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Three Statcast takeaways from Opening Day

What can we glean from a one-game sample?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at St. Louis Cardinals
Giancarlo Stanton takes a swing during spring training. His ability to stay on the field this year will be crucial to the Yankees’ success.
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees won handily, 5-0, on Opening Day. For a pitching staff beleaguered by spring injuries, a lot went right: a sharp three innings from the bullpen sealed the win for the club’s sole remaining ace, Gerrit Cole, who struck out 11 in six shutout. On the offensive side, hitters chipped in up and down the lineup, and the loudest contribution came from newly-minted captain and $360 million man Aaron Judge, who homered to straightaway center.

If you’re anything like me, you spent all offseason prognosticating about the season to come. So, while I feel pretty good about how the Yankees performed in their first game of the regular season, it’s not going to immediately nullify all of my preseason expectations. However, if anything from one game were to move the needle, it would be the metrics underlying the club’s performance. Let’s look under the hood, focusing on three numbers in particular.

Giancarlo Stanton’s Max Exit Velocity: 113.2 mph

Stanton started off last season on a tear, with a 141 wRC+ through the end of June. Had the season ended there, that mark would’ve been his second-best as a Yankee (behind only a 23-game 2020 showing). However, he started dealing with a bout of Achilles tendinitis right around that time, limping through July before taking most of August off. Even after returning, he was a shell of himself, mustering just an 83 wRC+ over his last 124 regular season plate appearances.

The dropoff was especially pronounced in his exit velocity numbers. This isn’t surprising given the injuries to his stride leg, which typically generates the force necessary for Stanton’s trademark rotational power. Before July, across 157 batted balls, Stanton’s median exit velocity was 98.2. Among those 157 batted balls, 28 were hit harder than 113.2 mph. After July began, Stanton’s median exit velo was 96.5 (including the playoffs). Among 130 batted balls, he hit just 12 harder than 113.2 mph.

So his 113.2 mph groundball single today — despite its less-than-ideal launch angle, it was easily the hardest-hit ball in the game — was a great sign that Stanton is healthy and ready to rebound.

Gerrit Cole’s Average Four-Seam Velocity: 97 mph

Gerrit Cole was great, generating whiffs on 17.9 percent of his pitches en route to striking out 11. But allow me to nitpick. His average velo of 97 mph was lower than we’re accustomed to seeing — he averaged less in only two of his 33 regular season starts last year. The whiffs were reassuring, as he only averaged swinging strikes on 14.3 percent of his pitches last year, but if his velocity is truly on the decline, that could spell trouble going forward.

At the same time, Cole topped out at 99.5, rearing back when he needed to in a tough at bat against Mike Yastrzemski in the fourth inning. His next-speediest pitch was at 98.3, over a full mph slower, which indicates to me that he was holding back a little; maybe he’s just keeping something in the tank for the stretch run this year. Still, Cole’s velocity is something to keep an eye on as he enters his age-32 season. Ron Marinaccio also threw slower, averaging more than a tick below last year’s numbers, but he had a late start to the spring and performed well on Opening Day regardless.

Aaron Judge’s Home Run Distance: 422 feet

The captain! His long homer was the furthest-hit ball of the game by far, edging Gleyber Torres’ longball by 44 feet. It was also further than the max distance for 58 of 252 qualifiers last season, including Mookie Betts. Needless to say, I expect Judge to top this mark as the season rolls on — last year, his max distance was 465, tied for 13th among the 252 qualifiers.

All told, it was a successful debut for the team after a tough spring. All of these numbers, though typically more reflective of true talent than surface-level statistics in small samples, still take some time to stabilize; anyone can have a bad game. But, I’m a little more hopeful about Stanton than I was before, and I’ll be keeping an eye on Cole’s velocity going forward. Either way, the Bombers will look to keep rolling on Saturday afternoon as Clarke Schmidt — new cutter in hand — takes the hill against Alex Cobb and the Giants.