MLB.com Columnist

Joe Posnanski

Opening Day always comes at perfect time

Statcast adding new dimension as 2017 season begins

Opening Day always comes at perfect time

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Snow still piles high on the sides of the roads in Cooperstown. It's melting, though, slowly melting, and that's the point. A couple of workers dig through a three-foot snowdrift to get to the board in front of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. They take down the posters advertising movies playing down the road. They clear the space for a blank scoreboard, the place where every day, all summer long, they will list the scores.

Opening Day is here. Finally. Yankees vs. Rays, Giants vs. D-backs and Cubs vs. Cardinals.

Baseball has always this wonderful advantage over the other sports because Opening Day comes at exactly the right time. Football season starts just as school gets going, just as the work schedule picks up again after the lazy summer. Basketball and hockey begin as we approach winter; they promise only small escapes from the shorter days, the longer nights, the icy roads, the Christmas rush, the dark rides to work and home again.

But baseball's Opening Day comes at the perfect time, as the days stretch out, as coats and scarves get buried in the backs of closets, as the dreams of graduations and summer vacations and days at the swimming pool begin to feel real. Only a handful of people walk through the Baseball Hall of Fame in the winter. Now, more and more, they begin to come.

"Are you ready for Opening Day?" the greeter asks each of them. Of course they are.

They come for many things, of course: to see the plaques of the all-time greats, to get goosebumps watching the video of George Brett charging the umpire after the pine-tar home run, to see Wonderboy, the bat Roy Hobbs used in "The Natural," or the hear Abbott and Costello do their "Who's on First?" routine one more time.

People come to Cooperstown to be immersed in the language of baseball again, after a long winter without the game. We barely realize that so many of the things that we say in baseball make no literal sense now. We say that ballplayers dress in a clubhouse, not a locker room. Why? Because baseball began with actual clubs, amateur players who got together in a clubhouse, smoked cigars, talked about business or the weather or their feelings about Ulysses S. Grant, and then went out and played baseball.

We talk about a ball getting hit "through the box." There is no box on the pitcher's mound … but there used to be, long ago, back when the rules demanded that pitchers throw underhand.

And for that matter, that's why they're still called "pitchers." They used to pitch the ball, the way we still pitch horseshoes. The idea was to let the hitter hit, like in slow-pitch softball. A few mid-19th-century pitchers, like Jim Creighton and Asa Brainard (some believe the term for a pitching "ace" comes from Asa), bent the rule, started trying to mix in a few spins, some extra speed in order make it harder for the hitter. Pitchers kept bending the rule, then breaking it, adding pitch types, curveballs, spitballs, and the game developed into something else. The pitcher title remained.

At the same time, the language of baseball changes constantly. Relief pitchers become firemen become closers. Newer advanced statistics like FIP and WAR and OPS and BABIP begin to capture the imagination. This Opening Day is particularly exciting, because this year we baseball fans will start hearing more and more about barrels and five-star catches and pop time.

These words are part of the language of Statcast™, a whole new way to measure and look at the game. The technology of Statcast™ -- which uses cameras and radar technology to track everything that moves on a baseball field -- is pretty baffling. But the insights are incredible. There are now ways to see the game and to tell stories about the game that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.

New Statcast metrics in 2017

Let's look at the Yankees-Rays game, in which Tampa Bay will have Kevin Kiermaier in center field. How good a defensive player is Kiermaier? The answer used to be summed up with a manager or a scout or analyst saying, "Really good," or "He can go get 'em out there." Well, the Statcast™ people have started to label defense by stars. They look at how long the ball is in the air and how much ground the outfielder has to cover to determine how likely he is to make the play.

Statcast: Kiermaier's tough grab

A one-star catch is made 90-95 percent of the time by Major League outfielders. It's a lazy popup and the outfielder barely has to move.

A two-star catch is made 75-90 percent of the time. A three-star catch is made 50-74 percent, and a four-star catch is made between 25 percent and 50 percent.

