The Moonshot: Rafael Devers, injuries and the emotional roller-coaster of Opening Weekend

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The FanSided MLB team is here with the first edition of The Moonshot, our weekly newsletter rounding up all the joy of baseball.

Well, we believe in exit velocity, bat flips, launch angles, stealing home, the hanging curveball, Big League Chew, sausage races, and that unwritten rules of any kind are self-indulgent, overrated crap. We believe Greg Maddux was an actual wizard. We believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment protecting minor league baseball and that pitch framing is both an art and a science. We believe in the sweet spot, making WARP not war, letting your closer chase a two-inning save, and we believe love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.

Welcome to The Moonshot.

This MLB season could be about survival of the fittest

There was a fear among most — not all — executives, coaches and players that there would be an increase in injuries early in the season because of the ramped-up spring training. Through less than a week of the regular season, that has been exactly the case.

Just look at the players already dealing with injuries: Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, Luke Jackson, AJ Pollock, Andrew Chafin, Luis Urias, Mickey Moniak, Blake Snell, Casey Sadler, Evan White, Jack Flaherty, Alex Reyes, Shane Baz, Jon Gray, Nate Pearson.

It has decimated the Chicago White Sox’s high-end pitching depth and forced them to sign Johnny Cueto. The Cardinals were expecting a breakout season from Flaherty and without the right-hander, lack depth atop the rotation alongside Adam Wainwright. The Braves are built to withstand the loss of Jackson, but the Mariners losing Sadler, perhaps the most underrated reliever in baseball, for the season before Opening Day was a gut punch.

This season, especially early on, will have a similar mantra to the COVID-shortened season: Survival of the fittest.

Teams with the most organizational depth will be set up to win early on. But it would not be a surprise to see teams continue to make trades and tinker with the bottom of their rosters. The Giants called up Helliot Ramos, their top outfield prospect, after just two games and some people in baseball wonder if that continues a league-wide trend after top prospects Bobby Witt Jr., Julio Rodriguez, CJ Abrams, Spencer Torkelson and Bryson Stott each made the Opening Day rosters.

But the growing number of injuries will be something to track throughout the early part of the regular season. The number has steadily increased in recent seasons, especially with teams using the IL more aggressively to protect players and maintain roster flexibility. This year, however, it could increase to a level that has even the most optimistic of baseball people feeling uncomfortable.

— Robert Murray

Baseball, but for your ears

Rafael Devers is headed for a breakout season, again

The problem is that outside of Red Sox Nation, it felt like no one cared. The Sox weren’t very good that season, especially compared to their franchise-record 108-win season and championship the year before. By post-2004 standards, being above .500 isn’t good enough.

But a 22-year-old Devers led the American League with 54 doubles – more than twice his previous career-high – and led all of Major League Baseball with 359 total bases. Over 156 games, he hit .311 with a 916 OPS, 201 hits, 129 runs scored, 115 RBI, and 32 home runs. He finished 12th in American League MVP voting.

David Ortiz, who says he sees himself in Devers, foresaw the whole thing, by the way.

Devers is coming off another excellent, underrated season in 2021, too. Over the same number of games played in 2019, he hit a new career-high 38 home runs, but this time, only 37 doubles. His hits averaged a 92.9 mph exit velocity, tied with Nelson Cruz and Joey Votto (and ahead of everyone else on the Sox) for 10th fastest in the majors; excluding the shortened 2020 season, his average EV has increased steadily each year. He lowered his strikeout percentage from 27 percent to 21.5 percent. For his efforts, he became an All-Star for the first time and won his first Silver Slugger, and finished eleventh in MVP voting.

