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The Best of Opening Night

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The Cardinals are 1-0 and Statcast was there to record it all. What were the best moments of opening night?

Baseball is back! And the Cardinals are on pace to go 60-0 thanks to ace Jack Flaherty and a trio of home runs.

When we don’t have news to cover, I’m hoping to devote this laid back Saturday space to the “best of” each week of the season. During the week, you can follow my Twitter account – @JPHill_Cards – for real-time Statcast analytics from Baseball Savant. On Saturday mornings, I’ll collect the best barreled balls, exit velocities, OAA (outs above average), wpa, and other advanced stats right here, complete with video highlights and commentary. If you’re a stats-geek like myself, this will be your nirvana! If you’re not, well, there will be plenty of highlights of hard-hit balls, filthy pitches, and brilliant defensive plays to enjoy.

With just one game in the books, today’s “best of” will focus exclusively on Friday night’s season-opening victory.

The Best of the Opening Ceremonies

Social distancing constraints meant that the opening ceremonies could not be what Cardinal fans are used to. I missed the Clydesdales, red jackets, Lou and Gibby, Whitey and Tony. It’s hard to kick off a season without the club’s Hall of Famers, a caravan of pickups and convertibles, and “Here Comes the King” piping from the stadium organ on a half-hour loop.

The Cardinals players expected to kneel together to honor black lives who have been victims of police brutality before the anthem. That was skipped for some reason, but the Cardinals and Pirates did stand in unity, holding a black cloth, while a talented local vocalist – just 14 years old! – provided a stirring rendition of the National Anthem.

The best moment, though, was certainly the first pitch. Cardinals legend Willie McGee threw a perfect strike (that I clocked at about 84 mph) to Dexter Fowler. Their timing was a bit off with stadium announcer John Ulett, but the rest was perfect.

The Cardinals Opening Ceremonies tried to make one thing clear: black lives matter. They matter to the Cardinal players and coaches, who wore “black lives matter” shirts during pregame warmups. They should matter to all of us.

The Best Barrelled Ball

The Cardinals’ first barrel of the season had to be Tyler O’Neill’s home run, right? Nope. There’s something to the concept that HRs are just fly balls that carry. Such was the case with TON’s first knock of the season. The Cardinals’ left fielder muscled an 81 mph curveball middle-in 101.5 mph into the left-field bullpen. The exit velocity was enough to qualify as a barrel but the launch angle was not. At 36 degrees, it was only good enough to produce a .480 expected batting average. Strength plays. This is why O’Neill needs as much playing time as possible. Even when he “misses” relative to other players, he can still drive the ball out of the park.

Here’s the video:

Paul DeJong provided the real stuff in the 8th inning. His 2-run HR was the prototypical barreled ball. It was 103 mph – 2 faster than O’Neill’s shot – and it had a bulls-eye launch angle of 26 degrees. It doesn’t get much better than that and his shot secured an Opening Day win for the Redbirds. If O’Neill has “muscle” power – pure strength – DeJong has quiet, easy power. The ball explodes off both of their bats, but the Cardinals’ shortstop makes it look so easy. He’s a pleasure to watch hit. Enjoy a bowl of that applesauce, Paul! It’s well earned.

The Best Pitching Performance

I casually tracked Jack Flaherty’s wpa – win probability added – as he progressed through the game. Entering the 5th inning, Flaherty’s wpa was +21.2%. The next highest, at that point in the game, was O’Neill at +11.9%. Through 6 Flaherty’s had climbed to +31.1%. That was as high as it would get for the Cardinals’ ace. In the seventh, the Pirates loaded the bases before Jacob Stallings shot a grounder in the hole between first and second. That scored two, and cut deep into Flaherty’s stats. He finished with a +23.6% wpa, still the highest for the game.

Flaherty looked dominant for six innings. He finished with just the 2 runs allowed on 89 pitches and 0 walks. Considering all of the factors – a short “summer camp” and just a handful of intrasquad games and live bp’s – it was a brilliant outing from the Cardinals ace. Check out this nasty curveball for his first strikeout:

Honorable mention here goes to Ryan Helsley who looked absolutely sick in his one inning of work. Pure filth! His one inning of work was worth +11.8 wpa. It’s all about control for him. When he locates for strikes, he’s nearly unhittable. But he doesn’t always locate. I have a feeling these two young arms will appear in this space frequently this season.

The Best Defensive Play

Normally I will rely on OAA – Outs Above Average – to populate this category. That’s not the kind of info that we can get live from Baseball Savant, so for one game, we’ll have to rely on the eye test.

In the top of the fifth, Guillermo Heredia smoked a liner toward third at 90.5 mph. The hit had an expected batting average of .550, but that isn’t anything to Tommy Edman. Edman dove to his right and snagged it. In the seventh, Edman saved a sure run by knocking down another screamer. He couldn’t field it cleanly, but he kept the ball on the infield. The Cards made a great decision to play Edman at third and DH Carpenter. Hopefully, that arrangement continues.

The Best “Oops!” Moment

The Cardinals lead-off hitter, Kolten Wong, smoked a liner to right-center that found the gap for an easy triple. The Pirates then played a little kickball and Wong hopped up and took off for home. He didn’t quite make it. He slid headfirst into the plate and came up just a bit short. I won’t post the highlight… but I did remind me of this classic from former Cardinal Adolis Garcia. Fortunately, the triple still counts in Wong’s stats and the Cardinals won the game. So, this “oops” is nothing more than forgettable fun.

The Best “Whew!” Moment

KK made his major league debut as the Cardinals’ closer. Maybe you haven’t watched him through spring and summer camps, but he clearly did not have his best stuff. Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it just took him a few batters to settle in. He gave up two runs before finally finding his location with his slider. One slick double play from the Cardinals middle infield wizards later and it was game over. KK’s sign says it all.

The Cardinals are on pace to go 60-0 and everything is right with the world. Welcome back, baseball! We missed you.