The first series of the MLB season are in the books, and they had everything: Exceptional pitching performances, walk-off hits, surprising heroes, confusing managerial decisions, even the odd benches-clearing incident. There’s a lot to process, but after spending four days hooked up to MLB.tv like the guy from Project Overlord in Mass Effect 2, I’ve identified eight events and story lines that stood out.
Pitchers Are Hearing Voices, and That’s a Good Thing
The biggest change to the rules this year is obviously the introduction of the DH to the National League, but no. 2 on that list is the debut of PitchCom. Rather than using hand signs to call pitches, catchers can now use a pager on their wrist to send the call to a tiny receiver tucked into the pitcher’s cap. (Between PitchCom and the newfangled NFL-and-NHL-style umpire microphones, this is a big year for wireless technology in baseball.)
Conceived as an anti-sign-stealing measure, PitchCom was also touted as a way to improve pace of play. A catcher using hand signs has to wait until the pitcher is at the rubber with the ball and the batter is facing him, and then he could have to cycle through as many as half a dozen signs to deliver his message. Now, the catcher can call the pitch anytime with the press of a button. We’ll see whether PitchCom achieves either goal—if NFL teams can hack coaches’ headsets, some assistant GM for doing crimes is going to figure out a way to tap PitchCom eventually. But it certainly feels like the game is moving along slightly more briskly.
A true revolution in pace of play is going to require a pitch clock and a rule to keep batters from stepping out (and probably restrictions on pitching changes). But this is a start.
National Broadcasts Get a Facelift
This weekend, baseball fans were treated to several innovations in the art of broadcasting, most notably the debut of the new ESPN Sunday Night Baseball booth and the Apple TV+ Friday night games.
The ESPN crew of Karl Ravech, Eduardo Pérez, and David Cone called Thursday night’s Reds-Braves game before heading up the coast for Sunday night’s [checks notes], it says here the Yankees and Red Sox were on Sunday Night Baseball, but that can’t be right. This new crew was always going to be an improvement over the outgoing Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez—Ravech and Perez are longtime veterans of the ESPN booth, and Cone’s work on YES Network has made him one of the most popular local color analysts in the country. And sure enough, they were good from Opening Day.
One of the selling points of this booth is the fact that Perez and Cone are both extremely thoughtful and well-prepared analysts, and unlike certain other national broadcasters, they understand that they’re not the main attraction. It’s definitely not a high bar to clear, and if you’re committed enough to watch an entire baseball game, you’re committed to listening to some folks talking for three or four hours. But it’s just a much more pleasant experience when said folks are enjoying and engaged with what’s going on in front of them, rather than griping or trying to prove a point the whole way.
Even old gags that didn’t work before, like the in-game interview, passed with flying colors on Opening Day. Joey Votto, who’s taken on a Chris Traeger–like joie de vivre during a self-described midlife crisis, delivered a delightful conversation with Ravech and Co. during the fourth inning of Thursday’s game.
Votto’s interview, and the sequel on Sunday with Red Sox center fielder Enrique Hernández, showed that this oft-maligned format can work, if the player being interviewed is down.
In contrast to the venerable ESPN production, Apple’s first weekend in the baseball business was somewhat unorthodox—and a bit bumpy. On one hand, it’s annoying that MLB’s new streaming partnerships with Peacock and Apple require fans to find and navigate more apps, particularly if said fans are already paying for cable and MLB.tv. (What does $140 a season get you anymore if you can’t watch games that are on local TV, national cable, Peacock, or Apple, or if you live in Iowa?) But there are advantages to broadcast partner diversification. For instance, while RSNs around the country continue to trot out dyspeptic Hall of Famers, the Apple booths skewed young and both featured at least one female broadcaster. And Apple, with less skin in the game and tradition to respect than ESPN, tried some shit.
The graphics, as you might expect from Self-Congratulatory Minimalism, Inc., are sleek and unobtrusive. The picture quality looked great. And one of the more interesting innovations of the broadcast is a probabilistic prediction in the corner of the screen, even if the numbers it popped out sometimes didn’t pass the smell test. Both broadcast crews also ran into the same problem as the A-Rod Sunday Night Baseball booth—treating the game as background visuals for a talk show. The booth on the Astros-Angels game digressed through a Mike Trout at-bat and an Alex Bregman home run, for example.
But this is the tech company disruptor bargain in miniature: They come in, try new stuff—some of which is super cool and some of which doesn’t work at all—and make mistakes that could’ve been avoided if they’d taken better advantage of institutional knowledge. But it’s early, and there are some signs of a promising future once Apple gets more experience.
Padres Twirl Consecutive No-Hit Bids
Everything that happens in the first weekend of the season is a statistical blip. Remember last year, when the Orioles went to Fenway and swept the Red Sox? Baltimore eventually lost 110 games, and the Sox went to the ALCS. It’s all noise.
But some pieces of noise are funnier than others. On Thursday, Yu Darvish—himself no stranger to April no-hit bids—kept the Diamondbacks hitless for six innings. Manager Bob Melvin lifted Darvish for Tim Hill in the seventh, and Hill allowed a single to the first batter he faced. Arizona eventually came back to win on a Seth Beer walk-off grand slam, apparently on National Beer Day. (Or so they say—any day can be National Beer Day if you want it badly enough.)
