Welcome to the first installment of The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
At a time when fewer balls are put in play than ever, Major League Baseball’s oldest franchise is conducting a thoroughly modern baseball experiment: How much does defense really matter?
Over the last two offseasons, the Cincinnati Reds have bolstered their offense by worrying less and less about their fielding. They signed Nick Castellanos, one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, and third baseman Mike Moustakas to play second base because they are both productive hitters. They figured they could limit the exposure of Moustakas’s lack of range because of all their defensive shifts, and that Castellanos’s poor outfield play wouldn’t matter as much with the Reds playing their home games at Great American Ballpark, which has some of the smallest dimensions in the game. Since it opened in 2003, more home runs have been hit there than at any other big league ballpark.
Cincinnati made the postseason in 2020, the first year of its grand experiment, and in the offseason, the Reds let shortstop Freddy Galvis leave in free agency and failed to add one to replace him. Instead, they moved third baseman Eugenio Suárez over to short, the premium infield defensive position he hasn’t played since 2015. Who cares if he makes the plays? He rakes! Moustakas is back playing third and rookie Jonathan India, Cincinnati’s first-round draft pick in 2018, is starting at second.
You can probably see where this is going. In Thursday’s opener against the Cardinals, which St. Louis won 11–7, Suárez botched his first two chances in the field and cost the Reds at least a few runs. The Cardinals were leading 1–0 in the first inning and the bases were loaded with one out when Yadier Molina bounced a routine double play ball to Suárez’s right. Going for the backhand, the shortstop whiffed at it, allowing Molina to reach and two runners to score. Then, on the next pitch, Dylan Carlson ripped a three-run homer off the right-field foul pole.
In the next inning, Paul Goldschmidt legged out an infield single to shortstop and went to second on Suárez’s throwing error. Nolan Arenado singled him home—but the run almost certainly wouldn’t have scored if not for the error because Goldschmidt would’ve stayed at first base. The next batter, Paul DeJong, grounded into an inning-ending double play.
At one point, the Cardinals led 11–3, but the Reds chipped away at the lead and made it a ballgame because, well, they can hit. Both Castellanos and Suárez homered. Castellanos went 3-for-5 and leadoff hitter Jesse Winker, another bad defensive outfielder, went 2-for-4. India, who was in the lineup at second base because the Reds were comfortable playing Suárez at shortstop, had two hits in his big-league debut.
Cincinnati’s no-glove experiment failed on Opening Day, but it’s far too soon to tell if it’s worth giving up on. If nothing else, it’s definitely worth following throughout the season.
The Yankees’ offense faltered in their 3–2 Opening Day loss to the Blue Jays in extra innings, but Gary Sánchez’s first game went about as well as they could’ve hoped.
Toronto’s ace—and perhaps only reliable starter—Hyun Jin Ryu made most of the New York hitters look uncomfortable with his effective fastball-changeup combo, biting cutter and impeccable command. The best example of that came in the first inning, when Ryu whiffed Aaron Judge on a 91-mph inside heater because Judge, expecting offspeed away, swung late at a pitch he typically crushes.
Sánchez’s struggles last season were caused in part because of poor timing and pitch recognition. He couldn’t catch up to fastballs but was too early on offspeed pitches; he let hittable pitches go by for called strikes but flailed at breaking balls nowhere near the zone. On Thursday against Ryu, a pitcher who thrives because of deception, Sánchez jumped on a first-pitch fastball and launched it 407 feet into the left field seats.
Later on, Sánchez beat out an infield single to shortstop in the seventh and led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk. He also looked comfortable on defense, blocking balls in the dirt with ease, receiving pitches well and delivering a seed to second base to catch Randal Grichuk stealing. Gerrit Cole made one bad pitch—a hanging slider that Teoscar Hernández demolished for a game-tying home run in the sixth—but otherwise was in rhythm with Sánchez after their rocky first year as battery mates last season.
• Miguel Cabrera hit the first home run of 2021, because of course he did. It was his 488th career homer, and it came in a Detroit snowstorm against reigning AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber. But the best part was Miggy sliding into second base because he couldn’t see the ball go over the fence through the snowstorm. The soon-to-be 38-year-old Cabrera wanted no part of legging out a triple. He was totally content to stay at second with a double until he realized it was gone. The Tigers beat Cleveland, 3–2.
• Speaking of crazy home runs, Cody Bellinger hit a two-run homer that was actually a one-run single and an out. In the top of the third inning of the Dodgers’ 8–5 loss to the Rockies at Coors Field, Bellinger smacked a fly ball to left that bounced out of Raimel Tapia’s glove and went over the fence. Justin Turner, who began the play on first base, had rounded second when he thought Tapia made the play and booked it back to first. In the confusion, he ran past Bellinger, who was called out because he crossed Turner in the basepath.
• Pablo Sandoval cracked a pinch-hit two-run homer off Phillies ace Aaron Nola to tie the game 2–2 with two outs in the seventh inning. The Braves had a chance to pull ahead in the top of the 10th, but Roman Quinn gunned down Ozzie Albies trying to score on a sacrifice fly to end the frame. Jean Segura singled home Bryce Harper to walk it off. Philadelphia’s bullpen survived its first test.
• The movement to get Mike Trout back to the playoffs started with a bang. With the Angels trailing the White Sox 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth, Trout ripped a single into left field to drive home David Fletcher and tie the game. Later in the inning, Albert Pujols’s bouncing grounder down the third base line scored Shohei Ohtani to give Los Angeles the lead. Newly acquired closer Raisel Iglesias retired Chicago in order in the next frame and looked filthy doing it. Is this the year we can finally believe in the Angels?