Buy or Sell: Shohei Ohtani, Astros and Best and Worst Starts of 2021 MLB Season
The 2021 Major League Baseball season is just 2-3 percent complete since getting underway Thursday. It's much too soon for any kind of conclusive judgments.
But knee-jerk reactions? Those are fair game.
We're specifically interested in eight especially hot or cold starts from the opening days of the 2021 season. These mostly concern individual performances, though a couple of teamwide issues also deserve special attention.
We're going to break 'em down one at a time and also buy or sell whether they have ramifications for the remainder of the season.
Best: Shohei Ohtani's 2-Way Extravaganza
As they entered this season in the shadow of five straight losing campaigns, the Los Angeles Angels have gotten off to the kind of start they were hoping for in winning four out of their first five games.
In the middle of it all has been Shohei Ohtani, who blasted two home runs and electrified in his pitching debut over the weekend. Though he walked five on Sunday, he also struck out seven and allowed just two hits and one earned run in 4.2 innings.
Notably, Ohtani nearly tied for the fastest pitch (101.1 mph) and hardest hit (115.2 mph) of MLB's opening weekend. And it was basically more of the same for him after he dominated on both sides of the ball during spring training.
Knowing how much injuries—including Tommy John surgery in 2018—have held Ohtani back in recent seasons, it's suboptimal that he also had an injury scare Sunday. But since he walked away from that unscathed and is otherwise healthier than he's been in years, everything is looking up for him.
Worst: So Much for Joc Pederson's Comeback
Considering they more or less went into rebuilding mode over the winter, the Chicago Cubs have to be happy with their 3-1 start to the season.
They must, however, feel let down with what they've gotten out of Joc Pederson so far.
After he hit just .190 with an 84 OPS+, the Cubs signed the former Los Angeles Dodgers star to a one-year, $7 million deal. He promptly teased an impending renaissance in spring training, going off for a .378/.431/1.000 line and eight home runs.
Pederson has been unable to carry that momentum into the regular season, going 0-for-10 with two walks in Chicago's opening series against the Pittsburgh Pirates before sitting Monday. Because he has six strikeouts and only two batted balls over 95 mph, he can't exactly pin his frustrations on bad luck.
Best: Jose Berrios and Corbin Burnes Put on a Show
To varying degrees, Shane Bieber, Zack Wheeler, Joe Musgrove, Julio Urias, John Means and Tyler Glasnow all put on a show with their arms during MLB's opening weekend.
Yet no two pitchers made more of an impression than right-handers Jose Berrios and Corbin Burnes in the Minnesota Twins' 2-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday. Both hurlers flirted with no-hitters and ended up with the following lines:
- Berrios (MIN): 6.0 IP, 0 H, 0 BB, 0 R, 12 K
- Burnes (MIL): 6.1 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 1 R, 11 K
For his part, Burnes ended last season with a 1.65 ERA and 51 more strikeouts than walks in eight starts after moving into Milwaukee's rotation. Clearly, he's picked up where he left off.
For his, Berrios has been an All-Star twice and showed off some new wrinkles Saturday. He not only averaged 95.1 mph but also upended his usual pitch mix by throwing more four-seamers. That is typically a good way for a pitcher to up his strikeout rate.
Worst: Luis Castillo Got Lit the Heck Up
The Cincinnati Reds must be pleased with how their season is going so far, specifically to the extent that their Nick Castellanos-led offense has demolished low expectations.
Yet it's fair to say they need ace right-hander Luis Castillo to be better than he was Opening Day. He certainly can't be any worse as he got lit up for 10 runs (eight earned) on eight hits and two walks in the Reds' 11-6 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
That was by far the worst start of Castillo's career, which has thus far seen him pitch mostly at an All-Star level. To wit, he had arguably his best season just last year as he ripped off a 3.21 ERA with 89 strikeouts over 70 innings.
It can't be ignored, however, that Castillo didn't strike out a single batter while averaging just 94.8 mph on his fastball against the Cardinals. Since that's about three miles per hour slower than his average heater from 2020, the Reds have license to be worried.
Best: Get a Load of Yermin Mercedes
In addition to Nick Castellanos, the likes of Cedric Mullins, Ketel Marte, Alex Bregman, Corey Seager and Joey Gallo have also gotten off to hot starts at the plate. Only one player, however, went 8-for-8 to start his season.
Yermin Mercedes, come on down.
Even if the Chicago White Sox rookie has gone "just" 4-for-10 after hitting safely in each of his first eight at-bats, eight hits in eight at-bats is still eight hits in eight at-bats. And it wasn't actually the 28-year-old's first rodeo as a hitting machine. He hit .317 in the high minors back in 2019.
Yet the catch, in this case, is that Mercedes has needed some help from the BABIP gods to get all his hits. He averaged just 87.2 mph on his 16 balls in play, with less than half of them clocking over 95 mph. There's thus a relatively thin layer of ice underneath Mercedes' hot start.
Worst: What's Up with Atlanta's Offense?
In terms of teamwide offensive performances, we'd be remiss if we didn't at least mention that the Kansas City Royals hit a league-best .330 in taking two of three from the Texas Rangers over the weekend.
An even bigger shocker, however, was the team that ended up on the bottom of that particular category: Atlanta, which hit just .128 (12-for-94) in the process of scoring three runs against the Philadelphia Phillies.
With reigning National League MVP Freddie Freeman, Marcell Ozuna, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies back in the fold, Atlanta's offense largely resembles the one that ranked second in runs and home runs last season. So, what gives?
Well, give some credit to a Phillies staff that was paced by excellent performances from Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin. What's more, metrics suggest that Atlanta's offense suffered from a bigger helping of bad luck than any other during MLB's opening weekend.
In other words, it was "one of those things."
Best: Here Come the Houston Astros
The 2021 season isn't over yet. But if it was, the best team in baseball would be the same one that led the league in wins between 2017 and 2019: the Houston Astros.
They put an absolute hurting on the Oakland Athletics to open their season, not only sweeping them in a four-game series but also outscoring them by 26 runs in the process. It wasn't until Monday that Houston suffered its first loss with a 7-6 defeat against the Los Angeles Angels.
Granted, the Astros also started last season strong by winning three of their first four games. But they ultimately finished just 29-31, in part because their once-mighty offense couldn't even manage a league-average OPS+. With George Springer now absent from the mix, a similar slide can't be ruled out.
Then again, Springer's departure was never going to be an issue if Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez bounced back from rough seasons in 2020. Since it's so far, so very good on that front, there's at least one reason to expect the Astros to keep it up.
Worst: The Boston Red Sox Can't Be Worse Than the Baltimore Orioles, Right?
Though the A's have lost each of their five games so far, they can at least claim to have run into two buzz saws in the Astros and Dodgers. That's a card the Boston Red Sox only wish they could play.
Because they were starting at Fenway Park and against the Baltimore Orioles, baseball's losing-est team since 2018, the Red Sox couldn't have asked for a softer opening for their 2021 season. But it ended with them losing all three games and scoring five runs against 18 runs allowed.
In fairness, only one of the games—an 11-3 loss Sunday—was a blowout. The other two were marked by strong performances from Nathan Eovaldi and Tanner Houck, both of whom will move down Boston's starting rotation once ace left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez (elbow inflammation) is ready to go.
As if on cue, Boston's offense subsequently roared to life in an 11-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday. That's more in line with what it teased in spring training, and it further bodes well that J.D. Martinez is thus far 8-for-15 with three doubles and two homers after badly struggling in 2020.