Opening Day: Notes & Impressions in Brief

Aces on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – There are a few teams out there who must be looking at an underwhelming performance from their ace and wondering if it’s just early season shakiness, or a portent of things to come. For the Cubs, the concern is Jon Lester’s by-now-worrying reluctance to throw to bases. He picked up exactly where he left off in last year’s AL Wild Card game. I didn’t really think this was a big deal until I saw Lester field a comebacker on Sunday and not attempt to get the lead runner at 3rd, where he had a clear play – this seemed to telegraph a real lack of confidence to make a strong throw on his part. Apparently, he attempted a single throw to 1st in a spring minor league game, but bounced it, which isn’t exactly encouraging. It’s now at the point where I think the Cubs need to have him throw to first in his next start, just to show that he can still do it; he doesn’t have to have a great move or anything, just get it there on target. The risk is that he’ll throw the ball away, which will only compound the problem. However, if he loses any ability to control baserunners whatsoever, things could get ugly for him out there.

Yankees’ ace Masahiro Tanaka is trying to come back from a partially torn UCL which the team elected to treat through rest & rehab rather than surgery. You can understand the Yankees not being willing to sacrifice an entire year of Tanaka, but the rest & rehab road is always a controversial decision and his Opening Day start against Toronto gave the doubters plenty of ammo. His fastball velocity and command was down, and he deployed the pitch less often. He’s still got his great sinker, his top pitch, but it remains to be seen if that fastball will come back as the year goes on, or if he can learn to be as effective without it.

The reigning king of the disappearing fastball, Jered Weaver, opened his act on the road in Seattle, where he averaged just 84.5 mph. He gave up 4 runs on 8 hits in 6 innings, striking out only 1 while taking the loss. The soft-tosser has been answering questions about his ability to pitch effectively without velocity for years now, so fundamentally, this is nothing new. He has pitched more than well enough over the past few seasons to earn the benefit of the doubt on that count. But we aren’t talking about high-80’s velocity, this is another step down the ladder, to the mid-80’s, and within striking distance of the low-80’s. It could be that Weaver adds velocity as the year goes on, or that he could turn out to be the righty Mark Buerhle, but also, it could be that his Opening Day performance represents the new normal.

Meanwhile, in LA, Clayton Kershaw struck out 9 in 6 innings, but also gave up several hard-hit balls, which means that this is probably the year he finally loses 20 games. The only question left to answer: how in the world will the Dodgers ever be able to get out from under that contract?

There’s Only One Rocktapril – The Rockies have a well-established script by now, and they look to be playing by it already in 2015. A typical Rockies season begins with a barrage of heavy-hitting and a pile of W’s from their first trip around the NL. Troy Tulowitzki is there, Carlos Gonzalez is there, usually a fresh face like a Charlie Blackmon, or a Nolan Arenado, or a Corey Dickerson emerges alongside them and plays like a star. The pitching isn’t as awful as experience might lead you to expect, so after a week or two, you might catch yourself thinking “wow, looks like the Rockies might have something here!” The Blake Street boys clobbered the Brewers 10-0 last night and I gotta say, wow, looks like the Rockies might have something here. But they never do. By the end of the July, half their lineup will be on the DL and they’ll be running out three starters with a 5+ ERA. It’s as inexorable a part of late summer as the shortening day. I want them to finally break through against the dying light, but it’s like hoping for a stalled plane to stay in the air.

The Atlanta Braves, This Could Actually Work – I’ll say this for the new-look Atlanta Braves: it’s gratifying to see a team that knows how to make the most of their minimal talent as opposed to one that habitually makes the least of their maximal talent. That’s still not to say that they’ll be any good, but they might be surprisingly watchable this season. The decimated bullpen actually put on quite a show in holding onto a 1-run lead while facing down a parade of dangerous Marlins hitters; Jim Johnson, in particular, reminded me a lot of that guy who piled up all those saves for the Orioles a couple years ago… but I forget his name, it was something really generic. I’m fascinated by Alberto Callaspo, baseball enigma. He’s one of the few guys in the game with a 90% contact rate in his career. And he’s not a chaser either, he offers at only about 25% of pitches out of the zone – this is a similar batting profile to a guy like Matt Carpenter, who is perhaps the toughest out in baseball. And yet, Callaspo really isn’t much of a hitter. He has a .267 lifetime average and is comically punchless, with a .103 ISO. He’s an exceptional contact hitter, but one who can’t do anything with the ball once he does make contact. He’s also a utility infielder who’s bulky, can’t run, and can’t play defense. All bad players should be so unique.

Bartolo Colon, Baseball Oddity – One of the guys not on the list of aces who struggled on Opening Day is Max Scherzer, who pitched brilliantly against the Mets. He got the loss in that game, but it should be given to Ian Desmond and Dan Uggla together since the pop-up they botched extended the inning and led to the winning runs. But what about the guy he faced off against, who matched his performance every step of the way? Bartolo Colon has been in the league since 1997, had two 200-strikeout seasons as a young flamethrower while walking 90-plus, won a Cy Young in 2005, and now, at an elephantine 41-going-on-42, gets by on little more than exceptional command of a single pitch, a two-seamer averaging about 88 mph. His contract is up after this season, but they way he pitched on Sunday, he looks like he could keep on doing this indefinitely.

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