A five-star catch is made fewer than 25 percent of the time. These last two -- the four- and five-star catches -- are the ones that bring us out of our seats, the catches we talk about on the car ride home.

Nobody in baseball in 2016 was better at those catches than Kiermaier. He made 17 of 26 catches on four- and five-star chances; that's 65 percent, the highest in the Majors. There's a good chance that on Opening Day, Kiermaier will make the first thrilling play of '17.

Statcast™ preview for all 30 MLB teams

We have a brilliant pitching matchup in the Giants-D-backs game: San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner vs. Arizona's Zack Greinke. What makes Bumgarner so good? There are a lot of answers to that, and one of those is how much he extends toward the plate. We rarely think about that, instead focusing on pitcher's velocity.

Well, Bumgarner doesn't throw that hard; his average fastball is close to 91 mph. But because he's so tall and has such an athletic pitching motion, he extends 6.7 feet toward home plate, among the longest extensions for any lefty pitcher. And so Bumgarner's fastball seems faster than it is because it has a little bit less ground to cover.

Statcast: Bumgarner's velocity

And speaking of velocity, Greinke's was slightly down in 2016. Did that make a difference? It's hard to say for sure, but something changed. Hitters teed off on Greinke in Arizona. His ERA was up almost three full runs from 2015 with the Dodgers. Part of this was undoubtedly the change in ballpark. Some of it, Greinke said, has to do with his struggles to work up in the zone. This brings us to the word "barrel."

The Statcast™ people have defined a "barrel" as a ball that is hit hard enough and at enough of a right angle to produce a .500 batting average and a 1.500 slugging percentage. These are the balls that jump off the bat, and everyone in the crowd either cheers madly or grimaces and says, "Ouch." In 2015, Greinke rarely gave up barrels; he allowed them on 4.7 percent of his pitches. In '16, that jumped way up to 8.4 percent.

That would explain, at least in part, why the league average went from .187 to .262 against Greinke, and why hitters slugged 140 points higher against him in 2016.

And then there's the last game of the day, the thriller, the World Series champion Cubs -- even now, those words look strange together -- and their archrival Cardinals. Watch the Carlos Martinez-Kris Bryant matchup particularly close. Martinez is one of the hardest throwers in the game; his four-seam fastball averaged 96.8 mph last year, third among starters and behind only flamethrowers Noah Syndergaard and Nathan Eovaldi.

And Bryant -- well, we just talked about barrels. He had 53 of them last year, third in the league behind American League home run champion Chris Carter and Atlanta's Freddie Freeman. Bryant hits the ball as hard as anybody. Martinez throws the ball as hard as anybody. Explosions may happen; that's chemistry.

And one final Statcast™ statistic that boggles the mind: pop time. Statcast™ can actually track how long it takes for a catcher to receive the ball, pop up and throw to second or third on a stolen-base attempt. Nobody in baseball history, probably, has had a faster pop time than St. Louis' Yadier Molina. He's famous for it. Yadi is in his 30s now, and he has undoubtedly slowed down a little. But even last year, Molina was fifth in baseball in pop time at 1.94 seconds.

Statcast: Molina throws out Cruz

This kind of impossibly precise and mind-boggling detail will be coming at us all year. Some if it will be overwhelming, no doubt. The data comes in fast and furious. But this gets at why baseball is so amazing, why Opening Day still thrills us. You walk around this museum and you see that it really is an ancient game. You see Honus Wagner's bat, and the thing looks like a cigar with the handle and the barrel of the bat just about the same width. You hear Babe Ruth tell the story of his called shot home run in the 1932 World Series, and you wonder how it really happened. You watch Roberto Clemente wheel and throw and you can't help but think that baseball can never be that good again.

But it can. Somehow, Opening Day comes and we find a whole new way to look at this old game. We will never know exactly how many barrels Henry Aaron had in his career or how many five-star catches Willie Mays made. It's fun to think about, though.

Joe Posnanski is a best-selling author, an Emmy Award-winning writer and has been awarded National Sportswriter of the Year. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.