What We Can Learn from the First Game of the Season

A hundred and fifty-four days. That’s how long we’ve been wandering in the wilderness. That’s a long time, and especially so when you remember that the wilderness isn’t acres and acres of trees but basketball and hockey. But now we have found civilization because baseball has returned and we are all happy and excited at the prospect of a new season. The dawn of a new season always brings with it questions. Who will be the best team? Who will be the best player? Who will win in the playoffs? What unlikely events will occur? We don’t know, which is why this is so fun. If you could flip to the back of the book and find the answer, you know you would, and but then, when June and July came around, you’d be forced to find something else to do with your life. It’s like that book that lists all the World Series winners from Back to the Future. Screw that book.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t take guess on how things will go. You know we love to take guesses and you love it when we take guesses. In fact, listen to any sports radio now or read any baseball article on the internet and you’ll find guesses as to what will happen this season. Because people love guesses! Some will be grounded in numerics and hard data; others will be pulled, to put it politely, from the darkest of regions. But all are, at their core, guesses. So let’s do some more guessing.

The first baseball game of the season just took place on Sunday. It featured the Pittsburgh Pirates hosting the St. Louis Cardinals. What can that game teach us about the season that is to come here?

Even More Strikeouts

Strikeouts are going up. We know this. We’ve seen graphs and pie charts and other representational forms of data showing how more and more batters are striking out. What’s more, as was pointed out by Steve Treder at The Hardball Times, this isn’t anything new. What is new is the heights to which strikeouts have ascended. Last season, there were over 15 strikeouts per game played (an average of 7.76 per team times two). That means 28% of the total outs in games during the 2015 season came by strikeout. That’s a lot.

Much has been written about this trend, what to do about it, or if it’s even a problem. Perhaps it’ll eventually even out? Not if the first game of the season had anything to say about it. The Pirates struck out just five times against Cardinal pitching including Adam Wainwright, but the Cardinals made up for it by striking out 15 times against Pirate pitching. That’s a total of 19 strikeouts. Divide that by the 51 outs in the game (the Pirates were leading at home so they didn’t bat in the ninth inning) and we can see that 37% of the outs made in the game came on strikeouts. Of course, one game doesn’t dictate an entire season and the strikeout rate in baseball has taken a dip at times over the decades. But strikeouts. Yeesh.

Injuries Are Important!

In our rush to define the season through projections, predictions, and outright guesses, it’s sometimes forgotten how big an impact injuries can have. Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus did a piece on the bizarre results a season can have when you play it out one million times. The Mets can win 123 games. Or, conversely, the Twins can win just 39, which means they lost 123. How can that happen? A lot of way, probably, but it’s a fair bet that injuries played a key role. One team that seems especially susceptible to injuries — in that they don’t have the wins to lose — is the Cardinals. St. Louis isn’t exactly the healthiest team to start with, but most of their older guys are healthy right now, which makes the fact that Lance Lynn, Jordan Walden, Jhonny Peralta, Brayan Pena, and Ruben Tejada are all on the Disabled List so disconcerting.

Now we can add Tommy Pham to that list. Pham left the game with left oblique tightness and was placed on the DL. The Cardinals are in a precarious spot with regard to their division. The Cubs and Pirates should be in their faces all season long and defending their division title won’t be possible with a cavalcade of DL stints. And yet here we are.

The Cardinals won’t be the only team hit by injuries, but the more beat up they get, the better the position in which the Cubs and Pirates will find themselves. Injuries are an important aspect of the season, and they are somewhat predictable (players who have been hurt are the most likely to be hurt again), but like baseball they aren’t entirely predictable. Sometimes really good players just step on a rake or are taken out by Adrian Beltre. The vagaries of the baseball season are in full effect and right now the Cardinals are in the crosshairs.

Bullpen Power! Bullpen Power?

We’ve made a lot out of the buildup of bullpens this offseason. The Royals, of course, have a pen that can shorten the game, but now so do the Yankees with Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman. The Red Sox are there too if Carson Smith ever gets healthy, as they added him and Craig Kimbrel to a pen already featuring Koji Uehara. Relievers are a precious commodity, it seems, and the first game of the season helps illustrate why. There were five runs scored in the game and… now wait a minute. This doesn’t actually conform to expectations. Of the five runs scored in the game, just two were given up by the bullpens, but those runs were given up in five total innings pitched. The starters pitched 12 innings and gave up three total runs. It’s true the relievers struck out six (and conceded just two walks) in those five innings, while the starters struck out 13 (as compared to eight walks) in 12 innings.

The rise of the bullpens is a story, for sure, but we shouldn’t simply compartmentalize this story and ignore the money spent on starting pitchers, as well. The truth is, teams are going after good pitchers, period. Starters David Price and Zack Greinke both took over $200 million in guaranteed money home. Heck, Mike Leake got $80 million on a five-year contract. It’s not just relievers. You need good starters to win as well, a fact that, hey, the Pirates illustrated when Francisco Liriano out-pitched Adam Wainwright on Sunday. Nice how that came all the way around, huh?

John Jaso’s Hair

Remember in high school, you’d go home for the summer, do a bunch of stuff, then two or three months later you’d come back and your friend would have this crazy new hair style? He’d have a mohawk or his hair would be green with leopard spots. Well, school is in session, you’re back at your locker and look, here comes your friend John Jaso.

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Woah. So, John… uh, how was your summer?

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Totally. Yeah. Like, I did too. It was sweet. So uh, question for you…

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Oh, you gotta go? Right. No, this can totally wait. Sure, no worries. Maybe after fifth period. Catch you later.

/falls over laughing

 





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5 + 15 = 19?