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Lessons from Opening Day of the 2017 MLB season

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It’s just one game out of 162, but it can still mean something important, dang it.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Did you enjoy Opening Day*? I’ll bet you did. There’s nothing better than breaking the icy clutches of winter with the magic of Opening Day**, when the sunshine*** streams down on a living ball field and reminds you that, yes, winter always gives way to spring, which gives way to summer, and summer is the cure for everything that ails you****.

* This was not Opening Day. Give me Cincinnati or give me death.

** Baseball doesn’t start on a Sunday, what is this fake Opening Day nonsense?

*** The first game of the year was in a DOME, with absolutely no sunshine, which is some reverse-groundhog witchery, and I’m very mad.

**** There is no cure, I’m so sorry, have some baseball.

And while it’s not like we can make any grand proclamations after one game — only five of the six division winners won their first game last year, after all — that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything on Opening Day.

Here are some lessons about the first day of 2017 baseball, then. Some of the lessons are more important than other lessons, but the most important lesson is that just because one game out of 162 games doesn’t have to mean everything, that doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of meaning.

The new turf at Tropicana Field looks great

Yes, the first pitch of the 2017 season was thrown in a dome, with catwalks and man-made abstractions blocking out our communal source of life, and that was an abomination.

Take a moment to remember what could have been, and what still could be:

Wikipedia

I’m not in favor of oligarchs and obscenely rich people funneling public money into a structure that benefits them disproportionately, but, well, I’m not not in favor of that stadium. As always, the true answer is “Erratic rich person who cares about sports way more than he or she should,” but those are hard to find.

Regardless, that ballpark isn’t coming, so the Rays have to make do. And they did fine. The new turf looks outstanding.

It seemed like it had some life on it, so if you’re in a fantasy league that counts doubles and triples, consider this a hot stock tip. Aesthetically, though, it’s a huge improvement.

Carlos Martinez is not going to be baseball’s most underrated pitcher for long

Over the last two years, among starters with at least 350 innings pitched, here are the leaders in adjusted ERA:

  1. Clayton Kershaw
  2. Jake Arrieta
  3. Zack Greinke
  4. Max Scherzer
  5. Madison Bumgarner
  6. Corey Kluber
  7. Jon Lester
  8. Carlos Martinez
  9. David Price
  10. Johnny Cueto

That’s a collection of Cy Young winners and $25 million pitchers, and right there toward the bottom is Carlos Martinez, who is remarkable and doesn’t get nearly as much attention as he should.

I would show you a video, but this will do just fine.

What you’re looking at is a) the location, b) the chyron in the bottom-right that confirms it was 100 mph, c) the sudden shift of Addison Russell’s hands into bunt mode, which is the fetal position of baseball, and d) the I-just-threw-100-mph strut of Martinez as he walks around the mound. Not pictured: the nasty changeups that set this all up.

I don’t know if Las Vegas gives odds on All-Star Game starters, but I’ll bet you could get 12-to-1 on Martinez right now. After Sunday, that would look like a sweet bet.

The Giants’ bullpen is a, uh, work in progress

On the season finale of Giants Bullpen from last year:

“oh no, f

oh no oh no oh no oh no oh no”

“aieeeeeeeeeeeee”

“oh no no no no no no”

“they brought my childhood pet back to life just to set it on fire, why would they do that”

Then the next season starts, and they’re using the same storyline. Lazy, lazy writers! Let me walk you through this:

Derek Law struck out 50 batters last year and walked nine in 55 innings. He finished the season with a 2.13 ERA and a 2.53 FIP. If the Giants’ bullpen was going to be better this season, Law was going to be a huge part of that.

Mark Melancon has been unimpeachably awesome for four seasons now, one of baseball’s absolute best closers. In his last 290 innings, he’s been good for a 1.80 ERA, 2.25 FIP, and 212 ERA+, with a superb 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

These are the two pitchers who blew saves for the Giants on Sunday.

Neither of them should blow a lot of saves.

They’re probably pretty good, just like they were last year.

The only problem is that it HAPPENED IN THE FIRST GAME OF THE 2017 SEASON, WHEN GIANTS FANS ARE MORE SENSITIVE THAN USUAL. But it’s more than that. Last year, Russell Carleton wrote a brilliant piece about how it’s possible that toxic bullpens are something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once things start going bad, everyone else starts gripping the ball a little tighter, and those borderline pitches start going the other way. It’s a total mess, and it continues to be a total mess.

A new season should be a new start, then. Same pitchers, same arms, just without the stink of unfortunate expectations.

Instead, the Giants have the stink of unfortunate expectations again. Every team will blow a save this year. They’ll all have tough bullpen-induced losses. None of them will do it with the same kind of anti-grace that the Giants showed on Opening Day, though. This was the one team that couldn’t afford the pressure of a blown save on day one, and they got one. Bonus points for getting two in the same game. Extra bonus points for one coming from the new $62 million closer, the guy who represents the entire offseason.

Extra, extra bonus points for blowing the save because you couldn’t retire Jeff Mathis and Daniel Descalso with two outs.

They’re probably not the worst bullpen in baseball. Based on one game, though, they might be the same bullpen. That’s a problem.

Madison Bumgarner is a man-obelisk who should never be thrown a fastball again

Madison Bumgarner was the first pitcher to hit two home runs on Opening Day. Baseball keeps chugging away, but there are still unexpected milestones to make us feel like kids again.

Those were absolutely demolished. Bumgarner sent his respects to the baseballs’ families, but he offers no financial support in their troubling times.

However, at the risk of spoiling one of baseball’s best stories and Bunyanesque myths, allow me to show you Madison Bumgarner against a good breaking ball:

This is not an anomaly. Good pitches will make Bumgarner look like a pitcher, especially the breaking pitches. He’s looking for fastballs down the middle or hanging breaking balls down the middle, and he’s going to swing as hard as he possibly can, just in case someone throws one.

Diamondbacks pitchers threw him two fastballs in the Diamondbacks-uniform of locations. They should not have done that.

It is absolutely sensible to pitch Bumgarner up, in, or outside with fastballs he can’t hit, just like pitchers do with every other slugger in the game. He hit two homers because the Diamondbacks screwed that up, and because he’s better than most pitchers with a bat. Mostly, though, it’s because pitching is hard. Throwing a fastball where a hitter can’t get to it is ... sort of the point.

If it were easy to do, this would be one dull sport.

Pitcher wins are still the very worst statistic

Your winning pitchers on Sunday:

  • Chris Archer (7 IP, 2 ER, 7 H, 1 BB, 5 SO)
  • Fernando Rodney (1 IP, 1 ER, 2 H, 2 BB, 0 SO)
  • Seung-hwan Oh (1⅔ IP, 3 ER, 2 H, 0 BB, 2 SO)

I don’t want to be a zealot about it, but, c’mon. It’s an absolutely awful statistic that doesn’t tell us anything.

I can almost see it for starters. For relievers, though, it is the very worst. Sunday was a great argument why.

Sunday was a great argument for why baseball is good, though. Pitcher dingers. Aces look like aces. Walk-offs, walk-offs, walk-offs.

It wasn’t the real Opening Day, but it’ll do until the real Opening Day gets here. Don’t forget to learn something or ascribe too much meaning to anything you’ve seen. It’s your right as a baseball fan.