Top News, Storylines from MLB's First Full Day of Spring Training Games
Baseball is back!
If it feels like you've heard that statement multiple times over the last two weeks, it's because you have. We start saying it when pitchers and catchers report, repeat it when intrasquad games start and keep it going when spring training games begin.
Wednesday was the third instance we have used it, meaning that spring games kicked off. It wasn't a full slate, just six games between pro teams, but it does give us something to talk about after four months of free agency, trades and all sorts of speculation.
The most important thing to say about the first day of games in spring is don't get too high or low with anything that happened. Everyone's timing is off, pitchers aren't going to throw more than 20-30 pitches, and position players will be lucky to get three at-bats.
Think of today as an introduction back into the game we all know and love. Even with things not mattering much in the grand scheme of things, there are positives and negatives to take away from everything.
Here are the biggest news and stories to take away from the first day of spring games in 2014.
Note: All stats courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.
Don't Forget About Jose Bautista
He's gotten lost in the shuffle recently, mostly because the Toronto Blue Jays haven't been relevant and injuries have limited him to just 210 games since 2012, but Jose Bautista is still one of the premier power hitters in baseball.
In case you forgot what Bautista is capable of, just watch the video embedded above. It was his first at-bat of the spring and a sight for sore Toronto eyes who haven't seen the former All-Star in a game since August 20, 2013.
Jonathan Anker of HLN TV put Bautista's homer in perspective, though sitting in the frigid Midwest, I would disagree with the idea that winter is over.
Phillies starter Roberto Hernandez, who gave up two runs on four hits in two innings, didn't pull any punches describing why Bautista was able to take him yard, saying "if you keep the ball up like today, that's what happens," per Todd Zolecki, MLB.com.
Even with the injuries limiting him the last two years, Bautista has hit 55 home runs in 784 at-bats. For perspective, that home run total ranks 17th in baseball even though his 210 games is tied for 190th (min. 750 at-bats).
The Blue Jays didn't get much from their pitching staff today, though Neil Wagner did strike out the side in an inning of work. Their offense is going to be good. A healthy Bautista can make them great, but their chances of contending in the AL East hinge on how the starting rotation comes together.
New York Yankees' New Additions Come Through
The New York Yankees don't take missing the playoffs well. It's happened twice in the last six years (2008, 2013), and both times led to a massive spending spree totaling $894 million (not including the $52 million to extend Brett Gardner).
With so much money spent on free agents this offseason, $471 million to be exact, the Yankees and their fans want to see results right away.
Ask and you shall receive. Jacoby Ellsbury led off Wednesday's game against Pittsburgh with an eight-pitch walk against Francisco Liriano. Three batters later, Brian McCann hit an RBI single to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead, though the Pirates would win the game, 6-5.
Ellsbury had a very nice debut in pinstripes. He went 1-for-1 with a single, two walks and two runs scored. He, McCann and Carlos Beltran were the only projected New York regulars to play in the game, so there wasn't much else to take away from the game for New York.
McCann, in particular, sounded thrilled to get his first game in a new uniform out of the way, via Bryan Hoch of MLB.com:
It was awesome. I was a little nervous. I felt good. Any time you put another uniform and go out for the first time, you get those butterflies. To get that out of the way, to get that first step, was nice.
The other notable story for the Yankees was Dellin Betances' performance. He has battled control problems in the past but did look better with 108 strikeouts and 42 walks in 84 innings at Triple-A last year.
Betances threw two innings against the Pirates, allowing just one hit and striking out two. He could be in line for a bullpen job with a strong spring, which is a vast improvement from where he was last season.
Victor Martinez Looks to Be in Midseason Form
One great thing about the start of spring games is the way social media sites explode with information, updates and jokes about what's happening on the field.
As my fellow B/R colleague Jason Catania pointed out on Twitter, the big joke of Wednesday was everyone talking about "Player X being in midseason form," for better or worse, already.
Also in midseason form? All the "[insert #MLB player here] is in midseason form" jokes.— Jason Catania (@JayCat11) February 26, 2014
When Philadelphia's Roberto Hernandez gives up three hard-hit balls in the first inning against Toronto, including Jose Bautista's moon shot, he's in midseason form. Jacoby Ellsbury gets on base three times? Midseason form.
Sometimes it's a joke, but there are also some instances where the term is very much applicable. Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez is a sterling example. He ended the 2013 season on fire, hitting .361/.413/.500 in the second half and .405/.432/.571 in the postseason, and didn't skip a beat in his first game of 2014.
Martinez, hitting third with Miguel Cabrera out of the lineup, drove in two runs on two singles in three at-bats. It seems like whatever time of year it is, Martinez is going to hit. He got his legs back under him last season after missing all of 2012, so expect a more consistent showing from the former All-Star this year.
Billy Hamilton Already Causing Opponents Problems
Last year, in just 13 September games with Cincinnati, Billy Hamilton made his presence, and legs, known to the world. The 23-year-old stole 13 bases in 14 attempts and scored nine runs, despite starting just three of the games he played.
Hamilton wasted no time putting his legs to work in 2014, leading off Wednesday's game against Cleveland with a walk, then stealing second base and advancing to third base on a throwing error by catcher Yan Gomes.
Gomes is no slouch behind the plate, throwing out 41 percent of runners last season and taking over as Cleveland's starting catcher late in the year. Despite his defensive prowess, Hamilton made him look like a first-year minor leaguer.
