1-2-3 inning: Opening Day Edition

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Theo Epstein has said that baseball is a game best understood at 10,000 feet but best enjoyed from the front row. I tend to think in terms of the 10,000 feet analysis and most of the things I’ve written for World Series Dreaming have been from that perspective. However, I felt like addressing that short view of the game baseball for World Series Dreaming for a change.

There are many fine places to get recaps of games and series. Our very own Ivy will continue to bring you series recaps like she did last year, which are obviously recommended reading. So I felt little need to write traditional recaps that many others are more skilled to bring you. Instead what I plan to give you is three aspects of today’s game that most interested me. I will throw in some other random stuff, and give my relatively low commitment level we will see how long this feature lasts.

3. Early leader for the Joe Mather Award
Brent Lillibridge had a solid spring, but was virtually handed a job due to his versatility. Lillibridge had a very strong 2011 season, but that was sandwiched between two rather poor campaigns. And there is no way to sugar coat his performance today. His error in the first could have been extremely costly if not for the efforts of Jeff Samardzija, more on him later. He also struck out in a key situation with runners in scoring position and only one out.

But to me the most damning moment of his performance was in his final plate appearance in the seventh. Lillibridge to lead off the seventh inning was facing a left handed pitcher. That left handed pitcher threw four good fastballs, the last of which had Lillibridge striking out swinging. If Lillibridge cannot hit a good fastball off a southpaw he is of no value to this team. And hence the early clubhouse leader for the Joe Mather award.

2. The Flying Cubs
The Cubs have put an emphasis on base running that frankly I have never seen before. Apart from a fairly epic Beef Castle TOOTBLAN in the sixth their baserunning was perfect today. The Cubs were aggressive, and created favorable offensive situations using the running game. Starlin Castro was disruptive on the basepaths with a stolen base, and Schierholtz was running every time he reached base today. The Cubs aren’t going to lead the league in stolen bases, and they aren’t going to be able to run to make up for their offensive deficiencies. But Bradley Woodrum has done some interesting analysis which points to stolen bases increasing value with the decrease of power in baseball. He suggested in his work that teams without a lot of power, like the Cubs, ought to be running more, and it appears like the Cubs are not going to be a pure station to station softball team.

1. Maturing Shark
It was the Pirates, but Jeff Samardzija looked every bit the front of the rotation starter today. His handling of the first inning was impressive, and is one of the many characterstics of that ace type pitcher that the Cubs are sorely lacking. His splitter was not particularly nasty today I thought, and yet he was still dominant, another strong sign. But there is something else that I thought was really interesting and a positive sign of a maturing Shark.

Justin Verlander is my favorite pitcher in baseball, MRubio you can have Giancarlo Stanton if you trade me Verlander by the way. One of the many things that I love about Verlander is the way he approaches a game. He starts off throwing in the low 90s, but cranks it up to 98 or 99 as he gets deep into the game. Samardzija last year would throw hard very early on in the game. Shark in his first start last year threw his fastest pitch came the first twenty thrown. Today Shark threw most of his fastballs under 95 in the first couple of innings which gave him a second gear to hit in the middle and later frames. His fastest pitch today came on pitch 72.

Random Reference
I’ve watched too much television in my life, and as a result my mind works in strange ways. One of those strange habits is finding references to various television shows and movies to other situations. I’ve used this weird predilection here before.

I don’t believe what Bob Uecker says about the first batter telling you a lot about the upcoming season, but lets look at David DeJesus‘s first plate appearance. He worked the count, and a wide strike call that was relatively consistently, more on that later, went against DeJesus to make it a 2-1 count. DeJesus fouled off two more tough pitches to make the count 2-2, and was called out on a strike at the top of the zone to start the Cubs 2013.

I think that is poetic for this season. The approach that DeJesus took was exactly what the Cubs are trying to create up and down the lineup. DeJesus gets a tough break on a call that swings the at bat. He fights off two more pitches and is finally called out a tough but fair called strike. Progress but ultimately coming up short. Maybe Uecker was onto something there.

Ump Eye Chart
Homeplate umpire Tom Hallion I thought was largely fair in his calls behind the plate. He called a wide strikezone that was relatively consistent, but the final two innings could have been costly for the Cubs. Here is Anthony Rizzo‘s last at bat of the afternoon.

Rizzo AB

Here is James Russell‘s one batter of the afternoon.

Russell ABThe call on Anthony Rizzo on pitch 5 is absolutely brutal.  After calling ball 2 and 3 on pitches in virtuall the same spot, Tom Hallion calls strike 2 on pitch 5.  Pitch 6 is a pitch that had been called a strike for most of the afternoon that Rizzo grounded out weakly on.  James Russell had a similar experience with a decisive pitch going against him.  A 1-2 count, he threw a pitch at the bottom of the strikezone, but the strikezone shrunk for the first time on the day to be called ball 2.  Look at pitch 1 to Rizzo which was called a strike.  Pitch 4 by Russell was at worst the same height and was certainly over the plate given the wide zone called all day.

Biggest play that doesn’t show up in the box score

I rely on numbers to inform me of what is going on in the game.  I trust numbers because I believe more in my ability to research than pick up the subtle nuances of mechanics.  One accusation is that there are many things that happen in a baseball game don’t show up in the morning box score.  That is becoming less and less true with the tremendous amount of data that is becoming available to the public through pitchf/x, but it is certainly true that numbers don’t tell the whole picture either.

The top of the fourth inning was the most important one of opening day.  Brent Lillibridge stood at the plate with runners at second and third with only one out.  AJ Burnett had worked a 1-2 count after striking out Luis Valbuena.  He threw a pitch that bounced halfway in the opposite batter’s box that Russell Martin was able to knock down and keep in front of him.  This prevented both runners from moving up and allowed AJ Burnett to strike out Lillibridge to prevent any runs from scoring in that golden opportunity.

Last Line

Call me Criswell.  (WSD Exclusive)

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