Closing Time: Matt Davidson wins opening day

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Handshake practice for <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/9337/" data-ylk="slk:Matt Davidson">Matt Davidson</a> and third-base coach Nick Capra (AP/Charlie Riedel)
Handshake practice for Matt Davidson and third-base coach Nick Capra (AP/Charlie Riedel)

If you didn’t like Closing Time 1.0, maybe you’ll like Closing Time 2, Electric Boogaloo. I’m here for the 11th year, trying to give you thoughts, concepts, ideas and tips to make you a better fantasy player. The goal is always to be actionable, though we’ll be silly from time to time, and occasionally a universally-owned player needs a word, too. But if you came for daily validation that Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are awesome, this is not your burger. I’m not here to fill in the “Good at Baseball” Mad Lib; let’s dig a little deeper. 

If you want to see Closing Time in pre-assembly, my in-game notebook is all over my Twitter account. 

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To the keyboard. Happy opening day, gamers. 

Matt Davidson had a few cleanup appearances last year, and nothing much came from them. He did hit four homers, but it attached to a .098/.174/.268 slash. He wasn’t Babe Ruth elsewhere in the order, but his production was more interesting.

All of that seems like ancient history for the moment. Davidson was given the No. 4 assignment in Thursday’s opener at Kansas City, and he crushed it. Davidson walloped three homers, the White Sox hit six in all (tying an opening-day record), and Chicago scored an easy 14-7 victory.

Cleaning up at Kaufman Stadium. Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye.

[Batter up: Join a Yahoo Fantasy Baseball league for free today]

A hat trick of homers is a rare thing on opening day. According to Baseball Reference, Davidson is just the fourth player to do it, joining George Bell (1988), Tuffy Rhodes (1994) and Dmitri Young (2005). That threesome covers all porridge types for the three bears — Bell was a legitimate star (hot), Rhodes was a free-agent bust (cold), and Young was a solid-if-unspectacular player (just right).

Is a three-homer game something that comes attached with signature significance? It’s worth consideration. I queried the complete three-homer list from the last two years, and the 33 players have interesting backstories and reputations. And most of these players were (and remain) very good.

First, the undeniable stars: J.D. Martinez (four homers), Manny Machado, Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, Nolan Arenado, Corey Seager, Anthony Rendon, Yoenis Cespedes, Brian Dozier, Josh Donaldson, Mookie Betts, Charlie Blackmon, Machado again, Kris Bryant, Seager again, Betts again, Khris Davis, McCutchen again, and if we want to grade liberally, Lorenzo Cain.

A few past-their-prime stars did it, Aaron Hill, Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez.

Scooter Gennett’s four-homer game was a shock last year, though his season turned out to be legit. Maybe we should have taken it more seriously at the time.

Here’s the rest of that three-homer list: Hunter Renfroe, Byron Buxton, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Yasmani Grandal, Michael Saunders, Danny Valencia. Those are reasonable players. Most of them have produced solid value at one time or another.

Davidson was never the hottest commodity on the farm, but he did arrive in pro baseball with some expectations attached. He was the 35th overall pick in 2009, out of high school. He was a regular on prospect clipboards from 2011 to 2014, though the never cracked the Top 70. His nine years in the minors were underwhelming: .249/.333/.427. He did post an .831 OPS at Triple-A in 2013, at age 22.

[Andy Behrens on Padres callup Joey Lucchesi]

He became a regular last year and had a reasonable first half: .245/.285/.515, with 18 home runs in 71 games. The average is low, the OBP dreadful, but the pop played in deeper formats. Alas, Davidson crashed in the second half: .185/.226/.364, just eight homers. Overall, he struck out 37.2 percent of the time and walked just 4.3 percent of the time. Even if you’re open-minded to hackers, those are bad numbers.

The major projection systems agreed on Davidson before the year — another 22-26 homers were likely, but with an average barely over the Mendoza.

What could go right for Davidson? He’s stepping into an age-27 season. This fast start will mark his territory in the cleanup spot. He was a monster in Spring Training (.328/.411/.494, four homers, 19 RBIs) — given that he walked just 19 times all last year, nine walks in any kind of competition is encouraging. Chicago’s home park has boosted right-handed power by 10 percent over the last three years, per the Bill James Handbook.

The back end of any mixed-league roster is all about plausible upside. You’re not looking to make low-gain completions here, you’re looking for home runs — and ready to churn about as needed. Nobody needs to cut an established player for Davidson today, but if you have a free DL spot to work with, or someone you didn’t like like much anyway, this seems like an upside swing worth taking. Although Davidson’s ownership tag spiked massively in the past 24 hours, he’s still unowned in 58 percent of Yahoo leagues. You can slot him at first base or third base in the Yahoo world.

That’s your opener for Friday morning. Chew on that and refresh liberally; I’ll have more bulletry shortly.

• Davidson’s KC barbecue obscured another White Sox doing damage. Tim Anderson clocked two homers out of the No. 7 slot, scored three runs, even drew a walk. Juicy stuff from someone who was merely ADP 229 in the Yahoo world.

