Fantasy Baseball: 10 things that matter from Opening Day, from surging stolen bases to Brendan Donovan’s power

Before play even started Thursday, there were surprises, namely health-related. Justin Verlander went on the IL with a teres major strain and Daniel Bard with what’s listed as anxiety. Verlander’s injury sounds bad since it’s the same one that’s expected to cost Triston McKenzie two months, but it’s reportedly of a much lower severity, such that he’ll continue throwing during his recovery.

Bard’s situation is more complicated. It sounds like he has a case of the yips, which first developed when he was pitching for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. It was apparent then that he couldn’t find the strike zone — he’s the one whose errant pitch fractured Jose Altuve’s thumb, remember — but it turns out the issue was more psychological than mechanical. The Rockies are talking like he may need only a short stay on the IL, given his past experience with the issue, but there really is no timetable for this sort of thing. It’s possible Bard won’t get a chance to close this year at all.

While those developments are anything but straightforward, your approach to them should be. Just stash Verlander and Bard in IL spots and wait to see what happens next. What about what happened once the games actually started, though? Most of it is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, quickly forgotten and not worth reading into. At the risk of overreacting, though, here are 10 things from Opening Day that possibly do matter.

1. Stolen bases were way up

Credit to Alex Fast of Pitcher List for this stat. There were 21 stolen bases on Opening Day this year. There were five last year. We knew stolen bases would go up with the new rules designed to promote more of them, and I thought most people’s estimates were too low. But a fourfold increase?

OK, so the base-stealing picked up after opening day last year. A fourfold increase over an entire season isn’t realistic. Still, if we multiply the 21 on Thursday by 162, we get 3,402, which is considerably more than last year’s 2,486. Without getting caught up in specifics, the point is that players were eager to take advantage of the new rules. It began with the very first baserunner of the season, Ronald Acuna, who coaxed two quick pickoff attempts from Patrick Corbin (the maximum allotted number) and made it clear with his gestures that he intended exactly that. What followed was what often will in that situation:

It’s worth noting that the players responsible for the 21 stolen bases were already considered base-stealers by one measure or another (with Ryan McMahon being a notable exception), so the effect may not extend to as many players as I’ve hoped. It’s too early to say, really. But it’s not too early to say there will be a lot more stolen bases, no matter how they’re distributed.

2. Offense wasn’t as reliant home runs

Opening Day is a day for aces, yet offense abounded on this one, with Corbin Burnes, Sandy Alcantara, Jacob deGrom, Aaron Nola and Alek Manoah all struggling to keep men off base and runs off the board. It raised concerns that maybe we underestimated the impact of the shift ban on pitchers, who are now vulnerable to more than just home runs. Blaming their crooked stat lines entirely on the shift ban would be an exaggeration — there were still quality pitchers before shifts became the norm, after all — but there may be a kernel of truth to the idea judging by the number of runs scored apart from home runs Thursday. The ratio of runs to home runs last year was 4 to 1. On Thursday, it was 6 to 1.

3. We’re closer to knowing who’s closing

Several teams with major closer questions coming into the season had reason to tip their hand Thursday. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Andres Munoz got the first save for the Mariners, with Paul Sewald working the eighth.
  • Jhoan Duran got the first save for the Twins. Jorge Lopez recorded two outs in the seventh.
  • David Robertson got the first save for the Mets, striking out two in a scoreless ninth. Adam Ottavino didn’t even pitch.
  • Reynaldo Lopez got the first save for the White Sox, though he did allow a solo home run in the ninth. Kendall Graveman worked a scoreless eighth. 
  • Dany Jimenez got the first save for the Athletics, though, notably, his velocity was down quite a bit from last year. Trevor May worked the eighth inning, though, notably, the Athletics were tailing by one when he entered.
  • The Cubs weren’t faced with a save situation, but Michael Fulmer worked the ninth and Brad Boxberger the eighth with a four-run lead.

Now, most of these teams said they would go by-committee at the start of the year, so the first pitcher to get a save won’t necessarily be the next pitcher to get a save. But with every save chance a pitcher converts, he comes closer to breaking free from the committee and becoming the preferred choice. You shouldn’t go dropping Sewald and Ottavino yet, but you should be aware of early preferences.

