Opening Day (and night) observations

The consistency of the new Metrodome turf stands out, as does Pedro's inability to get swings and misses.

Originally Published: April 5, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

A baseball geek's notepad from Opening Day.

Mets' red flags
As the Mets begin their season against Atlanta on Tuesday night, they have had arguably the worst spring training of any team. They have staked their future -- and their 2004 team -- around the vaunted DP combination of Kaz Matsui and Jose Reyes, and they couldn't get the two on the field together because of injuries. The team played terribly on defense, the back end of the rotation had to be overhauled on the eve of the season, and Mike Piazza's transition to first base was slowed because -- well, because the Mets neglected to use him at first base this spring.

And new closer Braden Looper struggled, adding more doubt as to whether this will be his job for the whole year. Looper has good stuff but is a contact pitcher, averaging just 5.7 strikeouts per nine innings in his career, 6.2 last season. There are many good relievers who are contact pitchers like Looper, but very few good closers. The vast majority of the best closers are those who "miss bats," in the words of former Mets manager Davey Johnson

Over the last five years, there have been only seven instances when a closer racked up 30 or more saves with a strikeout ratio under 6.0 per nine innings -- and in only one of those seven cases (Danny Graves with the Reds in 2000) did the pitcher play for a team that finished with a winning record. Punchouts are a requisite for success.

Year, closer, saves Strikeouts, innings Their team's finish
1999 Jeff Shaw, 34 saves 43 strikeouts in 68 innings (5.7) Dodgers finished 77-85
1999 Jose Mesa, 33 saves 42 strikeouts in 68.2 innings (5.5) Mariners finished 79-83
2000 Danny Graves, 30 saves 53 strikeouts in 91.1 innings (5.2) Reds finished 85-77
2000 Antonio Alfonseca, 45 saves 47 strikeouts in 70 innings (5.8) Marlins finished 79-82
2001 Danny Graves, 32 saves 49 strikeouts in 80.1 innings (5.5) Reds finished 66-96
2002 Jose Jimenez, 41 saves 47 strikeouts in 73.1 innings (5.8) Rockies finished 73-89
2002 Danny Graves, 32 saves 58 strikeouts in 98.2 innings (5.3) Reds finished 78-84

Patient approach for Soriano?
Pitchers around both leagues marveled at Alfonso Soriano's at-bats during the postseason last year, fascinated by the fact that a hitter with such a good track record could chase so many bad pitches. "You could've rolled it up there and he would've swung at it," said one NL pitcher this spring.

Soriano
Soriano

In the last three seasons, Soriano generated 90 walks, fewer than Barry Bonds will probably generate before the All-Star break this year. But in his first plate appearance of the season Monday, against Oakland's Tim Hudson, Soriano looked like a much different hitter -- no longer crammed against the front of the batters' box, as he always was with the Yankees. When Hudson threw his first couple of pitches off the edges of the strike zone, Soriano flinched slightly, but took them, and eventually drew a four-pitch walk. If he continues to show patience, this could be the next necessary step for Soriano to become more than a mere star.

Twins slow it down
The Metrodome has always been an advantage for the Minnesota Twins, because of how different the brand of baseball was there. A grounder that would've been a double play in another park rolled to the wall for a triple in the dome.

But a new turf has been installed in the Metrodome for this season, and clearly will make a significant impact on play in the Twins' home. Grounders scooted past Twins starter Brad Radke, but rather than roll into the outfield, they were cut off by infielders; bouncers slow down dramatically on the new Metrodome surface, rather than skipping across the turf like rocks across a pond. The Metrodome has always been a great park for doubles, but not anymore; the style of game the Twins play may no longer vary much from what they play in other parks.

Oswalt good choice to open season
Astros manager Jimy Williams surprised a lot of folks outside of the Houston clubhouse by naming Roy Oswalt as his Opening Day starter, over Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte or Wade Miller. It was a great decision, because while the choice didn't matter to Pettitte or Clemens -- who routinely deferred to other pitchers while working for Joe Torre in New York -- Oswalt could draw confirmation from being chosen. Teammates appreciated that Oswalt fought through a groin injury to pitch at the end of last season, and they were pleased that he drew the Opening Day assignment.

