Happy Opening Day! Well, for six of the fan bases in Major League Baseball, anyway. It’s an important day for baseball fans and handicappers because the games finally matter after a very long Spring Training period. There are three games on the slate for April 3. As he did throughout last season, Adam Burke will provide picks and analysis on a daily basis for the MLB season. Not all games will be picked and most games with money lines over -140 will be skipped over, barring a strong opinion on the underdog. Compelling pitching matchups will almost always be covered.
This season, we will try to track the picks a little bit better, particularly those that are considered strong plays. Usually, many of these selections will be leans, but that will be specified and alluded to throughout the write-up of each game. Adam uses a good amount of sabermetric analysis in his MLB handicapping, so there may be some terms that readers are not familiar with. Fangraphs provides a terrific glossary for these statistics.
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Good luck this season!
St. Louis at Pittsburgh (-125); Total: N/A
Central Division rivals get the season underway as the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates throw the first pitch of the 2016 season at PNC Park in the Steel City. This game has seen some very significant line movement since open, when the Cardinals were a favorite at most shops. Now, the Pirates are a clear favorite with Francisco Liriano on the bump against Adam Wainwright.
Last season was one to forget for Wainwright, who ruptured his Achilles in a freak accident coming out of the batter’s box in his fourth start of the season. Wainwright came back and threw a handful of relief appearances, but that was it. He gave up five earned over 28 innings last year. Wainwright is as consistent as they come when he’s able to take the ball every five days. He owns a 2.96 ERA, a 3.09 FIP, and a 3.39 xFIP in nearly 1500 innings as a starter.
The Cardinals have some moving parts on offense, with Jhonny Peralta injured and Jason Heyward out. A young collection of outfielders with guys like Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk will have to carry the load offensively. There are some questions about these talented, but inexperienced bats. Not to mention, both guys enjoyed extremely high BABIPs last season that will likely regress.
On the Pirates side, Liriano is coming off of another great season under the tutelage of Pitcher Whisperer Ray Searage. Liriano was just 12-7, but he had a 3.38 ERA, a 3.19 FIP, and a 3.16 xFIP while lowering his walk rate and increasing his strikeout rate. He also threw 186.2 innings, the most in a season since 2010. Part of the reason for the line movement is that Liriano is 4-2 with a 2.58 ERA against the Cardinals over the last three seasons. Those numbers are inflated by a dominant 2013. The bigger number here is that Liriano has a 44/23 K/BB ratio over the last two seasons, spanning 45.2 innings.
With this heavy line movement, the value has shifted to St. Louis, but this game is ultimately a no-play. The total will probably come out at 6.5 with some chilly conditions in Pittsburgh and two high-quality starters on the bump. That would be a no-play as well.
Toronto at Tampa Bay (-110); Total: N/A
Two budding stars take the hill at the Trop as these AL East foes rekindle their rivalry on Opening Day. Marcus Stroman takes the mound for Toronto coming off of what was mostly a lost season for him. Stroman tore his ACL during pitcher fielding drills and returned for four regular season starts, which were great, and a few playoff starts. Stroman posted a 2.84 FIP over 130.2 innings in 2014.
The big story for Toronto, as it always is, is their offense. The Blue Jays led all of baseball in several categories, including wRC+, wOBA, HR, runs, and total awesomeness. All of those key parts are back. This is a tough matchup for Chris Archer, who was excellent from April to August last season before wearing down a little bit in September. Archer struck out 29 percent of opposing batters last season and has an arsenal full of dynamic pitches.
The key matchup here is how the top of Toronto’s order does against Archer. Righties only batted .218/.293/.329 off of the right-hander. Most of Toronto’s offensive players that do significant damage bat from the right side. I’m not a big believer in pitcher vs. team stats, because they aren’t a large enough sample size, but there’s something to be said about the fact that Archer held the Blue Jays to a .197/.265/328 slash in 152 plate appearances last season.
What keeps me off of the Rays here is their bullpen situation. With Brad Boxberger out, Alex Colome should get a crack at saves. Erasmo Ramirez and Danny Farquhar are in the setup/middle relief roles. Toronto has a very big bullpen advantage in this game and in this series.
Another consideration is that the Rays employ a lot of platoons. Lefties have hit .224/.281/.337 in 352 plate appearances in Stroman’s career. Will they have any offensive success? Normally hitters are ahead of the pitchers at this point in the season, but that may not be the case here. A small lean to the Rays, but a slightly bigger lean to the under, which should come out at 7. It would be better at 7.5. These are two excellent starters and two talented bullpens, though Toronto has more pure relievers.
New York Mets (-120) at Kansas City; Total: N/A
The last time these teams met, it was the World Series. Matt Harvey went up against Edinson Volquez. Tonight at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals get their rings and the fans get to celebrate a flag that will fly forever. Also, they’ll see Matt Harvey against Edinson Volquez. Perception could not be more different about these teams heading into the season. Projection systems predict regression from the Royals and just about everybody is enamored with the Mets’ rotation. The Mets are a clear road favorite on banner night in KC.
It was a really weird Spring Training for Matt Harvey. There were some velocity concerns and then a major non-story that Harvey has a bladder problem. I don’t put any stock in Spring Training stats, so you won’t find any in any of these write-ups. Harvey seems to be shouldering a lot of baggage already. The Mets certainly have some revenge to get, but that would be an overblown angle.
Harvey is great and he’s been a dominant starter at the big league level, both pre and post-Tommy John surgery. There’s no denying that. There’s also no denying that the Royals have a pretty decent lineup with a lot of left-handed sticks to throw at Harvey. Fifteen of the 18 home runs Harvey gave up last season came off of left-handed bats. Lefties slugged 86 points higher against Harvey than righties did.
For Volquez, who has been surprisingly competent since Ray Searage did his magic act on him in Pittsburgh, this is a good test. The Mets lineup really took off last season with David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud healthy. The additions of Michael Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes turned a well-below-average offense into a second-half powerhouse. Volquez isn’t a great pitcher. In fact, he’s really not a very good one if you go by xFIP, which has been above 4.00 in each of the last five seasons. However, Kansas City’s defense is a big-time difference maker.
Most of Kansas City’s key pieces on the position player side are back, including the really good defensive ones. That’s the element that can keep KC from regressing like people expect. That, to me, is a difference maker here in this game. There are the celebration distractions, but the Royals seem, at least on the surface, to have the team mindset it takes to overcome that.
Over the long haul, I’m more bearish than bullish on the Royals this season. But, tonight, as a home underdog paying plus money, they’re the side to look at.
One overall note: While it can be profitable to take advantage of perception biases in April, it can also be a month that will bury your bankroll. Be extremely selective at the outset and remember that big underdogs often carry value early in the season.