Opening Day weekend, though a small sample size, does matter

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Small sample sizes, in a face turn, actually do matter.

Easily the stupidest thing that has been posed as factual within the sabermetric writing community is that drawing any conclusion before, say, mid-season, is wrong and should be ignored. This parry was usually issued against takes that looked something like this: “X hitter has five home runs in his first five games, so he’s on pace for 162!”

We know that’s wrong because many of us know how statistics at a very basic level work, yet it’s also false that those first five home runs don’t matter at all. They count on the stat sheet; they contribute to any wins or losses that occurred alongside those events; and, most importantly, they adjust our expectations ever-so-slightly moving forward. If you were projected for ten home runs over 162 games and you hit five in the first five, then we should reasonably expect you to now hit closer to 15… which matters!

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So the distinction that should be made is that our judgments or expectations can be adjusted, and sometimes we can even draw hunches based on a more noteworthy datum during those small samples, but there should be at least some semblance of “moving the needle,” even in a small amount of time.

Let’s get to some of those narratives.

The Rays are better positioned for a playoff run

Of all the teams that jumped really at all in playoff odds, the team that made the biggest leap were the Tampa Bay Rays, who won three of their four games against the Astros, and have seen their playoff odds tick from 29.1 to 45.4 percent, eclipsing that of the Twins.

Even despite the Yankees and Red Sox being a lock for a division spot and a wild card, one should be rather optimistic about the Rays. Again, our priors haven’t changed that they won 90 games last year, and to add that small datum that could stick out, it’s Yandy Diaz, acquired from the Indians, and already showing off eye-popping exit velocity numbers:

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The Cubs should still be worried about Yu Darvish

The Cubs suffered from the opposite effect of playoff odds, seeing them drop from 65.1 to 56.1 percent. That probably has more to do with the teams around them, but one thing that really looked sub-optimal was the last start from Darvish, who had a line even I couldn’t resist talking about:

In fact, that was his first with more than six walks in his major league career, as well as his shortest outing. He could rebound; it could be rust; but, sometimes a small sample matters. If we’re hoping he throws 130 innings of 3.60-3.75 ERA ball, maybe you adjust the innings downward a bit and the ERA up a bit? Either way, the 90th percentile outcomes look a little more improbable, and the Cubs should hope he at least rights the ship to normal waters soon.

Bryce Harper is back

One of the most—if not the most—exciting story lines of the first weekend is Harper’s homecoming in Philadelphia, where the Phillies established themselves as the only undefeated team as they swept the Braves. That’s neither here nor there; we’re going to see them and the Nats and Mets duke it out all season, but what was more encouraging was Harper’s eyebrow-raising home runs, one of which he hit a whopping 465 feet.

As former writer Devan Fink succinctly puts it, his two home runs were better hit balls than almost any ball he put into play last season, meaning that this could be some early season fluke, or truly a sign of things to come. Or, it raises the question about…

Is the Juiced Ball™ back?

It took commissioner Rob Manfred nearly a year more than everyone else with two eyes to recognize that the ball had changed in baseball after mid-2015. It’s hilarious to me that Mr. Fix-The-Game, who has seemingly isolated every aspect of the sport down to a science such that he can tweak this change here, or adjust this element there, to “fix” the game, either ignores or fails to understand that the actual currency of the game has changed significantly.

While 2018 was a slight respite from the otherworldly levels; well, folks, it looks like the juiced ball is back. Fly balls are slightly up, which is in line with overall offensive strategy, and now HR/FB% is similar to that of 2017:

Yet that has yielded an average home run per plate appearance beyond even what we saw in 2018, tabulating 102 home runs in just 2941 plate appearances:

What this means… I don’t know. It could be normal fluctuation, but league-wide stats in fact aren’t small samples! We have thousands of plate appearances showing that even more home run records could be broken, and we’re in the supposedly more home run-negative part of the season. If this trend holds while the weather gets warmer, we could be in for a real ride that Manfred will pretend doesn’t exist.

While you can’t argue that hitting streaks will last forever from Opening Day or that we can change our predictions outright, the first weekend does matter, like all games do. I hope we can retire the notion that there should be an early-season moratorium on analysis and understand that every step along the way is just as important as the last.

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