A Guide to Opening Day

Marcus Stroman takes on Chris Archer in the marquee matchup of opening day. (via Arturo Pardavila III & Howell Media Solutions)

Marcus Stroman takes on Chris Archer in the marquee matchup of opening day. (via Arturo Pardavila III & Howell Media Solutions)

Finally. The wait is nearly at an end. On Sunday, real live major league baseball games that count will return to laptops, radios, televisions and metropolitan stadia for the first time in more than five months. It’s been so long that the last time a meaningful major league game was played you hadn’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Steph Curry had only 17 3-pointers on the season, and Ben Carson was running neck and neck with Donald Trump in Republican primary polling.

The nature of baseball makes its hibernation particularly challenging for the sport’s aficionados. From April through September, it is part of the daily routine for fans and, although there are occasional baseball-free days during the playoffs, the intensity of October baseball does little to ease fans into the game’s annual disappearance from daily life.

Opening Day is a joyous occasion. It marks the first game for teams that will thrill us in the upcoming season. Players who are about to turn in surprise Cy Young and MVP level seasons will be throwing their first pitches and taking their first plate appearances. And, sure, some players and teams are about to embark on seasons that will disappoint and frustrate but leave that negative energy for the other 161, Debbie Downer. Opening Day is about fresh starts, hope, and the promise of the gloriously unexpected.

Since 2001, 14 of 15 season openers have featured one solitary showcase game to help fans transition back into the season. The only exception was a disappointingly overwhelming set of six overlapping games to begin the 2011 season. This year, however, MLB is unveiling a new triple-header season opener format, with three games airing on the ESPN Network. Start times for the games are 1:05 EDT/10:05 PDT, 4:05 EDT/1:05 PDT, and 8:37 EDT/5:37 PDT which means this Sunday will feature 10 or more consecutive hours of meaningful baseball.

It is here that I must urge you to remember that you have not watched a real major league game for more than five months. You are not in midseason form. If you’re a runner, would you take a five month break from running and then immediately go run a half-marathon? Of course not. It is critical that you take the time to adequately prepare for Sunday or else you’ll burn out before catching a glimpse of the 2015 American League MVP in Game No. 2 or the reigning champs in Game No. 3. It’s going to be a long, beautiful day. Let’s get ready for it.

If you’re anything like me, the most important thing you can do is make sure you have a food and drink plan for the day. Get your favorite takeout order ready or prepare a delicious crock pot meal before the games begin. Load up a cooler with your beverage of choice. Ten hours is a long time, so don’t forget water and snacks to hydrate and replace all the calories you’ll burn celebrating baseball’s return.

The next most critical component of your preparation is avoiding stimulation overload by identifying story lines and match-ups to focus on in advance. Although I can’t take you food shopping to help you get ready for the big day, I can help you sort through what you need to know about the games before they begin. Let’s break them down one at a time.

Game No. 1 – St. Louis Cardinals at Pittsburgh Pirates 1:05 EDT/10:05 a.m. PDT

This will be the 135th Opening Day for both the Cardinals and Pirates franchises and the 33rd time the teams have faced each other on Opening Day — 34th if you count 1939, when the Cardinals’ first game of the year was against the Pirates even though the Pirates opened their season a day earlier against the Cincinnati Reds. Incredibly, the last time St. Louis played its first game of the season in Pittsburgh was in 1977, when the Cards’ leadoff batter was Lou Brock, the Pirates had Willie Stargell in the middle of their order and Three Rivers Stadium was not quite seven years old — less than half the age PNC Park is now.

The two teams’ most recent Opening Day match-up was in 2009 in a game that featured a few of the key players in their upcoming 2016 showdown. The Cardinals catcher seven years ago was, of course, the great Yadier Molina. With his appearance in the Cardinals lineup this Sunday, Molina will make his 12th straight Opening Day start for the Cardinals. The only other player who will be able to boast as long an active streak of Opening Day starts with one franchise is David Wright who will make his 12th consecutive Opening Day start for the Mets on Sunday evening.

Another player for the Cardinals in that 2009 opener was David Freese. If you were lucky enough to watch the brilliant 2011 playoffs, you know that Freese would go on to extraordinary postseason heroics for St. Louis and be named the MVP of both the National League Championship Series and the World Series. Just three weeks ago, Freese signed with the Pirates as a free agent and is expected to be their Opening Day third baseman. Opening Day will mark his first appearance against his former team. The moment won’t be quite as poignant as the one that’s sure to occur when Freese returns to St. Louis as a visitor later this season, but the sight of a Cardinals postseason legend stepping to the plate against his former teammates for the first time will be one to pay close attention to.

As far as I’m concerned, though, the most compelling player to watch in this game is another player who started that 2009 opener: Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright. This will be Wainwright’s first regular season start since he suffered an Achilles tendon injury on April 25, 2015. Although the injury was expected to end his 2015 season, he did return to the team and appeared out of the bullpen at the very end of the season. He even strung together a few impressive bullpen outings during the Cardinals’ Division Series match-up against the Cubs.

When healthy, Wainwright has consistently been among the best pitchers in the league. At the risk of sounding the alarm prematurely, however, it is worth noting that Wainwright will turn 35 this summer and an unavoidable fact of baseball (and life in general) is that dominant performance cannot last forever. Eventually the decline phase of his career will take hold, whether it’s this year or a year in the not too distant future. The Cardinals won 100 games last season and did so largely without Wainwright, so it’s not as though they can’t succeed without him at his best. But a successful return of their ace will go a long way to helping them to a strong 2016. This game will provide the first hints as to what 2016 Wainwright will look like.

Need even more reasons to tune in? The game will also feature perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, stealth MVP candidate Starling Marte, and two Cardinals – Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty – looking to build upon successful rookie seasons.

