The first series of the MLB season is in the books and they had it all: Outstanding pitching performances, walk-off hits, surprising heroes, confusing managerial decisions, even the odd incident of clearing benches. There is a lot to work on, but after spending four days joining MLB.tv as the guy from Project Overlord in Mass Effect 2I have identified eight events and storylines that stood out.
Pitchers hear voices, and that’s a good thing
The biggest change to the rules this year is, of course, the introduction of DH to the National League, but no. 2 on the list is PitchCom’s debut. Instead of using hand gestures to call places, catchers can now use a pager on their wrist to send the call to a small receiver tucked in the pitcher’s cap. (Between PitchCom and the new-fangled NFL and NHL referee microphones, this is a big year for wireless baseball technology.)
Conceived as a measure against character theft, PitchCom was also touted as a way to improve the game’s pace. A catcher using hand signals has to wait until the pitcher is at the rubber with the ball and the batter is facing him, and then he may have to cycle through as many as half a dozen signs to deliver his message. Now the catcher can call the course at any time with the push of a button. We’ll see if PitchCom achieves one of the goals – if NFL teams can hack coaches’ headsets, an assistant GM to commit crimes will figure out a way to push PitchCom. But it certainly feels like the game is moving a little faster.
A true revolution in the pace of the game will require a pitch clock and a rule to prevent batters from stepping out (and likely restrictions on pitching changes). But this is a beginning.
National broadcasts Get a facelift
This weekend, baseball fans were treated to several innovations in the art of broadcasting, most notably the debut of the new ESPN Sunday night baseball stand and Apple TV + Friday night games.
The ESPN crew of Karl Ravech, Eduardo Pérez and David Cone called for Thursday night’s Reds-Braves game before heading up the coast for Sunday night. [checks notes]it says here that the Yankees and Red Sox were on Sunday night baseball, but that may not be true. This new crew should always be an improvement over the outgoing Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez – Ravech and Perez are longtime veterans of the ESPN stand, and Cone’s work on the YES Network has made him one of the most popular local color analysts in the country . And admittedly, they were good from the opening day.
One of the selling points of this stand is that Perez and Cone are both extremely thoughtful and well-prepared analysts, and unlike some other national broadcasters, they understand that they are not the main attraction. It’s certainly not a high bar to handle, and if you’re dedicated enough to watch an entire baseball game, you’re obligated to listen to some people talk for three or four hours. But it’s just a much more pleasant experience when the said people enjoy and engage in what’s going on in front of them, instead of grabbing or trying to prove a point all the way.
Even old gags that did not work before, like the interview in the game, passed with flying colors on the opening day. Joey Votto, who has got a Chris Traeger-like zest for life under one self-described mid-life crisisdelivered a lovely conversation with Ravech and Co. during the fourth round of Thursday’s match.
Votto’s interview and sequel on Sunday with Red Sox center player Enrique Hernández showed that this often reviled format able to work if the player being interviewed is down.
Unlike the venerable ESPN production, Apple’s first weekend in the baseball business was somewhat unorthodox – and a bit uneven. On the one hand, it’s annoying that MLB’s new streaming partnerships with Peacock and Apple require fans to find and navigate multiple apps, especially if said fans are already paying for cable and MLB.tv. (What gives $ 140 a season longer if you can not watch games on local TV, national cable, Peacock or Apple, or if you live in Iowa?) But there are benefits to broadcasting partner diversification. For example, while RSNs around the country continue to run out of dyspeptic Hall of Famers, Apple stands were skewed, and both contained at least one female broadcaster. And Apple, with less skin in the game and tradition to respect than ESPN, tried some shit.
The graphics that you would expect from Self-Congratulatory Minimalism, Inc. are sleek and discreet. The picture quality looked great. And one of the more interesting news in the broadcast is a probability prediction in the corner of the screen, even though the numbers it appeared sometimes did not pass the odor test. Both broadcast teams also ran into the same problem as A-Rod Sunday night baseball stand – treats the game as a background visual for a talk show. The stand on the Astros-Angels game disappeared through a Mike Trout bat-bat and an Alex Bregman homerun, for example.
But this is the technology company’s disruptor purchase in miniature: They come in, try new things – some of which are super cool, and some of them do not work at all – and make mistakes that could have been avoided if they had taken better advantage of institutional knowledge. But it’s early, and there are some signs of a promising future when Apple gains more experience.
Padres Twirl Consecutive No-Hit Bids
Everything that happens in the first weekend of the season is a statistical blip. Do you remember last year when the Orioles went to Fenway and swept the Red Sox? Baltimore eventually lost 110 games and the Sox went to ALCS. It’s all noise.