What was most notable about Donovan’s season debut wasn’t that he was batted leadoff or even that he homered as part of a 3-for-6 day. It’s that the home run was his third-hardest hit ball of the day. He hit another ball 105 mph and yet another 109. His hardest-hit ball as a rookie last year was 107.

You’ll note that he wasn’t at all a power hitter last year, smacking just five home runs for the entire time he was up. But him reaching new peaks right out of the gate jibes with the four home runs he hit in spring training and shows that the changes he made this offseason — specifically, using a heavier bat with a “hockey puck” knob that allows him to rip his hands through the zone faster — have tangible benefits. If Donovan can become a 20-homer threat without compromising the plate discipline he showed last year, he’s basically Alex Bregman, only with triple eligibility.

5. Pablo Lopez showed an improved arsenal

It wasn’t just that Lopez performed well in his Twins debut, striking out eight over 5 1/3 scoreless innings. It’s that he looked like a different pitcher in doing so. His velocity was up 1.5 mph on everything, and he broke out a sweeper that may all of a sudden be his best weapon. That’s saying a lot given how effective his changeup has been over the years, but the sweeper was responsible for eight of his 17 swinging strikes Thursday. Adding a breaking ball of that caliber, combined with the improved velocity, could send his stock soaring.

6. High-profile rookies were buried in the lineup

No doubt, you’ve seen all the hype for Corbin Carroll, Jordan Walker, Anthony Volpe, et al. Probably, then, you weren’t expecting them to bat seventh, eighth and ninth, respectively, on Opening Day. Another highly regarded rookie, Ezequiel Tovar, hit ninth, and still another, Oscar Colas, was out of the lineup altogether.

There were some mitigating circumstances. The Diamondbacks and White Sox were each facing a lefty. Presumably, Carroll would have batted higher against a righty, and Colas would have been in the lineup. It’s also worth noting that Colas did come off the bench to deliver a 109-mph single, demonstrating the high-quality contact that makes him so highly regarded. Still, it’s clear these rookies will have to work their way up the lineup, which may limit their Fantasy contributions to some small degree at the start of the year.

7. Alec Bohm furthered breakout hopes

The fourth-year third baseman showed up to spring training with 10-15 added pounds of muscle and proceeded to hit four home runs during the exhibition season, nearly a third of what he hit all of last season. His exit velocities were always respectable, and the hope was that the added muscle would help him turn on pitches better, pulling them over the left field fence. Turns out he’s strong enough to send them out the other way, as you can see here:

In all, Bohm went 3 for 4. All four of his batted balls were hit in excess of 95 mph.   

8. Tommy Edman was forced to hit ninth

Edman is valued primarily for his stolen bases, but runs are a big part of what sustains him. He had 95 last year while mostly batting leadoff. Because he’s never been much of an on-base threat, it makes sense that the Cardinals would drop him to ninth in the order while batting Brendan Donovan and Lars Nootbaar first and second. But it could cost Edman a significant number of at-bats — and with them, runs — over the course of a season. Of course, nothing is written in stone yet, and it sounds like Edman could continue to bat leadoff against lefties. Maybe the effect won’t be so bad.

9. Miles Mikolas offered reason for concern

For all the Fantasy aces who struggled on Opening Day, it was the performance of Mikolas, a non-ace, that raised the most concerns. The 34-year-old allowed five runs on 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays, his slider lagging by 1.2 mph. He allowed seven hard-hit balls and an average exit velocity of 91.0 mph. It may have been just a bad start, but during his breakout season a year ago — when he put together a 3.29 ERA and 1.03 WHIP — he had only one start anywhere near as bad as this one. And because he isn’t at the level of a Fantasy ace, he gets a shorter leash if he doesn’t turn things around in the next start or two.

Though he hit 23 homers in 106 minor-league games last year, the scouting reports said Steer’s power was lackluster, the kind that might play well enough in Cincinnati if he hit the ball to his pull side, but with clear limits. So how about a 435-foot home run to center field in his first game of the year?

What it says is that we may have underestimated Steer’s power from the jump, and seeing as he’s a disciplined hitter who appears to have a stranglehold on the third base job, he could become a Fantasy asset in short order.