Game No. 2 – Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays 4:05 EDT/1:05 PDT

Sunday’s second game is another meeting of division rivals albeit one without the extensive history of the Pirates/Cardinals. The American League East is one of the more fascinating divisions in baseball entering the 2016 season because there’s a reasonable case to be made for each of the teams in the division to be competitive. Toronto and Tampa Bay are a particularly intriguing match-up within that division because of the way in which their strengths match up against each other. The Blue Jays are a defensible pick to repeat as division champs due to their spectacular lineup, while the Rays could be in store for a solid showing in 2016 on the strength of their starting pitching.

The All Scott Boras Contract Team
Spoiler: MIke Trout isn’t on it, but perhaps two Alex Rodriguezes make up for it.

It will be fun to see how their overall series plays out throughout the season and whether the Rays’ comparatively strong rotation is any match for the Jays’ lineup. In this one game, however, the Rays’ starting pitching advantage will be neutralized by the marquee pitching match-up of the day: Chris Archer vs. Marcus Stroman.

At age 27, Archer is the established ace of the two starters. He finished fifth in Cy Young voting last season and racked up more strikeouts (252) than any pitcher in the American League except for Chris Sale (276). His opponent, Stroman, will be the youngest Opening Day starter in the majors this season at age 24. After losing most of his 2015 season to a torn ACL suffered during a spring training fielding drill, Stroman will have an opportunity this season to secure his place among the league’s top pitchers.

Perhaps the most compelling part of this premiere starting pitcher showdown is that the right-handed Archer will face an elite Blue Jays lineup featuring a core – Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki and 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson – composed entirely of right-handed batters. Will the platoon edge give Archer the upper hand or will elite hitting win out regardless of handedness? Although small sample sizes are hardly predictive, it’s interesting to note that Bautista and Encarnacion have each faced Archer 39 times in their careers, more than any other major league hitter. So far Archer is the indisputable winner of these duels: He has limited Bautista and Encarnacion to .152/.256/.242 and .139/.205/.389 triple slash lines respectively.

If the hitting and pitching match-ups somehow aren’t enough to capture your full attention, keep an eye on the defense. The two center fielders in this game are both named Kevin – Kiermaier for the Rays and Pillar for the Jays – and are among the best defensive center fielders in the sport.

Game No. 3 – New York Mets at Kansas City Royals 8:37 EDT/5:37 PDT

For the first time in major league history, the two teams who faced off in the World Series are opening the following season against each other. Not only that, the starting pitching match-up – Kansas City’s Edinson Volquez vs. New York’s Matt Harvey – is the same as in the final game of the 2015 World Series.

There is no doubt which pitcher is the stronger. Harvey is a true No. 1. Now nearly two and a half years removed from Tommy John surgery, Harvey should be done with innings limits and could be kicking off the biggest season of his career. The last time Harvey toed the rubber, he held the Royals to four hits through eight shutout innings in Game Five of the World Series before the ninth inning unraveled in the blink of an eye. If anything, the Royals lineup is weaker now than it was for that game: Omar Infante replaces Ben Zobrist at second base and either Reymond Fuentes or Paulo Orlando fills in at right field for the injured Jarrod Dyson and recently departed Alex Rios.

The personnel on the Mets side will look similar to its November form, with two exceptions. Their World Series middle infield of Wilmer Flores and Daniel Murphy is now a middle infield of Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker, with Flores on the bench and Murphy a member of the Nationals, but the remainder of their lineup is the same. The key bullpen pitchers who yielded the runs that ultimately cost the Mets the deciding game of the World Series – Jeurys Familia and Addison Reed – will be back and ready to go in the late innings. On the flip side, the Royals’ bullpen will once again feature two of the best relievers in the majors: Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. Enjoy this game for how little has changed since baseball left us and for the added bonus of narratives about the Mets seeking revenge or Royals seeking to reassert their dominance.

For those of you interested in the aesthetic beauty of the sport, it’s worth noting that the Royals/Mets game be the cherry on top of a wonderful day of uniforms. Game No. 1 will feature the iconic Cardinals uniforms as well as the gloriously fresh black and gold color scheme from Pittsburgh, only slightly diminished by outdated black uniform tops which ought to have been left in the 1990s.

Game No. 2 will have two of the best modern uniform designs, highlighted by the Blue Jays’ gorgeous use of their delightfully unique font and the Rays’ simple but elegant home jerseys. The nightcap will offer a special twist on the classic Royals jersey through the use of gold lettering in celebration of their 2015 championship. The Mets have a variety of road jerseys, but my hope is that they embrace an ironic sense of humor and wear their blue jerseys with silver lettering as a subtle nod to their finish in the proverbial silver position to the Royals’ gold.

I’m reticent to declare a new format successful before its debut, but this Opening Day triple-header should be an absolute *clears throat* home run. The match-ups are ideal: three AL teams and three NL teams, both reigning pennant winners, and five of the seven teams to finish the 2015 season with 90 wins or more. The back-to-back-to-back timing is audience friendly. Watch one game, catch parts of all three games or, if you’re particularly thirsty for baseball, sit down and binge watch the full day. It’s time to celebrate, stop staring out the window, and make room in your daily routine. Baseball is back.


Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.
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slowphenom
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slowphenom

Game No.22, Don’t tease us with 22 header day!

luke
Guest
luke

yea, i’m of the mind this triple header format should be a winner. i mean, its prob not going to be as good as showing bad teams in the middle of the night in australia and japan, but should be a fun way to start.

Stephen
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Stephen

Really well written, I just got even more excited. Thank you very much, Saturday is going to feel endlessly slow.