Anderson has his share of fans and detractors. The boosters like the category juice, the pedigree, the age pocket. The critics can’t stand the K/BB rate and wonder when pitchers might start abusing Anderson for his hacking ways. Mind you, Anderson has a .268 career average with this approach — I think the free-swinging fears are overrated given how he’s produced despite them — but he’s also far from a finished product. He doesn’t turn 25 until June. The future is unwritten, and this story is a long way from completion.

[Salfino and Pianow preview the 2018 MLB season]

Confirmation Bias is the drink of opening day, in any sport. When we see a pet player go off, we feel validated. When we see a panned player struggle, we feel satisfied. It’s important to keep your feet on the ground with these things, try to focus on big-picture indicators over small-sample results. But we also live in a roto environment where quick decisions and adjustments are king; if you wait for proof in any kind of competitive mixed league, you’re the deadest of dead money. We don’t have time to wait for stats to stabilize, we have to make intelligent guesses based on much shorter samples.

It’s not like I’d rank Anderson differently now than I did a week ago. But if I’m going to have a cup of Confirmation Bias coffee this morning, pour it in a White Sox mug, please.

• Buxton Buxton owners had an emotional day. Buxton was slotted No. 8 at Baltimore, as we heard a day earlier. He went 1-for-3 with a walk and two messy strikeouts, stole a base. Some good, some bad. Baseball is like that.

But when the Twins were down to their last out in the top of the ninth — and in the middle of a rally against Baltimore closer Brad Brach — Buxton found himself out of the mix. Manager Paul Molitor summed Robbie Grossman, a lefty batter, to pinch hit for Buxton, and although Grossman didn’t sting the ball, he did come through — a two-run dunker to center that squared the game.

I doubt Buxton’s playing time is in danger. He’s still a dynamic fielder, and the Twins realize he has some flaws in his game. Kudos to Molitor for making the type of strategic move that’s dying in today’s baseball. In a world of bottomless bullpens and the vanishing bench, the big pinch-hit moment is almost extinct. Buxton’s average is open to concern, but I don’t see any reason why he won’t hit the teens in homers, and push for 30 steals, perhaps more.

Baltimore went on to win in extra innings, with Adam Jones homering off Fernando Rodney. Long live the Ibanez All-Stars. If you’re worried about a short Rodney leash, note that Addison Reed (2 IP, 2 K, 20 strikes on 23 pitches) was throwing pellets.

And if you’re worried about Brach, take heart that Minnesota’s rally didn’t have a single hard-hit baseball. The key pivot was an 11-pitch walk by Max Kepler, an at-bat that felt like a poem. (Maybe I just can’t quit the Kepler plausible upside.) But the Orioles openly concede their bullpen isn’t a finished product, so Blach might have to defer the next save chances to someone else, perhaps Mychal Givens or Darren O’Day.

Speed Round: Hunter Strickland closed up for the Giants, a shocking win over Clayton Kerhsaw. Bryce Harper was probably watching on TV and screaming his head off. Mark Melancon’s infinite sadness went on the DL; he’ll miss at least a couple of weeks . . . Greg Holland is expected to sign a one-year deal with St. Louis, because the Cardinals bullpen is an Ocean’s 11 con job . . . Keone Kela will open the year as the primary Texas closer. Jeff Banister is one of the more knee-jerk managers, so short-leash rules apply . . . John Sterling had two chances to work on that Giancarlo Stanton home-run call, and honestly, I got a chuckle out of it. I’ve done a 180 on Sterling. He’s so intentionally comical, it’s oddly fun — and hell, he enjoys the game, what’s the fault in that? (And yes, I say all this as someone who was born in the 01824) . . . Jose Martinez picked up a first-base start for the Cards, with Matt Carpenter sliding to third. Martinez had a throwing error, but he also went 3-for-4 with a homer . . . Brad Boxberger wasn’t needed in Arizona’s 8-2 win. The Snakes didn’t hit any homers but they had 12 hits, six walks, a couple of steals. Cigars for everyone! Patrick Corbin struck out eight and grabbed the win, ultimately tiring in the sixth. It’s a start . . . Billy Hamilton is slated to bat ninth in the Reds opening lineup. If Cincinnati is smart enough to marginalize Hamilton or bench him completely, I really like the remainder of the lineup. Jesse Winker is leading off Friday . . . Josh Donaldson’s shoulder looked like jelly for the majority of opening day, but he also stole a base (despite a 5-0 deficit) and used a head-first slide. Daredevil? Gutty performer? DL trip waiting to happen? He’s one of my all-time favorites, but I’m worried about my Donaldson shares . . . Corey Knebel blew his save chance at San Diego, though he was around the plate and done in by batted-ball fortune. Had he been Wild Thing for an inning, I’d be more concerned (albeit I did avoid him all draft season). The Brewers eventually won the game anyway, which sometimes helps managers be additionally patient. Josh Hader worked the seventh, piling up three strikeouts around two baserunners. Matt Albers pitched a scoreless eighth, stranding one . . . Trea Turner is hitting sixth for the Nationals on Friday. It’s always something. We’ll talk again soon, amigos.

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