For the third year in a row, the Yankees won on Opening Day. Remember when they couldn’t seem to win the season opener? That happened for a few years, but not anymore. One down, 59 to go. I hope they sit atop the American League the entire way. The Bombers took a rain-shortened victory over the Nationals on Thursday night, and I have a series of assorted thoughts.
1. I know it’s only a one-game sample, but wow, Giancarlo Stanton had an impressive Opening Day. He hit the first home run of the season with a monstrous 459-foot shot off Max Scherzer—112.2 mph exit velocity!—then picked up an RBI single later in the game.
Stanton’s swing looked a little different, too. For the most part, his stance appeared the same as last year. The only thing I can see is his front shoulder and head look titled forward more this year.
The difference to me, though, is in his follow-through. This year, Stanton appears to finish his swing higher. Consider his swing-path from the home run against Scherzer:
Then compare it to a home run from last season:
I’m not sure if anything’s there, but I’m officially declaring this a development worth watching.
2. Aaron Judge looks locked in and healthy, which is kind of incredible. Think about it for a second. For most of the shutdown, we had no positive injury updates on Judge and his broken rib. The only info that seemed to leak out had to do with the right fielder not swinging a bat yet. He returns healthy for summer camp, then sits out a few days with a stiff neck. It would only seem natural if he had rust to shake off, right?
Wrong. He starts on Opening Day and goes 2-for-3 against Max Scherzer, including an RBI double. I think it’s easy to forget how good Judge is at baseball. A healthy Judge stands out as arguably a top-five player in the league. Injuries robbed him of 110 games between 2018 and 2019, but when he did play, he hit to a 146 wRC+ with 54 home runs. There are few players I would want in a 60-game sprint more than Judge. His performance on Opening Day showed how dangerous he can be when he steps to the plate.
3. Tyler Wade instantly rewarded Aaron Boone for placing him in the lineup over DJ LeMahieu. The second baseman and number-nine hitter led off the third inning with a walk, then ran wild on the basepaths. He scored from first after Judger hit a double. Wade has 93rd percentile sprint spreed, according to Statcast, and it shows.
“I feel like small ball is going to be a big facet in our game,’’ Wade told Pete Caldera earlier this month. I don’t know about the Yankees in general, but for Wade, it could spell success at the major-league level. He event bunted for a hit in the fifth for good measure.
There’s no replacing LeMahieu, of course, but Wade looked more than capable of filling in. In my mind, that’s important because A) it lets the Yankees take their time building up LeMahieu’s endurance, and B) it illustrates how ridiculously deep they run.
4. Gerrit Cole made his Yankees debut, and he looked a little amped up coming out of the gate, didn’t he? He appeared to overthrow his fastball, missing spots and causing Gary Sanchez to stab all over the zone trying to catch the heaters.
In 2019, Cole averaged a 37.2% whiff rate. Last night, his swinging-strike rate was just 14.7%. According to Joel Sherman, the right-hander threw first-pitch strikes to just eight of his first 18 batters. Not ideal, but he still had the raw stuff to neutralize the reigning world champions.
Once Cole settled, after hitting Thames with a pitch to start the second inning, he retired the next ten in a row. All told, the Yankees’ ace allowed one hit, a solo home run to Adam Eaton in the first inning, one walk, and a hit batter. He struck out five Nationals as well.
Cole made it clear that he had a ton of adrenaline flowing leading up to the game. “I’m stoked,” he said to Bryan Hoch yesterday. “I’m already having trouble sleeping, I’m so excited. If that’s what a jittery Cole looks like, then I’ll sign up for that every day of the week. Imagine what happens when he has everything working free and easy. Or faces the Orioles. Or both.
5. I guess we have to talk about Angel Hernandez. The umpire had a brutal time calling the game, so that means the season is underway, right? Hernandez expanded the strike zone roughly two lengths off of the plate on either side.
