Shohei Ohtani, Yermín Mercedes and Annoying Analytics: MLB’s Top Week 1 Storylines
Have we learned nothing from the Blake Snell fiasco?
Though some poor weather and a last-minute COVID-19 outbreak that has prevented the Washington Nationals from starting their season until today put a bit of a damper on Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, the 2021 baseball season is up and running.
MLB’s decision to pull the All-Star Game from Atlanta due to Georgia’s adoption of a controversial voting law is probably the biggest story of the young season, but there have been plenty of other storylines to emerge since pro hardball began last week. Below, the most compelling ones so far.
Shohei Ohtani’s Dazzling Two-Way Play
Though he was forced to leave the game with an injury that appears to be minor, Shohei Ohtani was fantastic on Sunday, when he served as the starting pitcher for the Angels and also hit second in LA’s lineup.
Pitching and hitting in the same game for the first time, Ohtani threw a pitch clocked at nearly 101 MPH and hit a 451-foot first-inning homer that flew off his bat with an exit velocity of 115 MPH.
Although he went hitless for the rest of the game, the 2018 Rookie of the Year pitched two-hit ball into the fifth inning and left the game with seven strikeouts and five walks on 92 pitches.
“I’m glad I got one game like this under my belt, and it’s going to lead to a lot of confidence for me,” Ohtani said through his translator after becoming just the third pitcher in 45 seasons to bat for himself in a game where the designated hitter could have been used.
If Ohtani, who served as the designated hitter in LA’s first three games of the season, can take his regular turn in the rotation and serve as a fixture in the middle of the order for the Angels throughout 2021, he could wind up in the conversation for the AL MVP and Cy Young awards. Though the 26-year-old probably isn’t a serious candidate to win either, making it through a full season as a legit two-way player would be an outstanding accomplishment for the budding star.
As long as he can stay healthy, which clearly is a valid concern, Ohtani should continue to be one of the most electrifying players in baseball and may be able to provide enough of a spark to finally give superstar Mike Trout the help he needs to get the Angels back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. Ohtani is scheduled to make his second start as a pitcher on Sunday versus the Blue Jays.
Yermín Mercedes’s Hot Start at the Dish
Entering the season with just one major league at-bat under his belt, Yermín Mercedes of the Chicago White Sox became the first player since at least 1900 to began the season with eight consecutive hits.
The 28-year-old rookie went 5-for-5 in his first big-league start Friday and followed that up by collecting three straight hits to begin Saturday’s game, including his first homer as a major leaguer.
A catcher, Mercedes added another hit on Sunday night — off of Ohtani — for Chicago and was 9-for-14 on the season entering play on Monday, good for a .643 batting average.
In a similar sizzling start, Cedric Mullins went 9-for-13 at the plate, including a 5-for-5 performance on Sunday, in three wins for the Orioles as Baltimore beat up on the Boston Red Sox by a combined score of 18-5 to open the season.
A 13th-round 2015 draft pick who hit .271 last year for Baltimore, 26-year-old Mullins is batting close to .700 though he has yet to steal a base, hit a home run or collect an RBI.
Even though there’s no way Mullins or Mercedes will keep raking like this, it’s a pleasant surprise to see some small-name players having early-season success at the big-league level. That said, check back in two weeks to see if either player is still hitting above .300.
No One Learned From the Blake Snell Fiasco
In what turned out to be the finale of the 2020 season, Tampa Bay Rays manager pulled Blake Snell in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series with his team leading 1-0 and the top of the Los Angeles Dodgers order coming up.
Even though the 27-year-old former Cy Young winner had already stuck out each of LA’s No. 1, 2 and 3 hitters (Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, and Justin Turner) twice and only give up two hits on a measly 73 pitches during his outing, Cash was sticking to the plan dictated by analytics and not allowing his ace to face the Dodger order for a third time. The decision blew up in Cash’s face as the Dodgers scored almost immediately off Tampa reliever Nick Anderson and the Rays went on to lose the game and the Series to LA.
