Opening Day is baseball fan’s Christmas. Anything is possible. You get the first glimpse at teams and players not knowing what lies ahead. For at least one day a year, every team can trick themselves into thinking they are championship contenders.
It is tempting to jump on early season stats as indicators. In DJ Lemahieu’s breakout season with the Yankees, he was batting ninth in his first game. Sometimes even teams are oblivious to the talent they truly possess.
Unfortunately, the majority of players regress. The noise of small sample sizes is simply overwhelming – but not always. In 2018, Rob Arthur wrote about how a hitter’s maximum exit velocity can indicate if a player will outperform their projections. Billy Hamilton can’t accidentally hit a ball 120+ mph.
Perhaps a similar concept applies to pitching. A change in one’s arsenal is easier to spot than a change in their performance. So without further ado, let us take a look at a few pitchers whose Opening Day outings should raise some eyebrows.
Six one-hit innings on 77 pitches was quite impressive on its own. It is hard to imagine that level of domination is here to stay, but his arsenal changes should provide optimism. His new slider had quite a showing: High usage and plenty of whiffs.
In terms of movement profile, it is a harder-thrown version of his curveball with less drop. Personally, I was hoping it would be more cutterlike but the speed-movement profile is remarkable nonetheless. It really speaks to the types of pitches Glasnow is capable of. Anyone who can throw a 92 mph pitch that moves like this is a freak of nature:
The Rays’ ace has been a monster for a couple of years, just an inefficient monster. In 2020, he struck out a ludicrous 14.3 batters per nine innings while walking 3.5 per nine as well. That worked fine with the depth of the Rays bullpen last year, but things have changed.
Blake Snell is gone. Charlie Morton is gone. Glasnow needs to eat innings. This slider was designed to be thrown for strikes which would go a long way on those days he is struggling to reign in the fastball. If yesterday was any indication, this pitch is a gamechanger. Armed with a secondary he can land in the zone, sky’s the limit for an efficient Glasnow.
Last year, Josh Hader threw a lot more sliders. Strike outs went down, walks went up, ERA went up. 19 innings was a limited sample size, but moving away from his one-of-a-kind fastball did not seem to be working.
In his outing yesterday, vintage Hader struck out the side on eleven pitches – ten being fastballs. The pitch mix change is nice and something to watch going forward, but I would rather discuss his velocity.
Over his career, Hader’s fastball velocity has hovered around 95 mph. Last night, it averaged 98. Sure, pitcher’s feature game-to-game variations in pitch velocity, but last night broke a few career thresholds.
First, that 98 mph average was his single-game high. He may have had some extra adrenaline but this velocity surge is worth noting. Considering how heavily he leans on his fastball, any improvement to the pitch is highly leveraged in its translation to his results.
His fastball was not alone in its velocity increase. The one slider he threw registered at a career high 87.1 mph. The fastball that struck out Arraez? 99.6 mph. Another career high. His outing averages were career highs, with both pitch types he hit career highs. Hader is raising the bar across the board.
Pitchers usually build fastball velocity as the season progresses and he’s doing all this in his first outing. If he stays healthy (*knocks on wood*) we may be seeing more career highs from Hader – not only in velocity, but results as well.
As a Nationals fan it hurts to see him in a Reds jersey, but as a Doolittle fan I love seeing what statcast has to say about the new Doo.
Battling through injuries last year, the former All Star experienced both a drop in fastball velocity and backspin. As I’ve written before, the key to his success is his fastball’s rising effect. The regression of backspin and velocity was a one-two punch killing the effectiveness of his pitch. No increase in offspeed usage could hide the issues he was facing.
After an offseason of working on lower-half mechanics, Doolittle appears to be back on track. He threw a scoreless inning last night with a good mix of fastballs and sliders (by his standards). Like Hader, it is hard to say whether these pitch mix changes are here to stay, but what is more intriguing are the speed-movement profile changes.
His fastball averaged 93 mph – a mark he failed to even touch last year. More importantly, his fastball was rising at its old levels. To a lesser extent, his slider is also sweeping more than ever. It’s not a Diekman-level sweep improvement, but worth noting considering his increased usage.
It may take time to settle into his revitalized mechanics, but he’s got his old stuff back. If he still has his old command, the Reds’ gamble on Doolittle will have been more than worth it.
There were plenty of other pitchers who showed hints in their first outings. Gerrit Cole with low fastballs and high changeups, Aaron Nola’s cutter and straighter curve, Shane Bieber’s abandoning of the low fastball. Those are just some things I will be watching as sample sizes grow.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for these early-season differences. They are not surefire indicators of change, but some just might be the data’s whisper of what is to come.