It’s hard to believe it, but first pitch of Opening Day 2021 is only hours away, weather permitting. No matter how clichéd the phrase, that time flies while one is having fun still rings true, and my first year writing for PSA was truly a blast. When I was brought on, never could I have imagined the strangeness the following year would bring, a form of baseball almost unrecognizable. It feels like only yesterday that spring training began, last week that DJ LeMahieu signed a six-year deal to stay in New York, and not much longer since I joined the amazing staff here.
There is so much to look forward to in the coming year as Yankees fans. As my colleague Jake so appropriately articulated, the massive error bars surrounding this team will make for the most fascinating Yankees season of the current era. The similar probabilities of sky high ceilings and worryingly low floors means we will be on the collective edges of our seats for the next seven-plus months.
But just like the Yankees, we can only make it through this season one game at a time. So in that spirit, I’d like to share the three things I’m watching for in that one game in front of us: Opening Day.
1. Can Giancarlo Stanton continue his streak of monster Opening Day performances in pinstripes?
Giancarlo Stanton exploded onto the Yankees stage - literally - in his first game for the Bombers.
He crushed a pair of homers in his Yankees debut against the Blue Jays on Opening Day 2018. With those two swings, he made us wonder what stratospheric records he might be able to set in his following Yankees career. Unfortunately, injuries have robbed him and us of the opportunity to witness such scenarios so far, but if last postseason and this spring are any indication of the Giancarlo we are going to get in 2021, we could be in for a special ride.
Stanton has a penchant for starting off the season with a bang. In his three years as a Yankee, Big G is six-for-eleven with three home runs, seven RBI, and a ridiculous 1.954 OPS on Opening Day. Stanton has been mashing in camp, to the tune of a .914 OPS, but even more impressive are his 98.3 mph average exit velocity and 21.7 percent barrel rate. The consistency with which he is making quality impact is why I am most encouraged about his prospects today against the Blue Jays and this season.
2. Gerrit Cole’s fastball: better than ever?
We all know Gerrit Cole possesses one of the most dominant fastballs in MLB. But what if I told you it’s the best it has ever been? In the small sample we have from spring training, the Yankees ace looks to have perfected his signature weapon after working in the Gas Station.
As I detailed last season, it took a little while for Cole to get the results he wanted with the four-seamer. And then there was the sticky situation of Cole being named by the Angels’ ex-visiting clubhouse manager in a defamation lawsuit, alleging use of foreign substances. The lawsuit was dismissed in January, and Cole recently assured that he was “not too concerned” about rumors that the league would be cracking down on doctoring baseballs.
From a performance standpoint, it is easy to see the reason for Cole’s lack of worry. The 2585 rpm average spin rate and just over ten inches of vertical drop on his four-seamer would represent career-bests for the flame-throwing righty, about 50 more rpms and roughly an inch more rise relative to his averages over the last two years. I hope to have a more detailed analysis on this later in the year as a greater sample size of data becomes available, but for now let’s see how many Toronto batters he can blow away with the gas.
3. Which version of Hyun Jin Ryu will the Yankees face?
The Blue Jays will attempt to counter the Yankees’ star pitcher with the ace of their own. Hyun Jin Ryu has been one of the more dependable starting pitchers in MLB over the last two years, but for whatever reason, facing the Yankees brings out a polarized set of results. In his three starts agains the bombers in the previous two seasons, Ryu has either been lights-out, or has unleashed the full force of New York’s slugging might.
In his final start of the regular season last year, Ryu twirled a gem, shutting out the Yankees across seven innings, limiting them to just five hits and two walks along with four strikeouts. This start was night and day compared to his previous two outings against the Yankees. Two weeks prior, he gave up five earned runs including a trio of home runs in a five-inning drubbing by the Bombers, but even this pales in comparison to the time they faced off in 2019. Pitching for the Dodgers, he got clubbed for seven earned runs in only 4.1 innings, including dingers by Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, and a grand slam by Didi Gregorius.
Yankees fans will be hoping for an Opening Day performance like the latter two mentioned, rather than their most recent outing against Ryu.