Monday featured, for the first time in 2014, a full slate of meaningful baseball, albeit with a bit of a lull in the late afternoon as the only live game for a stretch had the Rockies and the Marlins. I met a friend at a neighborhood bar a little after 5, and the bar had the game on all of its screens, and after a little conversation I found I was completely hanging on the action. Come August, I probably won’t be watching the Rockies and the Marlins, but this early in the year, everything’s interesting. And while we always know that anything can happen, there’s no cynicism around opening day. By the middle of the year, anything can happen, but we know what’s probably going to happen. In late March and early April, it’s more fun to imagine that baseball’s a big giant toss-up. That Marcell Ozuna looks good. If he hits, and if the Marlins get their pitching…
I don’t remember what most opening days are like, but this one felt like it had an unusual number of anything-can-happens. That is, events that would take one by complete and utter surprise. What are documented below are, I think, the five most outstanding miracles from a long and rejuvenating Monday. From one perspective, this is evidence that the future is a mystery and all a surprise is is a run of good or bad luck. From another, more bummer of a perspective, this is evidence that opening day doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things and come on why are you already projecting Grady Sizemore to be a five-win center fielder? Why are you already freaking out about the 2014 Blue Jays? Be whatever kind of fan you like. Just remember that baseball is a silly game, and you’ll never outsmart it.
The Tigers had a shortstop, in Jose Iglesias. The Tigers still have a shortstop, in Alex Gonzalez. So it wouldn’t be fair to say the Tigers don’t have a shortstop at all. It would, however, be fair to say the Tigers are in a worse situation at shortstop, since Gonzalez is older than ever(!) and he projects to be one of the very worst shortstops in major-league baseball. The Tigers claim to be content with their current setup, but a whole lot of people figure they’re bluffing and that Stephen Drew is an inevitability.
In Gonzalez’s 2014 debut, he played fine defense and he hit a triple, and in the bottom of the ninth he faced Greg Holland, who is one of the unbelievable relievers within that pool of unbelievable relievers who collectively post numbers you can’t even make sense of. Holland last year had the American League’s highest strikeout rate. More than half the time batters swung at his slider, they missed. In the ninth, with one out, runners on the corners, and a tie game, Holland needed a strikeout against Gonzalez. The at-bat ended with a slider, but not in the way that you’d think.
Sure, with the shortstop at normal depth, that’s probably an out, and we don’t care about it. But the shortstop wasn’t at normal depth. Gonzalez wanted to poke a ball through to the outfield. Gonzalez successfully poked a ball through to the outfield. And that’s the story of how Alex Gonzalez has been a Tigers hero at least once in 2014, and the season is one game old. At this point, you project Gonzalez forward the same as you would’ve yesterday. But he already has one walk-off in the bag.
The one thing no one’s ever doubted about Peter Bourjos is his speed. There have, of course, been questions about his durability. There have been questions about his power, and about his approach, and about whether, overall, he’s good enough to be in the lineup every day. But you can’t fake good speed, and Bourjos manages to translate that speed into phenomenal range in the middle of the outfield. Bourjos is one of those defenders who’s not only good, but who’s also a pleasure to watch just play defense. Like, I’d be happy to watch a batting practice with Matt Carpenter at the plate and Bourjos out shagging. I guess you’d have to incentivize Bourjos to give a crap about batting practice. Threaten to brand him with a hot iron! Most would be motivated by the threat of a hot iron. It’s just good baseball-watching to observe Bourjos gliding around his circular defensive empire.
But there are upsides and downsides. The upside is that having great range allows a player to get to more baseballs. The downside is that having great range allows a player to have more opportunities to screw up on TV in front of family and friends and judgmental strangers.
Look at all that ground that Peter Bourjos covered! And for nothing! He should’ve just stood still if he was going to make an ass of himself. This is a little similar to runners left on base as an offense. It’s encouraging to be in the position to leave runners on base. It means you put runners on base. But most people aren’t big fans of wasted opportunities. Some would sooner there just not even be an opportunity.