Though it didn’t result in the same dire consequences, analytics once again reared its ugly head on Saturday night during a classic pitching duel between Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes and Twins righty José Berríos.
With both hurlers blanking the opposition by throwing no-hitters going into the seventh inning, Berrios who had already struck out 12 batters, was pulled by Minnesota because his pitch count had reached 84 and the top of the Brewer lineup was on deck.
Though Burnes was allowed to start the seventh, he was chased from the game after Minnesota’s Byron Buxton opened the inning with a home run. Burnes, who had 11 strikeouts and no walks, had only thrown 87 pitches.
Minnesota went on to take a 2-0 victory after Berrios and the bullpen ultimately combined for a one-hitter so perhaps it isn’t fair to second-guess the decision-making by Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, but it is disappointing statistics broke up what was happening in the first major league game in the modern era in which both starters had at least 10 strikeouts while allowing one hit or fewer.
“I haven’t seen too many games pitched like that through six innings,” Baldelli said afterward. “That was really fun to watch, and I’m just glad we were able to come through with a couple of runs and get the job done. That’s an old-time pitchers’ duel right there.”
It was a duel that would have been allowed to continue were it not for analytics.
The Houston Astros Are Problem-Free
Undefeated to start the season after sweeping a four-game series against Oakland, the Houston Astros appear to have regained the dominant form they displayed in 2017 while winning the World Series.
And, given that MLB is now watching the team’s dugout like a hawk, we have to assume they are doing it without stealing signs.
With a ridiculous +26 run differential after outscoring the A’s 35-9 over the course of four games, the Astros are averaging 8.75 runs per game and are the fourth team in major league history to score eight or more runs in each of its first four games.
Off to their best start since 2001, the Astros appear to have to have embraced the role of villains and played as if they were unfazed by the greeting they received from fans in Oakland.
“You can’t do much better than the start that we had,” said manager Dusty Baker. “You take a quick, fast start anytime. You have to enjoy it while it’s here, try to build off it and keep going from there. We’re leaving out of here mainly feeling good about ourselves with our bullpen strong.”
Believed to be one of baseball’s most complete teams entering the season, Houston certainly appears to be exactly that and should score a ton of runs in 2021 — with or without trash cans.
The Red Sox Look Even Sadder Than Last Year
Winless after getting swept by the Baltimore Orioles in the first three games of the season of Fenway Park, the Boston Red Sox find themselves in the same place they finished last season: the bottom of the standings in the AL East.
One of three teams to start the season winless, along with the Oakland Athletics and Atlanta Braves, the Red Sox scored a total of five runs in their three games against the Orioles and were shut out on Opening Day for the first time since the mid 1970s. In addition to being outscored by the Orioles over the weekend, the Red Sox were outscored by the Boston Bruins, who notched seven goals in a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.
The Orioles were expected to be one of the worst teams in baseball this year, and, though there were some expectations Boston would bounce back after bringing back manager Alex Cora, it appears the Red Sox might be even worse than Baltimore.
Other than the Braves who have scored three times, no team has plated fewer runs than the Red Sox except the Nationals and New York Mets — who didn’t play to start the season due to COVID-19.
During the 0-3 start, the first time since 1948 the Red Sox went winless at Fenway Park to begin the season, Alex Verdugo is 0-for-11, Bobby Dalbec is 0-for-10, Enrique Hernandez is 1-for-10, Xander Bogaerts is 1-for-12 and Rafael Devers is 0-for-6.
“We got beat in every aspect of the game,” Cora said after Sunday’s loss. “We’re off to a rough start.”
That’s an understatement about a team with bad offense, bad pitching and bad defense that has not led at any point this season and is somehow just two seasons removed from winning the 2018 World Series.
(Note: All statistics, standings and streaks are current as of the afternoon of 4/5/2021.)
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