Opening Day.

A term synonymous with baseball across the United States and the globe. For fans, it is nothing short of a national holiday.

The highly anticipated start to the season on April 1 is an occasion steeped in history, with tradition front and centre.

This year's Opening Day means more than most. It is the latest signal of American life and sport returning to normal amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The coronavirus pandemic led to an enforced break and a reduced 60-game regular season schedule behind closed doors, with a limited number of fans allowed to attend the playoffs as the Los Angeles Dodgers went on to end their 32-year World Series drought.

But 2021 will see the return of the usual 162-game calendar and more importantly, spectators in the stands. All but one of the 30 teams will start at reduced capacity – the Texas Rangers hosting a full house for their home opener against the Toronto Blue Jays.

As America's pastime begins anew, we preview the upcoming season, in which the Dodgers look to defend their World Series crown, using Stats Perform data.
 

Kershaw gears up for a franchise-record start

Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw – entering the final season of his three-year, $93million deal – will be on the mound when the Dodgers open their title defence against the Colorado Rockies.

It will be Kershaw's ninth Opening Day start – the most in franchise history – after injuries prevented him from beginning the 2019 and 2020 campaigns, the eight-time All-Star getting the nod ahead of Walker Buehler and high-profile recruit Trevor Bauer, the reigning National League (NL) Cy Young winner.

Future Hall of Famer Kershaw boasts a 5-1 record on Opening Day, with a 1.05 ERA (6/51.2), 59 strikeouts and eight walks. The 2014 NL MVP's only loss came in his previous start in 2018 as he allowed eight hits and one earned run, while tallying seven strikeouts in six innings against the San Francisco Giants.

Since 1913, when ERA became an official stat, Kershaw has managed the lowest Opening Day figure among pitchers with six starts – 1.05. The 32-year-old's ERA is ahead of Bob Feller (1.21), Jim Palmer (1.40), Hal Newhouser (1.41) and Walter Johnson (1.51).

As for the star-studded Dodgers, they are 74-62 (.544) all-time on Opening Day, winning nine of their 10 season openers since 2011, losing only in 2018.

Their 9-1 (.900) Opening Day record over this stretch is the best in the league, ahead of the Houston Astros (8-2), Baltimore Orioles (8-2), Seattle Mariners (7-3), Detroit Tigers (7-3) and New York Mets (7-3).
 

All eyes on Tatis and Padres

Fernando Tatis Jr. heads into the 2021 season fresh off signing his eye-popping 14-year, $340m contract with the San Diego Padres.

The Padres – winners of two NL pennants – are pinning their hopes on MLB's new poster boy delivering a first World Series to San Diego.

Tatis won a Silver Slugger award last year, having hit .277 with 17 home runs and 45 RBIs in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season.

The powerful 22-year-old is the first player in MLB history to have at least 35 home runs and 25 stolen bases within the first 150 games of his career.

Tatis – the youngest Padres player to debut on Opening Day (20 years and 85 days) in 2019 – became the fastest player in franchise history (24 team games) to reach the double-digit home run mark in a season in 2020 after hitting his 10th and 11th homers in August.

In the postseason, Tatis homered twice against the St Louis Cardinals in October, becoming the youngest Padre to ever homer in a playoff game (21 years and 273 days) and the third-youngest player in MLB history to homer twice in a postseason match, behind Carlos Correa (21 and 20 days old) and Andruw Jones (19 years, 180 days old).

When it comes to on-base plus slugging, Tatis stacks up well. Since 1920, Tatis (150.8) is only behind Juan Soto (153.9 – 2018-20), Albert Pujols (159.3 – 2001), Jimmie Foxx (160.0 – 1925-29), Ted Williams (161.5 – 1939-40) and Trout (165.0 – 2011-13) for highest OPS-plus up until the age of 21.

Across his two Opening Day appearances, Tatis has three hits in seven at-bats and two runs while slugging at .571. The Padres will be hoping he can improve on that when they host face the Arizona Diamondbacks.

By comparison, Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper and New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton love Opening Day.