And it may be that when this season is over, Oswalt -- who could very well have the best stuff of any starter on the Astros' staff -- might have the best record. He pitched well against the Giants in the opener, using a fastball with terrific movement.

But Williams made a poor decision in the eighth inning, leaving Oswalt in to face Barry Bonds rather than turning the game over to the Houston bullpen. Bonds jumped on Oswalt's first pitch for his 659th home run, a three-run shot that tied the game.

Martinez inning-by-inning
SWINGS AND MISSES
First 0
Second 5
Third 0
Fourth 2
Fifth 0
Sixth 0
TWO-STRIKE PITCHES/ SWINGS AND MISSES
First 2/0
Second 11/2
Third 1/0
Fourth 1/1
Fifth 2/0
Sixth 1/0
Pedro under the gun
Red Sox manager Terry Francona didn't want to talk about Pedro Martinez's velocity after Boston's 7-2 loss to Baltimore Sunday. Can't blame him: for anyone who saw Martinez when he consistently threw in the mid-90s and manipulated hitters like a puppeteer, his radar gun readings made you want to avert your eyes.

Scouts figure that the velocity readings for television are generally pumped up by 2 or 3 mph, through use of a "fast" radar gun -- which helps explain why the Orioles' Sidney Ponson was clocked 94-97 mph against Boston. If you buy the inflated gunman theory, then Martinez was throwing 85-86 mph consistently.

Velocity is often not a trustworthy measure of a pitcher's stuff, but the hitters' physical responses almost always are. When Martinez was in his prime, he had an extraordinary ability to finish off hitters -- to jack up his fastball, or place his changeup perfectly, or freeze the hitter with a breaking ball. Hitters flailed constantly.

But on Sunday, Martinez threw 93 pitches, and the Orioles swung and missed a total of seven times -- and of the 18 pitches Martinez threw with two strikes, Baltimore batters swung and missed only three times.

The cold was brutal, Martinez could not control his curveball, and under these circumstances, one of the all-time great pitchers deserves a mulligan. But nobody can pretend he's anything close to what he once was.

Ramirez constantly on the move
Manny Ramirez hustled to first, hustled in left field, hustled all over the place. Pedro Martinez left Camden Yards in the eighth inning, and it may be, as the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy suggested, that Martinez is ready to exit for the free agent waters. But Ramirez ran around like he's made up his mind he wants to stay.

Difficult start for Dunn
Reds slugger Adam Dunn did some thinking about his terrible 2003 season, when he had 126 strikeouts in 381 at-bats, and he reportedly decided he'd been thinking too much while at the plate. His mind would become cluttered with anticipation, he would guess wrong at the identity of the pitch to come, and soon he would end up in the dugout, yanking at his batting gloves.

A brand new season began for Dunn on Monday, when the Reds opened against the Cubs. Facing Kerry Wood, Dunn worked through his first at-bat of the year, battling -- and then took a fastball right down the middle. Tough first-day assignment for a hitter trying to get back on track.

Alou in mid-season form
Moises Alou looks like he's in great shape, and never more so than in the third inning of the Cubs' game in Cincinnati, when he backed Reds pitcher Cory Lidle into a ball-strike corner and pummelled him. Lidle did not want to throw Alou a fastball over the plate, and he kept trying to nick the outside corner -- until the count reached full. Then Lidle gave in, pumped a fastball over the middle, and Alou wrecked it, smashing a three-run double.

Halladay dominates early, struggles late
Toronto ace Roy Halladay has refined his breaking ball to the point where it moves like a Wiffle ball, spinning late and sharply and downward, and the first time through the batting order, he cut down five Tigers.

His stuff is already overwhelming. Boston's Derek Lowe is the only AL pitcher with more movement than what Halladay has with his fastball, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said last year. In the second at-bat for Detroit's Fernando Vina, Halladay threw what looked like a cut fastball, the ball veering inside sharply and startling Vina.

Halladay eventually gave up six earned runs over 6 2/3 innings, allowing home runs to Carlos Pena, Ivan Rodriguez and Rondell White and getting victimized by a pivotal double-play attempt not completed. Detroit's Jason Johnson was better, throwing a great sinking fastball. But if Halladay doesn't pitch at least one no-hitter this year with his stuff and his great control, he will come close.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine