The Most Crucial Plate Appearances of Opening Day

The plate appearances that were the difference between 1-0 and 0-1.

When our teams lose on the first day of the season, we remind ourselves that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s just one game, after all, out of 162. A win in August is as good as a win in April. And hey, look, there’s another game tomorrow (or, Saturday in many cases)!

On the other hand, we feel our optimism creeping in after an opening day win, despite knowing all of those above maxims to be true. We won! Undefeated! Why, it’s theoretically possible for us to win 162 games this year! What if we never lose? I told you, the guys looked great in Arizona.

No other day of the season provides baseball with Schroedinger’s standings quite as well as opening day. It will be another 5 months or so, when teams begin to mathematically disqualify themselves from postseason contention, before the contrast between complete success and failure is quite as stark.

With that balance in mind, what were the most crucial plays of opening day that turned teams from division leaders to just absolute washed-up dreck in the annals of human achievement that have no hope of a World Series this year?

Leverage index measures how “important” a particular situation is in a game based on its possible outcomes to swing a team’s win expectancy. The average leverage index in a baseball game is 1; four games on opening day featured plate appearances with a leverage index of 5 or greater, meaning those were situations with five times more “importance” to the game’s outcome than an average situation. Here were those instances on opening day that most determined whether teams were undefeated or winless at the end:

Twins at Brewers: Shaw Doubles (Leverage Index: 5.0)

The Mayor of Ding Dong City is back for another term. The 2020 Brewers split time at the hot corner largely between Eric Sogard and Luis Urías, the former parted ways with the team this offseason, and the latter is generally viewed as more valuable at shortstop for the team’s 2021 hopes. As the division rival Cardinals traded for Nolan Arenado for pennies on the dollar (actually that’s misleading given the number of dollars the Cardinals were sent with Arenado), the Brewers turned to 2018-19 mainstay Travis Shaw to at least platoon third and perhaps fill in at first on some occasions.

Thursday’s opening day wasted little time putting Shaw back in the run-producing role he capably filled for the Brewers in his previous time with the team. The Brewers entered the bottom of the ninth down 5-2, with Twins closer Alex Colomé set to take the mound. Colomé will give up some walks, but also tends to strand runners on base above the league average which has led to his ERAs outperforming his peripherals throughout his career. After a hit-by-pitch, fielding error by Colomé, and Christian Yelich single, the score was 5-3, with two outs and runners on second and third for Shaw.

Shaw, after an RBI walk in the third and an out at home in the 5th in what would have been the tying run, got redemption and doubled home both Yelich and Hiura, and the Brewers would go on to win the game in the tenth.

Blue Jays at Yankees: Gleyber Strikes Out (Leverage Index: 5.16)

Finding themselves down one run after a leadoff double in the top of the 10th brought home Jonathan Davis, the Yankees had one last chance to start off with a win facing Blue Jays reliever Julian Merrywhether. Merrywhether, who was very effective in 2020 (2.27 FIP while striking out more than 10 per 9 innings), sat down Aaron Hicks on a caught-looking strikeout before whiffing Giancarlo Stanton, bringing Gleyber Torres to the plate. 

Torres is perhaps under-appreciated as a hitter. His defense gets a lot of attention which is bound to happen when you’re the Yankees starting shortstop.  But given the situation, down a run in the bottom of the 10th, there are few hitters you would want over Torres. Take these two ZiPS projections for 2021, for instance:

Avg OBP SLG HR
Player A .284 .364 .526 33
Player B .284 .365 .540 28

Player A is Gleyber, Player B is Fernando Tatís Jr. Gleyber is two years older than Tatis, but has also played in more than 100 games twice in his short career, while Tatís has yet to eclipse that mark (which is hardly his fault, given an abbreviated first season and the pandemic-shorterened 2020, but still). 

But, on this day, Torres followed in the footsteps of his Yankee teammates in the 10th and also struck out looking, giving Merrywhether a perfect inning and the Jays their first win of 2021. 

Atlanta at Phillies: Pache Strikes Out (Leverage Index: 5.60)

In the top of the 8th, with the score tied 2-2, Cristian Pache was at the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. Pache, Atlanta’s top prospect, likely swung at ball 3, a 100-mph sinker low and away from José Alvarado.

About that pitch: no player in MLB has ever averaged 100-mph on their sinker. For the past couple of seasons, Alvarado has thrown his sinker nearly 80% of the time, but the 14 he threw on opening day represented a career high 99.1 mph average. In fact, that average would have placed Alvarado second in all of baseball in the shortened 2020 season, after throwing that sinker at slower than 2 miles per hour slower last year. 

So, while Pache’s swing and miss is certainly understandable, Atlanta never quite got as good of an opportunity to flip the scoreboard in their favor for the rest of the afternoon in the 10-inning game, which the Phillies ended up winning in the 10th, making them the only NL East team with a win on opening day. 

Giants at Mariners: Brandon Belt’s Error (Leverage Index: 6.47(!))

There’s no need to pile on the Giants here, who found themselves up 5-0, then 6-1 entering the bottom of the ninth, with the Mariners having just six outs to play with. 

Tyler Rogers entered the game as the third pitcher in the half-inning for San Francisco, tasked with getting two more outs while the bases were loaded. A double and hit-by-pitch later, José Marmolejos came to the plate in a situation six times more likely to impact the game than the average situation, and well…

The Brandons (Belt and Crawford) were unable to connect on a fielder’s choice play that allowed two to score and the Mariners to take the first win of the season. The errant throw came at the worst possible moment for any team on opening day. There’s not much to be said about the result in the play. Belt and Crawford are longtime staples of the franchise, having both debuted in 2011 and earning two World Series championships in their time in San Francisco. 

They surely know as well as anyone that it’s just one game out of 162.

Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a contributor to PitcherList and writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league.

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