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Making Too Much of One Game

There were interesting tidbits from Opening Day that might serve as evidence of ongoing trends.

Pittsburgh Pirates v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

Opening day was a blast!

Remember the Homecoming game from back in High School? Alumni always came back into town. There were huge crowds. The homecoming court was announced. And smart athletic directors always scheduled a cupcake so everyone could celebrate a win.

This first game of the season felt a bit like Homecoming. Well-loved franchise alumni returned with their red jackets. Pujols was back in StL, as both celebrity Hall of Famer attraction and player. There was a sellout crowd. Fan-favorites and team legends Wainwright, Pujols, and Molina won the popular vote in a landslide and certainly qualify as this year’s royal court. The home team faced down the lowly Pirates.

Final score 9-0 good guys.

Wainwright threw a gem. His first of many.

Tyler O’Neill hit a homer. His first of many.

Paul Goldschmidt walked a bunch. His, uh, many of many.

There was plenty that went right on Thursday afternoon. Some of it was meaningful. Some of it wasn’t. But with a one-game sample to consider, we’re going to make much of it regardless.

Here are 10 tidbits I noticed from Opening Day that might serve as evidence for season-long trends:

1. Tyler O’Neill should get a ton of RBI chances (and MVP votes).

O’Neill had a tremendous Opening Day, going 2-3 with a homer and driving in 5 runs. Heading into this season it was reasonable to expect some regression from TON. His breakout ’21 was at least partially fueled by a high BABIP. However, undergirding that luck on balls in play was impressive exit velocity data. One day in and he’s at it again. His three balls in play on Thursday went 86.8, 92.9, and 104.6 mph. He muscled a sinker that was inside, off the plate deep into the left field bleachers. He smoked a single through a defender. Carlson and Goldschmidt were on base in front of him all night. He’s proof that if you just hit the ball hard and have guys on base really good things can happen.

No, I’m not getting ahead of myself with the MVP talk, since he finished 8th in the race last year. But there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to build on ’21. With better luck on health, a higher place in the lineup all season, and high OBP hitters in front of him, the sky is the limit on his counting stats.

2. Paul Goldschmidt is going to walk. A lot.

Speaking of high OBP hitters in front of O’Neill, Paul Goldschmidt continued to build on his hot Spring Training with a 1-1 day that included 4 walks. If I have one critique of Goldschmidt’s performance in his Cardinals career, it’s that he has not been able to translate his incredibly high walk rates to St. Louis. The power is there, when adjusted for park factors. The great bat-to-ball ability, too. The glovework and baserunning are holding up, despite his age. Walks? Not so much. From ’12 to ’18, Goldy averaged a 14% walk rate with the Diamondbacks. That’s dropped to 11.4% in his time with the Cardinals, and just 9.9% last season. Goldy is at his best when he supplements his unique ability to drive the balls with high contact with an impeccable batting eye. If game one is any indication, his focus on intentionally drawing walks is back. If that holds up along with the rest of his game, the Cardinals are going to score a lot of runs this season.

3. Yadier Molina is still swinging at everything.

Not all of these tidbits are positive. Yadier Molina’s pitch selection on Opening Day was abysmal. In his first at bat, against a struggling Brubaker, Molina saw one pitch outside of the zone and tapped it back to the pitcher. The next time up Brubaker started him with a slider at the bottom corner of the zone – a pitch few hitters could drive. Molina lifted it into center for a can of corn. In his third AB, he took a wasted sinker before driving an inside fastball into the ground for an easy double play. Maybe Albert got in his ear because during his next AB he intentionally took the first few pitches before popping out. This has become a trend for Molina, who finished in the 2nd percentile in chase rate and was nearly as bad in walk rate. The problem is Molina still has solid contact skills. So, when he swings at bad pitches, he tends to make contact, leading to poor results. He did throw out a runner, though. This very well could be a year where we frequently reminisce, “well, he sure was a good catcher, wasn’t he?” and leave the rest unspoken.