Harper – the 2015 NL MVP and six-time All-Star – has nine hits, five homers and six runs in eight appearances, while 2017 NL MVP Stanton has 13 hits, four homers, 10 runs and 12 RBIs through 10 games.

Blue Jays recruit George Springer, a World Series winner with the Astros, has also impressed on Opening Day following five hits, three homers and six RBIs in six games.
 

Can Abreu and Freeman go back-to-back?

Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu was crowned the American League's best in 2020.

Becoming the 28th player to win both the MVP and Rookie of the Year in his career, Abreu beat Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Indians and Yankees star DJ LeMahieu.

Abreu – the fourth White Sox player to win the award – was second in MLB with 19 home runs and fourth in the AL with a .317 batting average.

Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves trumped Dodgers star Mookie Betts and Padres sensation Manny Machado to the NL honour.

Freeman's 1.102 OPS was the second highest in MLB, trailing only Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, while he led the majors with 51 runs scored and was second in the NL in batting average (.341), on-base percentage (.462) and slugging percentage (.640).

Does it bode well for the pair in 2020?

In a season after winning the MVP award, a player averages 135.9 hits, 21.5 homers, 80.5 runs and 79.5 RBIs with a slugging percentage of .516.

There have been 13 players to win back-to-back MVPs; 11-time All-Star Miguel Cabrera (AL) was the last to do so in 2012 and 2013. The most recent player in the NL was Albert Pujols (2008-09).
 

The end of Cleveland as we know them

After 106 years, this will be the last season the franchise will be known as the Indians, following the example of the NFL's Washington Football Team, who dropped their Redskins nickname in 2020 amid a long-time controversy.

Since 1915, Cleveland have won two World Series – in 1920 and 1948 – with their current streak of 71 seasons without a World Series title the longest active run in the majors.

In 1954, Cleveland went 111-43 (.721) in the regular season, before being swept in the World Series by the Giants. It stands as the highest single-season win percentage in AL history, and the best by any MLB team in the past 100 years.

Cleveland have had a winning record in each of the past eight seasons (2013-20), making them one of four MLB teams with an active streak of eight-plus (also Yankees 28, Cardinals 13, Dodgers 10). It is tied for the second-longest streak of winning seasons in franchise history (10 straight 1947-56; eight in a row 1994-2001).

Three Cleveland players have won the AL MVP Award – George Burns (1926), Lou Boudreau (1948) and Al Rosen (1953) – while five have claimed the AL Cy Young Award: Gaylord Perry (1972), C.C. Sabathia (2007), Cliff Lee (2008), Corey Kluber (2014 and 2017) and Shane Bieber (2020).

The New York Yankees have bolstered their rotation with the signing of two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber.

Kluber and the Yankees agreed to a one-year contract reportedly worth $11million, the MLB franchise announced on Wednesday.

The three-time All-Star spent the 2020 season with the Texas Rangers, where he only made one appearance due to a torn teres major muscle in his right shoulder.

Since the end of the 2018 season, Kluber has made just eight starts due to injuries.

But the 34-year-old right-handed pitcher – who won the American League (AL) Cy Young Award with the Cleveland Indians in 2014 and 2017 – has 1,462 career strikeouts, seven shutouts and a 3.16 ERA.

It comes after the star-studded Yankees also confirmed the return of star DJ LeMahieu on a six-year deal heading into the 2021 campaign.

LeMahieu's deal is through the 2026 season and reportedly worth $90m after starring for the Yankees, who lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 American League Division Series (ALDS).

The three-time All-Star finished the season with 10 home runs and 27 RBIs, leading MLB with a batting average of .364.

LeMahieu was also first in the American League (AL) in on-base percentage (.421) and on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (1.011).

The 32-year-old infielder's efforts saw him finish third in the AL MVP voting and he was the second base Silver Slugger for the second straight year.

The New York Yankees are reportedly finalising a deal to re-sign second baseman DJ LeMahieu.

According to Jeff Passan of ESPN, LeMahieu is set to sign a six-year, $90million contract to stay in the Bronx.

