The first weekend of the 2021 MLB season would’ve inevitably been enjoyable just because it’s nice to have baseball back. But the past four days have brought a bumper crop of jaw-dropping individual feats, close-fought game action, and fascinating statistical curiosities. It’s been a particularly compelling weekend of action by any standard, on the field and off.
There’s been so much going on that there just isn’t enough space to talk about every initial reaction in one post—apologies to the Astros, who put the A’s to the sword this weekend—but here are nine events and story lines that stood out through the season’s first few games.
1. fWAR, bWAR, Culture War
The biggest story of the weekend had nothing to do with anything on the field. On Friday afternoon, MLB announced that it was moving this year’s All-Star Game from Truist Park in the Atlanta suburbs to a location to be named later. This decision is a response to the passage of S.B. 202, a new state law in Georgia designed to raise obstacles to voting and suppress turnout among likely Democratic voters.
This is not the first time a major sports league has moved a marquee event in an act of political protest; in 1991, the NFL ordered Super Bowl XXVII moved from Arizona to California when Arizona refused to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The NCAA has refused to hold championship events in South Carolina and Mississippi over the display of the Confederate flag. The impulse to punish antidemocratic action with economic boycotts is understandable—hit them in their wallets, as the saying goes—but large-scale boycotts tend to hurt local workers and small business owners more than the lawmakers who are actually responsible for the objectionable policy.
With that said, moving the All-Star Game—a one-off marquee event rather than a fully realized year-round industry—draws attention to the issue at hand while limiting the broader financial impact. The Cobb County Travel and Tourism Bureau published a ludicrous estimate that losing the All-Star Game would cost the area $100 million in tourism revenue, and I’m glad they did, because we don’t get enough opportunities to use the word “poppycock” anymore. Truist Park sits in an enclave of one-plus-fives in the middle of nowhere; there wouldn’t be $100 million of revenue at the All-Star Game unless someone’s buying up a big chunk of The Battery.
Any ambivalence I felt about the league’s decision evaporated when I saw who came out to oppose it: Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia representative and QAnon adherent; Newt Gingrich, who for some reason thinks MLB is in league with the Chinese Communist Party; and former Senator Kelly Loeffler, who expressed her disappointment “that the MLB (sic) has fallen into the woke, misinformation campaign being spread by Democrats.” The Braves themselves put out a rather petulant statement that refers to Atlanta as “our city,” a phrase loaded with irony so soon after the franchise fled downtown Atlanta for a park in the exurbs.
Representative Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican who supported the failed attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election, threatened to advance legislation that would revoke MLB’s antitrust exemption. We should be so lucky. Delta Airlines also came out against S.B. 202; perhaps Duncan’s next attempt to own the libs will involve creating affordable, nationwide high-speed rail.
It remains to be seen whether or not moving the All-Star Game brings any tangible change to the state’s political landscape. Liberal corporate activism tends not to stem from moral conviction; in fact, pro sports owners tend to support conservative political causes (for tax reasons, if nothing else). But it’s a useful trailing indicator of how unpopular the Georgia voter suppression bill has become.
Now, the question remains where the All-Star Game will end up. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has offered up his city, reasoning that if the league had planned to honor the late Hank Aaron, it might as well do so in the city where he became a star. Sounds reasonable enough—now, to take a sip of coffee and see what the Wisconsin state legislature is doing with regard to voting rights …
2. Nats Remain in COVID Limbo
As the curtain drops on the first weekend of the season, eight teams have played four games each. The Nats and Mets, however, have yet to get off the ground. Washington, which opened last season with superstar outfielder Juan Soto on the COVID-19 list, had to scratch its season-opening series when a number of players either tested positive or were exposed to others who had tested positive. The current tally of players in quarantine is up to 11, and the first game of the team’s planned series against Atlanta already has been postponed.
Opening day was something of a triumphal moment for the league from both a sporting and a social perspective; it heralded the beginning of a return to normalcy after 2020 was a near write-off. Vaccination rates are skyrocketing and every team has fans in the stands—tens of thousands in some cases—but the Nationals’ outbreak serves as a reminder that the material situation has not changed that much in the past seven months.