4. Wainwright’s command is still impeccable.

Cardinals ace and legend Adam Wainwright was excellent on Opening Day, scattering just 5 hits over 6 innings without allowing a run. He struck out 6. More importantly, he didn’t walk anyone. An underrated part of Wainwright’s late-career renaissance has been the return of his ability to both limit walks and keep the ball out of the center of the zone. From ’16 to ’19, Waino’s BB% was 8.0. Not bad. But not elite Wainwright. He had a 5.7% in ’20 and 6.0% last season. Much closer to peak Waino. He can still control his curveball for strikes in the zone or just below to generate a few whiffs. More impressive is his ability to limit contact on his weak fastball. Wainwright didn’t throw any pitch above 89.7 mph. Yet, he only allowed 2 balls in play on his sinker. For ’20 and ’21, Waino has allowed just a .299 and .228 wOBA against his primary fastball. How can such a slow pitch prove so effective in the age of high-velocity arms? Impeccable command. He doesn’t just throw it for strikes. He throws it where he wants to throw it. Command of the fastball. Control of the curve. The combination is deadly at any velocity.

5. Pujols vs. right-handers is the wrong matchup.

I’m not complaining about Pujols starting on Opening Day. It had to happen. A big reason he’s back in Cardinals’ red is to generate fan interest and sell tickets. It worked. 1 game. 1 sellout. More are coming. The problem is that Albert just isn’t very effective against right-handed pitchers. Over the last few seasons, his wRC+ against righties has been well below average. Opening Day was a microcosm of what we’re likely to see. Yes, he hit the ball hard. All five of his PAs ended with balls in play. 3 were over 90 mph. One was a 106 mph liner that had a .700 expected batting average. That’s a continuation of last year when he had solid exit velocity data but he still had weak production stats against righties. Hopefully, Marmol sticks with Pujols’ strengths. I think he can contribute against lefties. But it’s hard to expect much from him against righties.

That’s my five biggies. Now for a few quick hits:

6. Helsley’s velocity is back and more.

Perhaps the most eye-popping statistic from Opening Day was Ryan Helsley’s velocity. Helsley averaged 99.7 mph on his 4-seam fastball. His hardest pitch was 101.5. I checked and that is the hardest pitch that Helsley has ever thrown. He had a 101.3 back in May of ’21 and a 101.1 the same day. His avg. fastball velocity last season was just 97.4 mph. Yes, he’s always been capable of touching 100+; it’s just not something he’s done routinely. To produce a 101.5 and a 99.7 mph average on game 1? In the cold? It’s a great sign for him going forward. As was his ability to generate whiffs and poor contact in and below the zone.

7. Cabrera’s velocity is something to keep an eye on.

Helsley’s velocity was way up. Cabrera’s was way down. His fastball velocity was just 94.2 on the day, down from 97.6 last season. This was something that showed up in the spring as well. Kudos to Jeff Jones for catching this and reporting about it on Twitter. Turns out there’s no injury concern here. When Jones asked, Marmol indicated that Cabrera was struggling to get a grip on the ball in the cold and dialed things back so he didn’t lose control. This is something worth watching.

8. Carlson is going to be a fine lead-off hitter.

It’s just one day, but Carlson did everything that you could ask out of a leadoff hitter. He turned an awkward popup into a double. He hit a sac fly – I like having the speedy Bader and Edman batting in front of him when the lineup turns over. He scored two runs. He looked pretty good overall at the plate. We know he’ll walk, too. There’s a different feel to the lineup with him at the top of it instead of Tommy Edman. He’s going to have a very productive season.

9. I don’t care as much about Tommy Edman’s bat when he hits 9th.

Edman, meanwhile, felt like an asset down in the lineup. He still has sneaky flashes of power. His HR was 112.6 mph and should hold up as one of the hardest-hit balls of the season. He still swung at too many pitches out of the zone. This bothered me all season from the leadoff spot but I didn’t find myself caring at all about it as the #9 hitter. I’m more comfortable with having his Gold Glove-caliber defense on the field and his “turn it into a double” speed ahead of Carlson and Goldy when he does get on base. This is where Edman belongs in the lineup. Plus, it will limit the number of PAs he gets.

10. Oli Marmol did not use his bench.

It was a 9-0 game and Opening Day, but the club spent the offseason talking about using matchups, playing the numbers, and utilizing platoon advantages. One game in and Marmol did not make an offensive substitution despite some places where he could. Does it matter? No. Not yet. But it’s something to watch. DeJong, Bader, Pujols, and Molina are all players who could benefit from strategic substitutions. Probably Edman, too. Nootbaar, Dickerson, and Sosa should get plenty of use in the right situations. Knizner, also, is probably a better hitter than Molina at this point. Saturday and Sunday will be more telling. Here are Marmol’s comments from his first post-game presser! I like how straightforward he was in answering questions.

It’s one game. One very good game. But it’s hopefully a sign of things to come. Enjoy your Saturday!