Featuring: Grady Sizemore, Chris Tillman
Grady Sizemore conditioned us to be skeptical. So did all of the Grady Sizemore-like players before him. We were skeptical about him in 2010. We were skeptical about him in 2011. We were skeptical about him when he signed in 2012, and we were skeptical about him when he signed in 2013. So we were skeptical about him when he signed in 2014, and we were skeptical when early reports were encouraging. We were skeptical when he broke camp on the major-league roster. There’s every reason to remain skeptical of Grady Sizemore. Every reason, that is, except for the part where he is incredibly, naturally talented at the sport that he somehow continues to play despite so many occasions of being derailed.
How one views Grady Sizemore is independent of how one views the Boston Red Sox. Everybody has to be rooting for Grady Sizemore. We’re all pulling for him because of his own story, and we’re all pulling for him because, if Sizemore can make it back, why not Rich Harden? Why not Franklin Gutierrez? Why not the fragile players of the present, and why not the fragile players of the future? Grady Sizemore isn’t Dustin McGowan, but every fan has a McGowan equivalent. And if Sizemore plays well, then everybody wins.
Now that Mariano Rivera has retired, there’s no question in my mind — Cliff Lee has the best command of any pitcher in baseball. No one is more capable of putting the baseball exactly where they want to, so, as an unsurprising consequence, Lee doesn’t walk a lot of batters, preferring instead to keep them off balance and work through quick innings. Lee’s stuff plays up because he’s just constantly on and around the fringes of the strike zone. Against Lee, you have to earn your way on. Last year J.P. Arencibia had a .227 OBP. He was so incapable of walking MLB issued a handicapped placard. As a pitcher, Lee posted one of the lowest walk rates in the league. As a hitter, Arencibia posted one of the lowest walk rates in the league. Monday in Texas, Cliff Lee walked J.P. Arencibia.
I will note that it very nearly didn’t happen:
…but it stands to reason an Arencibia walk against Lee would require certain ingredients. Making things all the more unbelievable is that the plate appearance started with an 0-and-2 count. Last year, Lee had 251 plate appearances that reached an 0-and-2 count, and he gave up four walks. Arencibia had 121 plate appearances that reached an 0-and-2 count, and he drew zero walks. J.P. Arencibia drew a walk against Cliff Lee. And he even spotted him a couple of strikes. It was Lee’s only walk of the game, and 70% of his 101 pitches were strikes.
A lot of the talk is about how Adam Wainwright made Billy Hamilton look terrible. But then, there are plenty of people who expect Billy Hamilton to be terrible, so maybe that’s not the greatest surprise. Arguably a perfect pitcher had a relatively easy time against a mediocre bat still getting accustomed to big-league competition. The greater shock is what Wainwright did to Joey Votto in the bottom of the sixth.
On the first pitch of the half-inning, Votto popped out in foul territory. What you remember is that Votto almost never hits pop-ups. According to his FanGraphs page, he has a dozen infield flies in his whole career. Now, you’ll notice this doesn’t count as one of them. This isn’t an infield fly on Votto’s FanGraphs page, because the ball went a little more than 140 feet. But this is an infield fly on Votto’s Baseball-Reference page, which has a little more generous of a definition. Over there, Votto has 57 career pop flies. So it’s less of an unusual event, but it’s still a highly unusual event, to the extent that Votto actually remembers each of the pop flies he’s hit. Votto is probably stewing about this right now. Being Joey Votto comes with many burdens. It’s also pretty terrific, but right now it’s a little extra terrific being Adam Wainwright.
Monday, there was a whole lot of baseball. Certain predictable things happened, but a number of unpredictable things happened, some of them changing the whole course of the day. It was an odd day of baseball, and one day of more than 200. But a season is just single days linked together, and if one day can go weird, why not two? Why not three? This is the time to believe whatever you want, before the numbers start to keep you in check. So, go nuts. J.P. Arencibia walked against Cliff Lee and Alex Gonzalez beat Greg Holland. All we are here are interpreters of madness.
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