3. Wait, Who’s That Guy?
Raise your hand if you knew who Yermin Mercedes was on Thursday. The 28-year-old rookie entered this season with just one big league plate appearance to his name—a pinch-hit groundout last August—but found himself in the White Sox lineup against the Angels on Friday night after Eloy Jiménez’s injury sent Tony La Russa rummaging through the couch cushions for right-handed power. Mercedes blew away expectations in his first MLB start, going 5-for-5 with a double and four RBI. On Saturday, Mercedes recorded three more hits in his first three plate appearances, including his first MLB home run, before a fly ball to Mike Trout in the eighth inning brought his streak to an end.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Mercedes is the first player since 1900 to start a season by going 8-for-8. Mercedes already started to regress to the mean after facing Shohei Ohtani on Sunday night, but he certainly bears watching going forward. At the very least, Mercedes has secured a legacy for himself as the millennial Tuffy Rhodes, but if his extraordinary weekend leads to him establishing himself as even an above-average bat, that would be huge news for a White Sox club that will sorely miss Jiménez.
Mercedes isn’t the only surprise from the first weekend of the season. The Toronto Blue Jays were left without a closer when Kirby Yates went down with a torn UCL before the season, but Julian Merryweather—a 29-year-old with 13 career big league innings heading into the season—has leaped into the breach. Merryweather saved both of Toronto’s wins in Yankee Stadium over the weekend, combining an eye-popping slider with triple-digit heat. Maybe the Jays won’t miss Yates after all.
4. Can’t Spell “Champions” Without “O’s”
Speaking of things that upset the established order in the AL East: The Baltimore Orioles are 3-0. Not like the Red Sox are supposed to be that good this year, but nobody saw the opening sweep coming. The Orioles, remember, are the team FanGraphs declared before the season to have a 0.0 percent chance of making the playoffs. And this was quite an emphatic sweep, featuring seven innings of one-hit ball by John Means on Friday and an 11-3 blowout to cap the series on Sunday. Cedric Mullins is hitting .692. It’s time to call up Adley Rutschman and go all in. The Yankees are on the ropes!
This is probably a repeat of last year, when three weeks into the season the O’s found themselves at 11-7 and just a game out of first place, then dropped 28 of their last 42 to end up 15 games in arrears of Tampa Bay by season’s end. But it’s still fun to see the Orioles bump their playoff odds up to a detectable fraction of 1 percent.
5. Ohtani Inspires the Entire Range of Human Emotion in Return to Mound
Ohtani, somewhat surprisingly, is entering his fourth big league season. And until Sunday night, none of the Angels’ three managers in that time had seen fit to give the people what they wanted: Ohtani on the mound and in the lineup on the same night.
Thank you, Joe Maddon.
Ohtani became the first starting pitcher in 118 years to bat second in an MLB game. And in his very first inning of work, the 26-year-old two-way star threw the hardest fastball of the season so far for a starting pitcher (100.6 mph, which he later beat with 101.1 mph heater in the third), and hit the hardest home run of the year so far (115.2 mph, on a ball that went 451 feet). For four innings, he put on precisely the kind of show the national TV audience was hoping to see.
Then, things unraveled in the top of the fifth with the Angels up 3-0. Ohtani’s command had been spotty at times despite the fact he’d pitched one-hit ball through four innings. In his final inning of work, he allowed a single, walked two, committed a two-base throwing error on a pickoff play, and threw a wild pitch that scored a run. Then, what should have been an inning-ending strikeout of Yoán Moncada turned into a farce. Strike three eluded not only Moncada but also catcher Max Stassi, and two runs and two errant throws later, Ohtani was in the dirt behind home plate after an awkward collision with José Abreu.
Shohei Ohtani was forced to leave the game after being slid into at home during this fluke play. pic.twitter.com/vMurRAHsgo— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 5, 2021
Even if Ohtani isn’t badly injured (the severity of his injury is unknown), it was a scary ending to what had been a triumphant performance mere moments before.