Now 25 years old, Devers is playing his sixth season in the majors. He’s a more polished, experienced slugger than he was back in 2017, when, as a rookie, he became the youngest player in MLB history to hit an inside-the-park home run in a postseason game. He (and Kiké Hernández) tied Ortiz’s record with five home runs in Boston’s unexpected playoff run last October. He hit six home runs in Spring Training, which of course, do not count. And on Opening Day, he hit a first-inning home run off Gerrit Cole, once again tormenting the very expensive Yankees starting pitcher. According to the Sox, he’s the first player in franchise history to hit a home run in his final plate appearance of the regular season and then the first plate appearance of the next season.

In 2017, the Red Sox needed Devers to fill the gaping hole left by Ortiz. They brought him up from Triple-A before he was truly ready, and he had to learn on the fly. The raw power was there, but the discipline (and defense) was not. He was playing in the postseason before he could legally drink. Now, with half a decade of big-league ball under his belt now, and already more experience in the postseason than most players who’ve been in the game twice as long, he’s poised to explode in 2022.

Devers says he wants to hit at least 40 home runs this year. I wouldn’t bet against him.

— Gabrielle Starr

Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman: Old school vs. new school, part 2,924

Baseball has long been an old man’s game, but that is changing, and fast. The sport doesn’t belong to generations past — and the present group should decide how it’s played. If that leaves some maladjusted fans behind, then so be it. That’s not how things worked in the Braves clubhouse, at least as recently as 2018.

By now, most have seen Ronald Acuña’s Instagram live interview, in which he stated that he “wouldn’t miss” Freddie Freeman, in part due to how he was treated as a rookie. Acuña showed up to the bigs dressed to play in a way that Freeman perhaps didn’t recognize. There’s nothing wrong with that, not on the surface or underneath. You can dig as deep as you like.

But Freeman found something, not because of any argument based in the present tense but due to how he was treated as a rookie. When asked why he treated Acuña this way, Freeman responded thusly: “I saw the eye black situation. When you put on a Braves uniform, there’s organizational rules. You don’t cover the ‘A’ with sunglasses, you don’t wear earrings, you have your hair a certain length, you wear a uniform during BP, you don’t have eye black coming down across your whole face,” Freeman said.

Whether Freeman misinterpreted (unlikely) or those are rules the organization pushed on him, it’s further evidence that baseball is changing. It’s time to embrace a new age, filled with flare and excitement. Acuña (and Freeman, in other ways) both represent that at their best.

— Mark Powell

Anthony Rizzo: Yankees’ third-option to difference-maker

There it was. That all-too-familiar feeling of watching a Yankee crumple to the dirt in pain. Ironically enough, the shortened and slapdash 2022 spring training had been New York’s healthiest in years, but the Era of Good Feelings lasted about 5/9 of Game 1 before Anthony Rizzo was drilled on the wrist by a pitch and collapsed with a yelp.

Somewhat miraculously, he shook it off, in much the same way he shook off being discarded to the third tier of the rumor mill this offseason, buried behind Matt Olson and Freddie Freeman. For months of dead air, Rizzo had to wake up and read daily that, sure, the Yankees would like him back — unless, of course, they were able to secure either of two better options. When an Olson-to-Atlanta deal had been completed and the Freeman-to-LA buzz was reaching a head, both parties finally locked eyes, gritted their teeth (the Yankees have one collective set of teeth), and reached an accord.

If Rizzo felt disrespected, you wouldn’t know it. The potential benefits of employing him for a full season in pinstripes have quickly become clear. Against the Red Sox in the opening series, Rizzo punched back in all three games. His two-run shot in the first inning on Opening Day signaled the Yanks had chosen not to die, and he equalized the second and third contests with another two-run shot and a two-run single.

The intangible edge was clear, too; rookie pitcher Ron Marinaccio couldn’t buy a strike on Saturday afternoon until Rizzo took it upon himself to come to the mound and sell him a couple. While Olson or Freeman might’ve been flashier long-term commitments, Rizzo looks motivated to prove that his 2021 season — marred by COVID-19 and changing hometowns — might’ve been the fluky one, and not the rest of his sterling career.

— Adam Weinrib

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