That payday follows a stellar second season with the Yankees, who reached the American League Divisional Series but lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in five games.

LeMahieu finished the season with 10 home runs and 27 RBIs, leading MLB with a batting average of .364.

He was also first in the American League in on-base percentage (.421) and on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (1.011).

The infielder's efforts saw him finish third in the American League MVP voting and he was the second base silver slugger for the second straight year.

The Yankees are due to begin their spring training schedule on February 27 against the Detroit Tigers. Their regular season is scheduled to get under way on April 1 with a meeting with the Toronto Blue Jays.

New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone insisted DJ LeMahieu is the "number one priority" for the MLB franchise amid free agency.

LeMahieu is one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason after winning the 2020 American League (AL) batting title with an MLB-best .364 average – ahead of Juan Soto (.351), Freddie Freeman (.341), Marcell Ozuna (.338) and Trea Turner (.335).

The three-time All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner became the first Yankees player since Bernie Williams in 1998 to claim the honour, while he also earned All-MLB First Team selection for a second successive season.

LeMahieu, who hit 10 homers, tallied 71 runs and registered 27 RBIs last season, reportedly rejected the Yankees' $18.9million qualifying offer for the 2021 campaign but Boone said the team remain committed to bringing the 32-year-old back to New York.

"I think it's no secret that he is probably our number one priority to bring back this winter," Boone said on Tuesday.

"I know [general manager Brian Cashman] is working on that. And hopefully, at the end of all this, DJ is a Yankee for a long time."

LeMahieu, who ranked second for batting average in the AL in 2019, also won the National League (NL) batting title during his time with the Colorado Rockies in 2016 – the two-time Silver Slugger becoming the first player to win undisputed batting titles in both leagues.

He also became the first Yankees player to lead the MLB in hitting since Mickey Mantle in 1956.

Boone added: "There's not much more to say about DJ other than, I think if we look over 2019 through 2020, and did a two-year MVP in the American League, it's probably him.

"His play completely speaks for itself. Then you couple the fact that he's this really great team-mate that's been, despite his quiet reputation, a tremendous leader for us and an influential person by the way he goes about things."

New York Yankees star DJ LeMahieu has been placed on the 10-day injured list with a sprained left thumb, the MLB franchise announced on Sunday.

LeMahieu – the American League (AL) batting leader – hurt his thumb during Saturday's 11-5 victory over rivals the Boston Red Sox.

The three-time Gold Glove Award winner and 2019 Silver Slugger joins fellow All-Stars Aaron Judge (calf) and Giancarlo Stanton (hamstring) on the sidelines in New York.

"It's just a sprain that's not broken,'' Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "In some ways, I think a little bit relieved of kind of fearing for the worst last night, but we won't really have anything definitive probably 'til tomorrow.''

LeMahieu is batting an AL-best .411 through 19 games for the high-flying Yankees, third in the MLB behind Colorado Rockies star Charlie Blackmon (.446) and the San Francisco Giants' Donovan Solano (.433).

The Yankees infielder is 30 for 73 with two home runs and eight RBIs this season.

New York Yankees All-Star infielder DJ LeMahieu and pitcher Luis Cessa tested positive for coronavirus, manager Aaron Boone said on Saturday. 

LeMahieu and Cessa contracted COVID-19 before arriving in New York for preseason camp, with the MLB campaign scheduled to begin on July 23.

Boone said LeMahieu was asymptomatic and Cessa was experiencing mild symptoms. Both players gave the team permission to release their results. 

LeMahieu and Cessa are under quarantine for a two-week period and will have to exhibit no symptoms and test negative twice for the virus before being cleared to play as teams prepare for a 60-game regular season.

Yankees star LeMahieu finished fourth in the American League MVP voting last season after hitting .327 with 26 home runs and 102 RBIs while helping the Yankees to the AL East title.

Cessa went 2-1 with a 4.11 ERA and one save in 43 appearances in 2019.  

Meanwhile, the Yankees announced pitcher Masahiro Tanaka has been released from hospital after he was struck on the head with a line drive during Saturday's batting practice.

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