Sometimes it hurt the Yankees:
Max Scherzer, Painted Changeup.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 24, 2020
Just kidding. Angel's terrible. pic.twitter.com/CN8iWZJCaV
And sometimes it benefitted them:
Ángel Hernández, Everyone.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 23, 2020
Now Baseball is officially back. pic.twitter.com/LzsXfVRnTA
Now, at least 11 umpires opted out of the MLB season because of the coronavirus. The pickings are slim, but you’d think they could do better than Hernandez behind the plate on Opening Day—the first game of the season after four months without baseball. Ah well.
6. In the middle of the game, Major League Baseball announced expanded playoffs for the 2020 season. So much for not stepping on your own moment. The league and Players’ Association agreed to a 16-team postseason across four rounds. Anthony Castrovince breaks down the format:
Wild Card Series (best-of-three, with all games at the higher seed’s home ballpark): No. 1 seed vs. No. 8; No. 2 vs. No. 7; No. 3 vs. No. 6; No. 4 vs. No. 5.
Division Series (best-of-five, with traditional 2-2-1 home/road format): Winner of 1-8 vs. Winner of 4-5; Winner of 2-7 vs. Winner of 3-6. Home-field advantage goes to the higher seed.
League Championship Series (best-of-seven, with traditional 2-3-2 home/road format): Winner of 1-4-5-8 vs. Winner of 2-3-6-7. Home-field advantage goes to the higher seed.
World Series (best-of-seven, with traditional 2-3-2 home/road format): AL champion vs. NL champion. Home-field advantage goes to the team with the superior regular-season record.
For 2020, with a 60-game sprint, I’m okay with the expansion. This works to the benefit of good teams, neutralizing some of the noise of hot starts from otherwise mediocre teams. I am not comfortable with this carrying over in 2021, however, because teams don’t need any further incentive to field non-competitive clubs. Ownership has demonstrated time and time again that they will take any measure to cut cost. The priority isn’t to win, it’s to profit. Let’s hope the expansion is a one-time thing, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
On the bright side, it did give us this exceptional GIF from the announcement:
Strong Palpatine vibes from Rob Manfred. I’m going to get a lot of use of that one.
7. I still can’t shake the Juan Soto positive coronavirus test. Jeff Passan reported that the Nationals’ outfielder contracted COVID-19, and instantly it felt like cloud loomed over the day. MLB couldn’t even start Opening Day without bad news.
Now, as far as MLB protocol is concerned, the Nationals did not need to quarantine until they received negative results, even though they had been in contact with Soto. That’s awfully concerning! It seems like the whole point of contact tracing is to identify individuals who may have been exposed, then isolate them until they test negative. But nope! The Nats fielded their team tonight, and the Yankees seemed okay with it. “No, no hesitation. I think we know what we signed up for,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told Kristie Ackert before the game. “We knew this was going to be a reality on given days.”
Soto apparently is doing okay, and that’s the most important thing here. But this illustrates how tenuous the season is, doesn’t it? These players are putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of our entertainment. Feels weird. I don’t like it.
8. I have to say, once again, I’m so proud of the team for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and taking a knee before the national anthem. The Yankees could have ignored it. They could have stuck to their “we’re the Yankees” position, above the sport, above the outside world position. Instead, they made a statement. I hope they do even more of that in the future.
9. The empty crowd was...fine? I say that so tentatively because I didn’t really notice it. If Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez didn’t keep mentioning it, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. If anything, I thought it was kinda cool hearing Scherzer react to the pitches he threw. Things could have seemed odder, so this counts as a plus.
10. And of course the first Yankees game of the season would get rained out. If that doesn’t perfectly sum up 2020, then I don’t know what does. Interestingly enough, the ESPN booth mentioned a rule change for this season. In previous years, if a game was suspended before the fifth inning, the teams would have to replay it from the beginning. Now, a rain delay at any point up until the fifth inning will force the teams to resume play from where they left out. That sounds logical to me.