After a long and grueling winter, baseball finally returned with a bang with MLB’s Opening Week. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado made their debuts for their respective teams, Lorenzo Cain robbed a homer to beat the St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day, and there were some tremendous pitching performances.
There have also been plenty of surprises. The Baltimore Orioles took two of three from the Yankees, and the defending champion Boston Red Sox have stumbled out of the gate, as concerns over Chris Sale’s drop off in velocity abound.
Now, the 2019 season has only just begun. It is hardly the time to overreact to a 1-5 start, or proclaim the Seattle Mariners as the best team in baseball. That said, here are five things that we have learned from Opening Week in MLB.
5. The Phillies are for real…
The Philadelphia Phillies’ tremendous offseason had a number of analysts and pundits picking them to win the National League East. But in such a loaded division, it was going to be very intriguing to see what kind of start the Phillies could get off to with their new-look lineup.
Before losing a nail-biter to the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, the Phillies were averaging nearly eight runs per game. With Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, Harper, Rhys Hoskins, and J.T. Realmuto at the top of the lineup, this team was always going to produce. Segura and Harper in particular have gotten off to tremendous starts, but Hoskins and Realmuto have struggled.
And yet, Maikel Franco had perhaps the best week of any player in baseball, hitting over .500 with three homers. Because opposing pitchers have so much to worry about at the top of the order, Franco and Odubel Herrera could see plenty of mistake pitches early in counts.
Most importantly for Philadelphia, however, were the first appearances of Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin. While Arrieta is battling to remain effective into his mid-30s, Eflin is looking to capitalize on his potential. The 25-year-old scattered three hits and struck out nine in five innings of work against the Nationals on Tuesday, tying a career-high for strikeouts while outperforming Nats ace Max Scherzer.
The Phillies have a tremendous amount of depth in the bullpen despite slow starts from David Robertson and Hector Neris. If Eflin, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez all take steps forward this season, Philadelphia is not just a contender to win the National League, but also to win the World Series.
4. …and so are the Brewers
And thus far, there is no indication of any drop-off. Christian Yelich homered in his first four games and is firmly establishing himself as one of the best players in the NL. Ryan Braun could provide a massive spark with a bounce back year (he is still only 35), and Lorenzo Cain has already made a number of ridiculous plays on the defensive side of the ball.
Meanwhile, Corbin Burnes looks like a potential ace for Milwaukee’s rotation. Sure, he gave up a trio of homers in his start against the Cardinals, but he also struck out 12 in just five innings, and his spin rates are literally off the charts:
Corbin Burnes' 4-seam spin rate yesterday for the Brewers: 2,912 rpm
That's the highest single-game 4-seam spin by a SP in Statcast history. Next-closest: Verlander/Scherzer @ 2,681 rpm. 2,912 rpm is high spin for a curve, let alone a 4-seam.
6 of his 12 K's were high fastballs pic.twitter.com/tTQ5JdFNve
— David Adler (@_dadler) April 1, 2019
Fellow youngster Brandon Woodruff also looked strong in his opening start. Burnes and Woodruff will be pivotal in establishing the tone for Milwaukee’s rotation this year, because there will be some expected regression from Jhoulys Chacin. Getting Jimmy Nelson back from injury will be equally pivotal.
Josh Hader looks extremely comfortable being used in multiple roles out of the bullpen, and his early dominance has been on full display:
And…60 fastballs out of 62. https://t.co/gXiyGyCLJp
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) April 3, 2019
That’s how dominant Hader is with the fastball. Throw in the wipeout slider, and he should once again be one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game. It will be interesting to see if his heavy usage–especially given the injury to Corey Knebel–will have a negative impact on him.
In fact, how will the rest of the bullpen respond to Knebel’s absence, and is Jeremy Jeffress’ injury merely a setback or something worse? Alex Claudio will have a more impactful role this year, but thus far he has been up to the task.
The Brewers look dangerous once again.
3. The youngsters are growing up in San Diego
Sure, the signing of Machado was the most notable move that the San Diego Padres had made in years. But, their success was largely going to rest on the development of their young pitching staff.
Well, Chris Paddack dominated in his MLB debut, as did Nick Margevicius. And while there are likely to be growing pains for both of these 23-year-olds (Margevicius had not thrown a pitch above High-A ball), Joey Lucchesi looks like he will build on a strong rookie campaign, and Eric Lauer has been effective through a pair of starts.
In fact, outside of Matt Strahm, the pitching staff has carried the load while the lineup has struggled to score runs.
That said, Fernando Tatis Jr. has shown signs of stardom in the midst of adjusting to the bigs, launching a rocket of a homer against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday. Wil Myers has started hot as well. If Machado and Franmil Reyes can begin to turn the corner, the lineup will start producing, which is promising given the positive start from the young starters on the staff.
Do not be surprised if the Friars are very competitive in a weaker NL West this season.
2. Jose Berrios is a legitimate Cy Young candidate
I know I haven’t spoken about the American League yet, but that’s because all of the likely pennant favorites (Red Sox, Yankees and Astros) have gotten off to very underwhelming starts compared to MLB’s more competitive league.
One team that has not gotten off to a poor start is the popular dark horse in the AL Central, the Minnesota Twins.
The Twins sent an early message by taking tow of three from the depleted Cleveland Indians, and young star Jose Berrios has been simply fantastic in each of his two starts.
Berrios totally dominated the Indians on Opening Day, striking out 10 and allowing just two hits in 7 2/3 innings of work. And in his second start against the Kansas City Royals, Berrios battled through seven innings to provide another quality start.
The 24-year-old has shown better command of his changeup, and with an elite best breaking ball and decent velocity, he has the kind of stuff to be one of the best in the game.
If the Twins hope to supplant the Indians as division champs, Berrios will need to be at the top of his game all season long. Thus far, he has shown the kind of stuff and maturity that could make him one of the more dynamic pitchers in baseball this season.
1. The Dodgers are still the team to beat in the NL
They may not have the best record in the National League or MLB, but the Los Angeles Dodgers could be even better in 2019 after reaching the World Series in consecutive seasons.
Prior to their rubber match against the rival San Francisco Giants on Wednesday, the Dodgers have the best run differential in baseball (+19) while ranking second in runs scored (50). Despite the loss of Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, this lineup has taken flight.
Now in full-time roles, Joc Pederson and Kike Hernandez are thriving. A.J. Pollock is off to another strong start and should be one of the better centerfielders in baseball if he can stay healthy. And, Cody Bellinger looks to be fulfilling the kind of MVP promise that some had tabbed him with before the season began.
Sure, it’s a small sample size, but Bellinger is swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone, his line drive percentage has increased, his five home runs are tied for the MLB lead, and his 12 RBI are the most in baseball as of this writing.
All of this has come during horrendously slow starts from Corey Seager (who is returning from Tommy John) and Max Muncy.
Meanwhile, Hyun-Jin Ryu looks like the real deal after posting fantastic second-half numbers in an injury-riddled 2018 MLB season. If Ryu becomes one of the top pitchers in the National League, the Dodgers will have Kershaw (once he returns), Walker Buehler, and Ryu at the top of the rotation, with Ross Stripling, Julio Urias, and/or Kenta Maeda filling out the back end.
With strength throughout the lineup and in the starting rotation, the Dodgers also possess a wealth of depth in the bullpen, despite their early struggles.
In other words, despite improvements made by seemingly every franchise in the National League, Los Angeles is still the team to beat.