6. Phillies Rotation Beats Wholesale Ass
The lion’s share of the Phillies’ free-agent spending the past few years has gone toward offense: In addition to Bryce Harper’s then-record 13-year contract, the Phillies have invested in Andrew McCutchen and Didi Gregorius, and re-upped catcher J.T. Realmuto to a nine-figure deal. This team will get on base and score runs basically no matter what.
But the front end of the Phillies’ rotation isn’t too shabby either, with former Cy Young finalist Aaron Nola, $118 million man Zack Wheeler, and underrated 26-year-old righty Zach Eflin winning their first three starts of the season for Philadelphia. Against archrival and division favorite Atlanta, the trio put on a show: 20 2/3 innings, 24 strikeouts, just 11 hits, one walk, and three runs allowed. On Saturday, Wheeler actually outhit the Braves himself, going 2-for-3 with two RBI while striking out 10 over seven innings of scoreless one-hit ball. Even the bullpen, an Armando Iannucci production last year, chipped in 7 1/3 innings of scoreless relief en route to a statement-making sweep. Through three games, Phillies pitching held the four best hitters in Atlanta’s lineup—Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, and Marcell Ozuna—to a combined 3-for-44.
This series should bring a massive psychological boost to a Phillies team that’s gone to pieces down the stretch in each of the past three seasons, but don’t underrate the importance of simply stockpiling wins, even this early in the season. With as many as four teams expected to contend for the NL East title, the Phillies could end up needing every bit of the three-game lead they’ve built up over Atlanta.
7. Royals and Rangers Play Pinball
The opening day clash between these two spring training cohabitants lasted four hours and 26 minutes and featured 10 runs in the first inning alone. The two teams combined to score in eight of the nine innings as the Rangers built and then blew leads of 5-0 and 8-5 en route to a 14-10 Kansas City win. Two days later, the Rangers took a 4-0 lead into the fifth inning, whereupon the Royals exploded for three runs in the fifth and seven more in the sixth. The Rangers took a consolation win on Sunday, but this series brought some much-needed chaotic energy to opening weekend.
One thing to look for going forward: The Royals, at more than nine runs per game, are currently the highest-scoring team in baseball. That will come down once they face a better pitching staff than the Rangers’—which is to say, just about any other AL team’s pitching staff—but this lineup is surprisingly deep after the offseason additions of Michael A. Taylor and Andrew Benintendi.
8. A Deep Slide Into Home by Castellanos
I love a good benches-clearing incident, and we got a doozy just three days into the season. On Saturday, Cincinnati’s Nick Castellanos reached base everyone’s least favorite way—through a hit by pitch—and made his displeasure known to Cardinals pitcher Jake Woodford when he came around to score later that inning. Mayhem ensued.
Somehow, Castellanos was the only player ejected during the fracas—Yadier Molina, who plowed through the plate umpire as he was escalating the incident from discussion to fight, was apparently too leadershippy to get ejected. Castellanos, incidentally, also had a hell of a weekend at the plate: 6-for-11 with a double, a triple, two home runs, six runs scored, and five RBI (and zero strikeouts). I don’t know what the baseball equivalent of a Gordie Howe Hat Trick is, but Castellanos must have had one.
9. Dueling No-Hitters in Milwaukee
I spend a lot of time worrying about the exploding strikeout rate in MLB and its impact on the league’s offensive environment. From an entertainment perspective, I’d like to see fewer deep counts, more balls in play, and a little more scoring.
But there are exceptions.
On Saturday night, Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes and Minnesota’s José Berríos both held their opponents hitless through six innings, recording 23 of their 37 outs by strikeout. The only hit surrendered by either was Byron Buxton’s seventh-inning home run that ended Burnes’s night. Through the first weekend, only three pitchers—Johnny Cueto, Sean Manaea, and José Urquidy—were allowed to throw at least 100 pitches. Even Lance Lynn topped out at 4 2/3 innings and 99 pitches, both his lowest totals in almost 23 months.
I hope the fact that both managers pulled their starters before 90 pitches is a reflection of this being the first week of the season, rather than standard leaguewide practice going forward. It is, after all, only a small sample.