It wasn’t an ideal Opening Day in Cleveland by any means. For one thing, some of us bought a bunch of bratwurst and adult beverages and used a vacation day for the specific reason of watching baseball all day on Monday. The sausage got cooked, the drinks drank, but due to "cold", which nobody could have foreseen happening in the Rust Belt in early April, there was a certain Tribeness missing to it all. So Tuesday was Opening Day Redux, and the Corey Kluber/David Price match was ready to go.
It went basically as bad as it could - Price looked every bit like the Tiger version as he went seven innings of two-run, 10 strikeout ball. The only good thing about that is it won’t happen two or three more times. Kluber, avowed ace and coldblooded (oil-blooded?) cyborg that he is, looked like the 2013 version rather than what we saw the last two years. He made it into the sixth, altogether pitching 5 ⅓ innings with nine hits allowed, four runs allowed, five strikeouts and a pair of walks thrown in. Glaringly different from the dynamite performance of last year’s opening game in Houston, but the team result was the same. So let’s look at what happened, and how the Red Sox beat the Klubot.
Just for reference, all the below charts are from the catcher's point of view, so a lefty would stand on the right side of the box, and vice versa. Thanks to BrooksBaseball.com for all the charts.
Top 3rd, Two-run Home Run
Jackie Bradley Jr. isn’t a great hitter, but he’s a decent player who will make a long career for himself with a great glove and a bat that will do just enough. Especially if he can stick in center defensively. Considering the Red Sox have decided to go for him over Mookie Betts at that position, he must be doing something right. He led off against Kluber and it looked like this:
Pitch one was a 91 mph sinker, so was pitch two. It wasn’t a terrible location, neither was it good. Kluber just missed high and it was laced into right field. Bradley has destroyed the ball in Triple-A for years and has yet to click in the majors because the leap in pitching is just that extreme, but you give him a ball there and he’s going to kill it. That's a triple-A sinker if I ever saw one.
Young phenom Mookie Betts was next. The Red Sox may have found the outfield version of Dustin Pedroia in this young man. That's how heralded he is, and what kind of player he can become. His at-bat went like so:
The first pitch, a slider, missed badly. Yet another case of Kluber not quite having the touch we’re normally used to. Betts fouled off the 91 mph sinker that came next, which was right where you want to throw a sinker, maybe a bit high. Most times, with most batters, that’d be a double play. The third pitch, another sinker that didn’t sink instead grooved down the middle, essentially a faster version of a batting practice pitch and it went almost on a line into the left field bleachers. It was simply scalded, and Betts again proved his excellence, along with a triple-robbing catch a bit later in the game. Most major leaguers would have gotten a good swing on that pitch, Betts gave it a great one. He's good already and going to be great if all goes well. But you can’t throw that pitch no matter who you're facing.
6th Inning - RBI Single, Run Scoring Wild Pitch
Hanley Ramirez led off the sixth. For whatever you want to say about his ability in the field, Hanley has always been able to hit. Last year was a hideous mess, an 89 wRC+ and some of the worst left field play Fenway Park has ever seen (and that’s saying something with Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez calling that field home), but he’s more in a position than Pablo Sandoval to bounce back simply because he didn’t lose his job. Here’s a map of his at-bat:
Pitch One was a slow curve inside that he just stared at, the second a sinker that dipped low out of the zone despite a great frame job by Gomes. By the chart, it was a strike, but the zone did have some fluidity to it all game. The third was either a fastball or a sinker that didn’t sink (with Kluber they’re almost interchangeable most times) and he drive it back up the middle for a single. It was hittable, and Francisco Lindordid get a touch of glove on it, but Ramirez can smoke it no matter his situation. Even if Lindor had come up with it, it would have been a close play. A solid ground ball single.
Travis Shaw was next, en route to a 2-for-5 day. He’d already singled off Kluber, a grounder through the hole to right field. His at-bat went like so:
He saw a slider first, that pitch that Kluber has been making his name off for two years and one of the best pitches in the game. Tough going for a young guy like Shaw. Next came a change-up, a rarity for Kluber. He’s used it less than 7% of the time in his career, according to Brooks Baseball. Of course, if he can get that working in his arsenal he’d be savage. Which you could say about any pitcher. Kluber buried this one in the dirt. Plainly, still a work in progress.
Pitch three was a sinker, and by all rights that’s a good pitch and well located. Perhaps a bit too much over the plate, but diving sharply. Shaw simply dug this one out. He hit it on a line to right-fielder Colin Cowgill, who had a play as Hanley Ramirez made for third. The throw was bad, though -- offline and short -- and Ramirez made it easily. What might have been an out was instead first and third, no out. Kluber executed the pitch about as well as you can, that was just a good AB for Shaw and some bad throwing by Cowgill
Next up wasBrock Holt(!), yet another of the young crop of farmhands the Red Sox seem to be pooping out. Position players anyway. He was good last year, and he was 1-for-2, and in second, would be 2-for-3. It went like so:
Kluber got ahead 0-2 on Holt with a pair of sinkers and that third pitch, wow. If he throws that 100 times, it’s a strike about 95. I physically groaned when it was called a ball, so did 34,000 Tribe fans in the stadium. Pitch four was a fastball, no point in handing Holt anything to hit and he’d already seen a pair of fastballs further up in the zone so it was a good choice of sequencing. Unfortunately, had it needed to be a few inches higher. The eventual hit was a sinker in a great spot, and Holt got about a centimeter of his bat on it for the pinnacle of all bloops into left. Like most of the hits Kluber gave up this game, it was soft, in the right spot, and perhaps took advantage of limited range of a below average outfield. If this is what the year will look like, I’ll take the grounders finding holes from a year ago over this insanity. Ramirez scored and Shaw moved to second.
Kluber’s fourth run came after a Blake Swihart ground out that moved Travis Shaw to third. Facing Jackie Bradley Jr., Kluber threw a killer slider for strike one, then bounced a change-up that Yan Gomes couldn’t deaden enough, and it squirted to the backstop. Shaw scored. Unforced errors are as painful as bloops that keep dropping, and this was just that. He ended up walking Bradley, and that was the end of his day as the Manship steamed into port to clean up.
Watching these, Kluber was equal parts unlucky with all the bloops, squeezed by a poor zone throughout the day, and simply didn’t execute pitches when it mattered. You just can’t loft a sinker up in the zone to Mookie Betts like that, and in a big moment in the fourth, even with Yan Gomes behind the dish, why throw a pitch you aren’t comfortable with? Stick with what you know, don’t get too cute with it. Do that in June once it’s become part of the mix. His velocity wasn't where we expect it to be, but in April, you don't expect 94, especially on a cold day. We'll check back in a month or two.
The good news is, Kluber hasn’t been a great first-month pitcher for most of his career. Even in 2014 when he won the Cy Young, he had a 4.14 ERA in six games before focusing in around the low 2.00’s. He was off today, against a good lineup. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it’s just early, maybe Mookie Betts is even better than people think. We have a few days to mull it over, and he’s got a shot on the Southside against the White Sox this Sunday to set things right. Hopefully, it won't be barely above freezing this time.