Ahh, Opening Day. There are no two words that are so pure with possibility, so ripe with renewal. No matter the projections or analysis by baseball pundits, everyone is undefeated on this day. Opening Day encapsulates the eternal hope that defines Spring. However, once a few games have been played, this optimism fades and the reality that only a third of teams will play into October sets in. With one week of action in the books, here are my main takeaways from the opening week of the 2017 MLB season.
Pace of Play:
Debates about ways to speed up the pace of play in baseball have dominated the offseason. While commissioner Rob Manfred has shown an eagerness to bring more action to a game that many feel has become too slow for the diminished attention span of modern day sports fans, there is still work to be done.
This season there have been a few new rule changes to the replay system that have brought nothing but positive changes. First, managers only have thirty seconds to decide whether or not they want to challenge a play. So far I am a big fan of this rule. Managers are now forced to make hair trigger decisions on whether or not to challenge based off of one or two replays rather than being allowed to spend several minutes consulting with the video team upstairs. This rule not only speeds up the game, it also rewards teams with managers who are effective communicators and decision makers. A perfect example of this occurred in Thursday’s game between the Giants and Diamondbacks. In the top of the 6th, Brandon Belt was called safe at second on a steal. Upon further review, it appeared that Belt was probably out at second, but the D’Backs felt they did not have conclusive evidence and decided not to challenge it. Belt went on to score on a single to left. New manager Torey Lovullo and his team did not react quickly enough and rightly suffered the consequences. The Diamondbacks went on to win this game handedly, but ineffective communication could prove costly to teams in closer games going forward.
Second, umpires only have two minutes to make a decision on a replay review. Two minutes is plenty of time to make a decision. If an umpire has already seen a play four or five times and cannot make a decision, then the results are inconclusive and the play should remain as it was called on the field. This speeds up the game and prevents excessive deliberation by umpires.
Lastly, pitchers no longer having to throw four balls on intentional walks has been a refreshing rule change, despite it being relatively inconsequential. In the first week, there were 20 intentional walks issued and each time it happened, I was grateful I wouldn’t have to sit through the pitcher lobbing the ball to the catches four times in a row. In a time when we are inundated with news alerts, texts, snapchats, and social media notifications nearly every minute or every day, a dead spot in the action can force viewers to divert their attention elsewhere. The elimination of the traditional intentional walk eliminates that possibility.
Change in Velocity Readings:
Unbeknownst to even the most attentive baseball fan, the MLB decided to change the way in which they recorded velocity readings in MLB parks. In past years, the Pitch Fx system has registered velocity after it had traveled roughly ten feet whereas now Statcast measures velocity right out of the pitcher’s hand. Consequently, velocity readings are roughly .4 mph faster across the league.
This slight uptick in velocity is not a huge deal, but if you have been encouraged by one of your fantasy players reaching the mid-90s for the first time in his career, you are being misled. On the other hand, if you notice a pitcher’s velocity dip in the first few weeks, there is more reason for concern. Other than that, the change in radar readings does not mean much, other than the fact that Aroldis Chapman may just throw 106 mph this year.
The Astros are good, like really good.
Apart from changes to pace of play rules and velocity readings, there were teams making statements to the league in the first week. First impressions are always misleading, but when they confirm our presuppositions, we give them more weight. Therefore, if someone, lets say, picked the Astros to play the Indians in the ALCS (that someone is me), they probably feel pretty good about their predictions thus far.
The Astros took three out of four games from a Mariners team that many believe will content for the AL West division crown. We knew going into the season that the Astros would have one of the best offenses in baseball, but what the ‘Stros are probably most enthusiastic about is the performances from their starting pitchers, particularly Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers. In 13 innings, the duo allowed just one run on just seven hits, dispelling any notion that Houston does not have solid options at the front end of the rotation.
The Astros bullpen was similarly dominant in their first four games. The Astros bullpen surrendered just two runs in 14 ⅔ innings, while striking out nearly two batters per inning. What distinguishes the Astros bullpen from others is multi-inning relievers Michael Feliz and Chris Devenski. Unlike other bullpens who usually employ their 6th best starter as their long reliever, Devenski and Feliz are the rare multi-inning relievers who can both eat innings and dominate. This advantage was on display in Wednesday’s 13 inning thriller when Devenski threw four innings in relief, allowing manager A.J. Hinch to give set-up man Luke Gregerson and closer Ken Giles much needed rest after pitching the previous two nights. Houston’s bullpen is deep, electric and will continue to make opposing hitters uncomfortable into late October.
The Astros have only played four games and I am usually critical of those who overstate the importance of small sample sizes, so my love letter will stop here. But if you are a Houston fan, you should be over the moon with joy. The Astros have no weaknesses and if one does arise, they have the farm system to execute a midsummer blockbuster.