three things:
1. a subtle request to be fired
2. Gardy telling all the "stats guys" to go screw
3. a cry for help.

Apr 02, 2014 07:54 AM
rating: 0
 
cmyiii

I agree with Eddie: this article is terrific. Almost as good as having seen all the games. Something like this everyday -- or even just once a week -- I is worth the price of admission.

Apr 02, 2014 15:34 PM
rating: 0
 
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