The Good-News Home Opener

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 12: Matt Holliday #7 of the St. Louis Cardinals greets his teammates during pre-game introductions prior to playing against the Houston Astros in the home opener at Busch Stadium on April 12, 2010 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The perfect home opener: continued excellence from the big names, who everybody's there to see, anyway; a home run, a great play in the outfield, some flawless pitching, and a game that was brisk and never really in doubt without being a Washington Generals-style walkover. (I'm sure the weather didn't hurt, either.)

Wainwright didn't show any of the problems that tracked him through the first weeks of last season, when he walked 12 in his first three games and struggled to throw even half of his pitches for strikes; this time he came in just under 70% strikes, to go with 65% in his season debut. Through two the best part of his breakout season, that much higher strikeout rate, remains intact, as well. Wainwright's pitching was discussed at length in the game thread—this comment by indakind is definitely worth a look—but the most striking thing about the MLB video highlights is the very different curveball Wainwright was using to cut the Berkman-less Astros ribbons.

The perception one gets from watching it on TV—borne out by PitchF/X, for this one sample—is of a "tighter" curveball, but if it's a different pitch the gains aren't being paid out in velocity; it hangs around his usual curveball range. If he's throwing it as a way of maximizing his command, more power to him. (I was also impressed by the way he used his slider, increasingly the fastball in his fastball-light repertoire, as a strikeout pitch; if he's got two breaking balls that hitters can't make contact with he'll have no problem maintaining his new K/9 rate.) 

As for the player that everyone comes to the home opener to see, the amazing thing is that even now, with a slugging percentage of .963, with a home run in a fifth of his at-bats, Albert Pujols is just barely ahead of the pace of the best month of his career. I can't fault him if he never exceeds that extraordinary April of 2006, where he hit .346/.509/.914, won every other game single-handedly, and gave that withering team exactly the momentum it needed to reach the postseason (and not a bit more), like a guy pushing 162 dominoes over by blowing on the first one. But it's been a great seven games so far, even as far as his great games go.

ESPN projection watch: 116 home runs, 324 RBI. (Though he'll never get the 13 doubles he needs to reach 400 at this rate.)

There are a lot of Amazing Things about Albert Pujols, but as a blogger that's my favorite—you can cut his numbers up a million ways, and ninety percent of those splits are themselves Amazing Things. As I mentioned recently in a comment thread, if he began every at-bat with a 1-2 count his career line, at current rates, would still be .278/.327/.475.

Even yesterday he was busy righting small sample size wrongs—the 31 AB Pujols had against Wandy Rodriguez were, until today, the most at-bats he'd ever gone without homering against an individual pitcher. Now it's 26, versus the sadly unreachable Roger Clemens. Of the pitchers who've gone at least 30 plate appearances against Albert Pujols, Rodriguez is the only one with an OPS-against below .837; 18 of the 30 have an OPS-against over 1.000, culminating with that classic Odalis Perez line of .609/.719/1.391, which does not look at all like a baseball statistic. 

This is the burden of being Albert Pujols, and the pleasure of watching him: we expect more of him than we expect of baseball players, and in 2010, as in 2002, he's delivering. 

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Things do not look good for the Houston Astros—through seven games four of their regulars have a negative OPS+, and were it not for line-drive hitting, shortstop kind-of-playing reserve infielder Jeff Keppinger nobody would be over 100. Their Pythagorean winning percentage is .105. Roy Oswalt is pitching well but has taken two losses, everybody else is pitching badly and has taken five losses. 

There are bad teams out there, but few of them outside Houston acted so like a good team in the offseason. They identified a hole or two and patched it with a decent player, like the Cardinals did with Brad Penny; the difference is that the Astros were missing a whole forest of holes for that one particular tree. When Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, and Brian Moehler combine to make 63 starts in one season, signing Pedro Feliz in the next is not a great long-term move. 

But as Tony La Russa would tell you, over and over, one must take things a game at a time. The Astros are bad, but somebody has to lose to them, eventually. 

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