But some pieces of noise are more fun than others. On Thursday, Yu Darvish – not even a stranger to the April no-hit bid – kept the Diamondbacks without a hit for six innings. Manager Bob Melvin lifted Darvish for Tim Hill in the seventh, and Hill allowed a single for the first batter he met. Arizona eventually came back to win at a Seth Beer walk-off grand slam, apparently on National Beer Day. (Or so they say – any day can be National Beer Day if you want it hard enough.)
No matter, for the next night Sean Manaea threw seven no-hit innings. Once again, Melvin called on Hill, and once again, Hill allowed a single for the first batsman he met. Padres became the first team in modern MLB history to pull two different starters from no-hit bids of at least six innings and less than 100 spots – not just in consecutive matches, but over the course of an entire season. That got Joe Musgroves Saturday night to start, on the anniversary of his no-hitter, deal TV. But Musgrove blot allowed five hits and two runs over six innings to take an easy win home. What a downturn.
White Sox Weather a wild weekend
Chicago’s big, millet rotation had already taken a hit when Carlos Rodón traveled to San Francisco (he had 12 strikeouts in 5 innings in his Giants debut), and Lance Lynn went down with a knee injury. And injuries to Yoán Moncada, Garrett Crochet, Joe Kelly and others had exhausted the depth of the entire list. So opening day starter Lucas Giolito adjusted an abdominal muscle and landed on IL, and AJ Pollock probably had the worst weekend of any in the league.
On Friday, Pollock played a ball wrong on the warning lane and turned an out into a walk-off single for Javier Báez.
So about 24 hours later, Pollock tweaked his hind thigh and had to leave the game.
The White Sox still managed to take two of three against a tough division rival in Detroit, and the injuries to Giolito and Pollock do not appear to be too serious. But it was a much more hairy opening series than they would have liked.
Washington is flourishing sartorial
It was a busy weekend for baseball fashion, with the Astros introducing crisp NASA-inspired City Connect jerseys and the Fanatics – the monopoly destroying sports fans ‘gear – somehow failing to deliver Phillies’ alternative uniforms for the weekend’s day games.
But Washington stole the show. There is nothing wrong with Nationals’ basic uniforms. It’s just that they are red, white and blue with script, in a division where the Phillies and Braves had already made red, white and blue with script a core part of their team identities. Nor are they as good as the red, white, and blue looks that the franchise left behind in Montreal. It is boring.
This weekend, however, the Nats showed up in their City Connect uniforms.
This new look is not only related to a well-known and instantly recognizable bit of local culture – Washington’s cherry blossoms – it introduces a unique floral motif and uses two of the most underused colors in sports: gray and pink. They are incredible. Nationals should throw their normal uniforms in the trash right now.
The Blue Jays and Rangers are on it again
The Blue Jays hype train hit an unstable track on opening day as the Texas Rangers tagged José Berríos in four runs in a third of an inning and led 7-0 in the fourth. But the train kept getting tougher, tougher as Toronto scored eight straight runs in the middle third of the game and completed the biggest Opening Day comeback since 1950.
This was the series to watch if you love giant comebacks, because on Sunday the shoe was on the other foot, or the petard was hoisted, or something like that. Texas, trailing 6-1 after three innings, scored 11 unanswered runs to save a game in the series. Who would have guessed that these two teams would produce such an out of control baseball.
Steven Kwan is always on base
When Steven Kwan started getting buzz as an AL Rookie of the Year dark horse this spring, I thought, “How weird that there are two Steven Kwans.” I remembered an outfielder by the name who played with Nick Madrigal and Adley Rutschman in Oregon State, a thin guy who looked like he was going to get beaten out of the hands of the pros. There should definitely be another.
Three games inside Kwan’s MLB career, I seem to owe him an apology. Kwan got the most out of his first taste of MLB action; in a series with the Guardians, he went 8-to-10 (including 5-to-5 on Sunday), with three walks and a hit-by-pitch. There was no shortage of significant and / or impressive MLB debuts this weekend: Spencer Torkelson, Bobby Witt Jr., Bryson Stott, Hunter Greene (I never think anyone has made 100 miles an hour look so easy), Julio Rodríguez and so on. But Kwan shot the field.
Jeremy Peña’s parents’ top rankings in Week 1
Although Kwan had the best weekend as a rookie, he did not have the top momentum. It belongs to Astro’s shortstop Jeremy Peña, who has big shoes to fill as he replaces Carlos Correa in Houston’s lineup.
Peña was not only at home in his second major league match, he did so while Heidi Watney interviewed her parents live on the Apple TV + broadcast.
Moments like this happen more than you might think, but they never get old. MLB as a business can be depressingly cynical, however baseball is still romantic. Watching the Peñas celebrate the home run, you can see all the parents who have driven their child to Little League training while there is still snow on the ground, or who have been through endless U10 matches where the children are old enough to to play, but too young to throw strikes. You must be made of stone not to eat it up.