There's a lot of pressure on Hamilton this season. He's taking over center field and the leadoff spot, according to general manager Walt Jocketty, via John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer, thanks to Shin-Soo Choo's departure.
There's no way the young outfielder duplicates Choo's .423 on-base percentage or 21 home runs, but as long as he is making enough contact to use his legs, the Reds will have one of the most unique talents in baseball.
So far, so good.
The "New" Trevor Bauer Looks a Lot Like the Old One
If you follow the Indians and/or prospects, you have certainly run across stories about Trevor Bauer and some changes made to his mechanics that will hopefully allow him to find the strike zone with more regularity.
Alex Speier of ESPN.com (Insider subscription required) wrote about Bauer's refined mechanics in an article earlier this month, talking to Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway about what specifically they worked on.
He never felt comfortable with his mechanics [in 2013]. He never felt they were repeatable. It led to command issues. He just couldn't throw the ball where he wanted to. He got that tilt back. He's using his body the right way. His stuff was better than I saw it throughout the season last year. Even this early, before spring training starts, his stuff is back, and that's really what we wanted to see, and his command was really good.
Without sounding all the alarm bells, because it was just one inning in the first spring game, the new Bauer didn't appear to be much different from the old one. He walked the first two hitters he faced on eight pitches and ended his day after just 12 pitches (eight balls).
On the positive side, Bauer did recover to strike out Joey Votto on three pitches and got Jay Bruce on a flyout to escape the inning unscathed, but it was hardly the banner moment the Indians or Bauer wanted in his first appearance of the new year.
It's important to keep this game in context, but after Bauer issued 89 walks in 138.1 innings between Triple-A and MLB last season, you can understand why there will be skepticism after this appearance.
Josh Reddick Wants All the Gold Gloves
If a game doesn't count in the standings, does that mean we should dismiss everything that happens?
Oakland Athletics right fielder Josh Reddick is really testing us with the day he had against San Francisco. Sure, he only went 1-for-3 with an RBI single, but it was his glove that did some heavy lifting.
For proof, just look at the catch Reddick made on Michael Morse in the second inning embedded above. That's shades of Ichiro against the Angels a few years ago. What's more impressive is Reddick robbed Morse twice in this game, also taking away extra bases in the fourth inning.
Even though Reddick is known more for his offensive prowess, slugging 32 homers in 156 games two years ago, he's also one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. He ranks third in Ultimate Zone Rating (34.2) and fifth in defensive runs saved (32) since the start of 2012, according to FanGraphs.com.
There might not be a better catch all year than the one Josh Reddick made today in the first game of spring training. Insane.— Larry Stone (@StoneLarry) February 26, 2014
His two plays on Wednesday won't do anything to help the UZR or DRS metrics, nor will anyone remember them when the games count, but what a way for Reddick to start the 2014 season.
New-Look DBacks Make Clayton Kershaw Seem Human
For at least one day, all was right in Arizona's world. The Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers 4-1 and knocked around 2013 NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw to the tune of five hits and three runs in two innings.
The Diamondbacks have reinvented themselves so many times over the last two years, it's hard to remember exactly what they are trying to do.
Justin Upton was traded to Atlanta because he didn't fit the philosophy of making contact and grinding out at-bats. Naturally, after one season of seeing how well that strategy works, the Diamondbacks added Mark Trumbo's .299 on-base percentage in a trade.
Bernie Pleskoff of MLB.com noted an interesting trend that was happening to the Diamondbacks in this game.
Something to keep an eye on: #Dbacks have been called out on strikes three times already in first 4.1 innings. I'm just sayin.— Bernie Pleskoff (@BerniePleskoff) February 26, 2014
Arizona would finish the game with 11 total strikeouts. There's nothing wrong with punching out, but the team has tried to build a lineup that gets away from that, so it's something to keep an eye on.
The last two times we have seen Kershaw, including Game 6 of the NLCS, he's given up 15 hits and 10 earned runs in six innings. Clearly he's fallen off a cliff and should not be put in the same category as the best pitchers in baseball.
Yasiel Puig Still Doing Yasiel Puig Things
It was not a banner offseason for Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who was arrested December 28 on reckless driving charges after reportedly going 110 mph in 70-mph zone, according to the Naples Daily News.
The charges were later dropped, according to TMZ Sports, but it did bring up more questions about Puig's maturity level and whether his all-out personality on and off the field would be too much of a distraction.
In typical Puig fashion, he wasted no time making an impact this spring. He singled on the first pitch he saw from Arizona starter Brandon McCarthy in the first inning, then drove in the Dodgers' lone run with a double in the third inning.
Since this was a Dodgers-Diamondbacks game, when the Dodgers and Puig were roundly criticized by Arizona for having the nerve to jump in the pool at Chase Field after clinching the NL West, there was a lot of venom directed at Puig when he stepped up to the plate.
Lot of boos for Yasiel Puig before his first at-bat. Puig singles, maturely stops at first base. pic.twitter.com/aAaVrrdlTO— Dylan Hernandez (@dylanohernandez) February 26, 2014
It didn't stop with the fans booing, as the Diamondbacks' radio broadcast felt they should have taken things a step further for what happened last year (h/t Yahoo Sports' Big League Stew).
D-backs radio station advocates team hit Dodgers' Yasiel Puig to "pay debt' http://t.co/yGaI0BcD2H— Big League Stew (@bigleaguestew) February 26, 2014
It's good to know that adults are capable of getting past one overblown event that happened five months ago. The radio announcers should probably just realize that if the Diamondbacks won the game, none of that would have happened.
But when all else fails, blame Puig.
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