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Three stories to watch ahead of Yankees Opening Day

Here’s what to keep an eye on for Opening Day.

Philadelphia Phillies v New York Yankees Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

After a long winter, the Yankees kick-start the 2019 season in just about 24 hours. Now seems like a good time to pause and think through the various storylines that will be at play in the first game of the year. While there are numerous angles worth following, these three stand out as the most interesting.

Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter and the cold

The weather for first pitch tomorrow seems more fit for football than baseball. With temperatures in the high-40s, players will have to adjust to the elements. Batters will notice a sting in their hands when they make contact, but pitchers stand to lose the most. Research has demonstrated that cold weather has a negative effect on the movement of pitches. That is worth considering for Masahiro Tanaka and his trademark splitter.

In a 2016 piece for FanGraphs, Eno Sarris discovered that the typical splitter in cold weather, defined as below 60 degrees, has a vertical movement of 2.75 inches. By contrast, the pitch had a break of 2.88 inches when the mercury climbed above 60. While .13 of an inch doesn’t sound like a lot, it could prove the difference between a ball falling out of the zone and one served up on a tee.

Over the course of his major league career, Tanaka has gone to his splitter at an average rate of 27.02%. The pitch makes up over a quarter of his usage. While he may have introduced a knuckle-curve this spring, the splitter is his ace pitch. It will be worth watching how it moves tomorrow afternoon in the cold.

Aaron Judge’s two-strike approach

Spring training marks an occasion for players to tinker and experiment with new approaches in a stress-free environment. The results don’t matter, so a pitcher can go out and throw 12 changeups in an inning because he wants to get a feel for the grip. Batters, similarly, can test out mechanical adjustments.

During Grapefruit League play this year, Aaron Judge introduced a two-strike approach where he entirely eliminated his leg kick. Judge shortened up and drove from his hips. “For me, I can always go back to something simple that will produce results,’’ he told Kevin Kernan of the New York Post. “Just be accurate with the barrel. That’s all I want to do.’’

Perhaps the change became so noticeable because Judge started crushing home runs with the swing.

The two-strike swing clearly worked during exhibition games when Judge made a conscious effort to implement it. Will that carry over into the regular season, though? What happens if it’s a close game and Judge finds himself in an 0-2 count? Will he shorten up, or will he go back to what has worked for him? We will have to keep tabs on this not just for Opening Day, but as the season unfolds.

What will the lineup look like?

Last week, reporters asked Aaron Boone if he planned on treating the first two series of the season any differently, considering they feature clubs who are deep into rebuilds. “I hate that,” he declared to Lindsey Adler of The Athletic.

Boone said he won’t alter the team’s preparation, but will he go for the jugular? The first lineup of the season will give us a clue. In particular, I’m looking for two specific decisions that will indicate a no-holds barred lineup.

First, are the Big Three batting together? If not that, are Judge and Giancarlo Stanton hitting back-to-back? For most of the season the three right-handed hitters got split up by a southpaw batter, but it makes too much sense to strike fear into the opposing pitcher. Run Judge, Stanton, and Gary Sanchez out and in that specific order.

Secondly, will Greg Bird and Luke Voit both play in the same lineup? This configuration probably requires Stanton to play left field, while one of Voit or Bird serves as the designated hitter. DJ LeMahieu likely rides the bench in that scenario. If the Yankees want to provide the most firepower, though, then they need the two slugging first basemen to see action.