No matter, because the next night, Sean Manaea threw seven no-hit innings. Once again, Melvin called for Hill, and once again Hill allowed a single to the first batter he faced. The Padres became the first team in modern MLB history to pull two different starters from no-hit bids of at least six innings and fewer than 100 pitches—not only in consecutive games, but over the course of an entire season. It made Joe Musgrove’s Saturday night start, on the first anniversary of his no-hitter, appointment TV. But Musgrove merely allowed five hits and two runs over six innings to take home an easy win. What a letdown.
The White Sox Weather a Wild Weekend
Chicago’s large, hirsute rotation had already taken a hit when Carlos Rodón left for San Francisco (he had 12 strikeouts in 5 innings in his Giants debut), and Lance Lynn went down with a knee injury. And injuries to Yoán Moncada, Garrett Crochet, Joe Kelly, and others had depleted depth all over the roster. Then Opening Day starter Lucas Giolito tweaked an abdominal muscle and landed on the IL, and A.J. Pollock had probably the worst weekend of anyone in the league.
On Friday, Pollock misplayed a ball on the warning track, turning an out into a walk-off single for Javier Báez.
Couldn't have scripted it if we tried. pic.twitter.com/Qo2DoIQkyf— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) April 8, 2022
Then about 24 hours later, Pollock tweaked his hamstring and had to leave the game.
The White Sox still managed to take two of three against a tough division rival in Detroit, and the injuries to Giolito and Pollock don’t seem to be too severe. But it was a much hairier opening series than they would’ve liked.
Washington Blossoms Sartorially
It was a busy weekend for baseball fashion, with the Astros introducing sharp NASA-inspired City Connect jerseys and Fanatics—the monopoly that’s ruining sports fan gear—somehow failing to deliver the Phillies’ alternate uniforms for the weekend’s day games.
But Washington stole the show. There’s nothing wrong with the Nationals’ base uniforms. It’s just that they’re red, white, and blue with script, in a division where the Phillies and Braves had already made red, white, and blue with script a core part of their team identities. They’re also not as good as the red, white, and blue look the franchise left behind in Montreal. It’s boring.
This weekend, though, the Nats showed up in their City Connect uniforms.
The bloom is here!— MLB (@MLB) April 9, 2022
It's the debut of the Nats Nike City Connect unis. pic.twitter.com/nsliQrd1pN
SOTO SHUFFLE CHERRY BLOSSOM CLEATS ALERT pic.twitter.com/A0pnyBL8EE— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) April 10, 2022
This new look not only ties into a well-known and instantly recognizable bit of local culture—Washington’s cherry blossoms—it introduces a unique floral motif and uses two of the most underused colors in sports: gray and pink. They’re incredible. The Nationals should throw their normal uniforms in the trash right now.
The Blue Jays and Rangers Are at It Again
The Blue Jays hype train hit some unsteady track on Opening Day, as the Texas Rangers tagged José Berríos for four runs in a third of an inning and went on to lead 7-0 by the fourth. But the train kept chug-chug-chuggin’ along, as Toronto scored eight straight runs in the middle third of the game and completed the biggest Opening Day comeback since 1950.
This was the series to watch if you love huge comebacks, because on Sunday, the shoe was on the other foot, or the petard was being hoisted, or something like that. Texas, having fallen behind 6-1 after three innings, scored 11 unanswered runs to salvage one game of the series. Whoever would have guessed that these two teams would produce such out-of-control baseball.
Steven Kwan Is Always on Base
When Steven Kwan started gaining buzz as an AL Rookie of the Year dark horse this spring, I thought, “How strange that there are two Steven Kwans.” I remembered an outfielder by that name who played with Nick Madrigal and Adley Rutschman at Oregon State, a skinny guy who looked like he’d get the bat knocked out of his hands in the pros. Surely there had to be another.
Three games into Kwan’s MLB career, I seem to owe him an apology. Kwan made the most of his first taste of MLB action; in one series with the Guardians, he went 8-for-10 (including 5-for-5 on Sunday), with three walks and a hit-by-pitch. There was no shortage of significant and/or impressive MLB debuts this weekend: Spencer Torkelson, Bobby Witt Jr., Bryson Stott, Hunter Greene (I don’t think anyone’s ever made 100 miles an hour look this easy), Julio Rodríguez, and so on. But Kwan lapped the field.
Jeremy Peña’s Parents Top Week 1 Power Rankings
Even though Kwan had the best weekend as a rookie, he didn’t have the top moment. That belongs to Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña, who has big shoes to fill, seeing as how he’s replacing Carlos Correa in Houston’s lineup.
Peña not only homered in his second big league game, he did so while Heidi Watney was interviewing his parents live on the Apple TV+ broadcast.
Baseball is the best.— Houston Astros (@astros) April 9, 2022
Jeremy Peña hits his first career home run during a live interview with his parents during the at-bat. pic.twitter.com/GWE6IfiIRT
Moments like this happen more than you’d think, but they never get old. MLB as a business can be depressingly cynical, but baseball is still romantic. Watching the Peñas celebrate the home run, you can see every parent who’s driven their kid to Little League practice while there’s still snow on the ground or sat through interminable U10 games in which the kids are old enough to pitch but too young to throw strikes. You have to be made of stone not to eat this up.