The Washington Nationals had a stranglehold on the National League East during Spring Training, at least on paper. The rest of the division was vying for a Wild Card spot at best. When the season started the Nationals turned into a paper tiger, while the Phillies and Braves vaulted to the top of the East as their rebuilding efforts bear fruit. Few people expected either team to play this well into mid-September.
Leading the Braves resurgence is a consummate professional. The breakout season by rookie duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña, and another outstanding season from perennial All Star in Freddie Freeman have gotten much of the attention. However, it is the veteran Nick Markakis leading the charge in Atlanta.
It is past time to appreciate and honor the consistency of Nick Markakis. Markakis is leading baseball in hits, and leading the National League in sacrifice flies and is tied for the National League lead in doubles. He is a compiler, like Craig Biggio. Compilers are rarely given the respect they deserve as they grind, often under the radar. Markakis rarely misses a game, playing an average of 155 games each season. He has played fewer than 147 games in a season only once in his 13 year career.
This season he ranks in the top 10 in baseball in Batting Average, Plate Appearances, At Bats, Games Played, Hits (leads all of baseball), Singles, Doubles, Times of Base, Sacrifice Flies, Intentional Walks, and At Bats per Strikeout. While these stats do not make him a super star in the eyes of fans, teams know a player like Markakis is critical to their success.
Nick Markakis consistently puts the ball in play. Could he quietly be grinding his way towards Cooperstown? (Hyosub Shin/ HShin@ajc.com)
2018 is not an outlier for Markakis, he has been a force his entire career. He has eight seasons with 170 or more hits. He averages 182 hits per season, yet has never had a 200 hit season. He will finish close to 200 hits yet again as he has 174 hits with two weeks left to play. Markakis has nine seasons with 30 or more doubles and five seasons with 40 or more doubles. He already has 40 doubles this season, above his 39 doubles in an average season. He has scored 75 runs, hit 14 home runs, and drawn 63 walks which are around an average season for him. His .306 batting average is the best of his career, he will have his third season hitting above .300, yet his career .289 average shows his consistency at the plate. Markakis has struck out 70 times, well below his average of 93 per season. His career 6.8 At Bats per Strikeout is well below the Major League average of 4.6. A career .359 OBP, with .371 this season. He has never been a power bat, but he puts the ball in play and sets the table for the power bats behind him in the line up.
Markakis finished sixth in the crowded 2006 American League Rookie of the Year. He is a two time Gold Glove winner, 2011 and 2014, winning both awards without committing an error in over 1,300 innings in the field each season. He was voted to his first All Star game this season. He played the most games and collected the most hits before playing in his first All Star game in baseball history.
Grinding away, Markakis is quietly sneaking up on 3,000 hits. He currently has 2,226 hits. If he can remain healthy and continue collecting an average of 182 hits every year, Markakis would reach the mystical 3,000 hit mark before his 40th birthday. This would present the baseball writers with an intriguing question. Does collecting 3,000 hits automatically make you are a Hall of Famer? A few more good seasons by Markakis could force the baseball writers to confront this question.
Much of what Markakis provides Atlanta is not found in the stats. His veteran leadership has helped the young Braves rise to the top of the division earlier than expected. Veteran leadership is disappearing as teams are unwilling to pay veteran prices for players past their primes. In Markakis, the Braves have a veteran leader in the clubhouse and on the field. Time will tell how far his leadership can lead Atlanta and how valuable he is on the free agent market after the season.
Road trips and baseball are two of my favorite things. Exploring new places and watching the only real game are wonderful ways to spend your time. The baseball road trip Bernie and I took was a great combination of both. Attending four baseball games in four cities in four days was exciting and tiring. Minor league baseball is a celebration of the city as much as the team. The level of talent on the field changes, but every game is a unique experience with interesting between innings entertainment.
The first stop on our road trip was Lansing, Michigan. The Lansing Lugnuts took on the Dayton Dragons. We sat behind the first base dugout, close enough to hear the plate umpire call balls and strikes. Bernie and I both bought shirts, and he caught a plush baseball to add to his baseball shrine. The Lugnuts won an entertaining game 4-3. The home team was one for one. Next stop, the big leagues.
A beautiful sunset in Lansing while the Lugnuts host the Dragons. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Bernie and his plush baseball from the Lugnuts game. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
After exploring downtown Detroit, Bernie and I were arrived at Comerica Park before the gates to opened. As we waited, the crack of the bat from the Twins taking batting practice echoed out to the streets. Once the gates opened we sprinted to the right field seats in hopes of snagging a baseball. Our patience eventually paid off as a ball landed near Bernie. A few minutes before I half jokingly told him if he gets a ball it was mine since he got the plush ball in Lansing. The ball now sits in my baseball room.
Sitting two rows behind the Tigers bullpen in leftfield provided a different view of the game versus in Lansing. Watching from the outfield it is easier to appreciate the beauty of the defense on balls in play. As the late innings rolled around the Tigers’ relief pitchers distracted me from the game by warming up in the bullpen. An up close and personal view of Major League pitchers throwing fastballs and sliders made it impossible to focus on the pitching 300 feet away. The Tigers defeated the Twins 5-3. The home team was two for two.
Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
The first baseball I have ever gotten from an MLB game. Does not matter it is from Twins batting practice. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Our view from beyond the Tigers bullpen. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Leaving Michigan for Indiana meant flat, monotonous terrain. The TinCaps are a big draw in Fort Wayne, at least on the Saturday evening we watched them host the West Michigan Whitecaps. Our seats were between the third base dugout and home plate. This gave us another great view of the pitching. One of the first things I noticed was the umpiring crew. They were the same two-man crew from Lansing. Both umpires moved in distinct ways, making them recognizable if you paid attention. Watching the same umpiring crew work a second game in three days was tempered by two fans sitting near us. Both were know-it-alls who clearly “knew more” about baseball than the players, coaches, and umpires. Fans can cheer and jeer as they please, but these fans had something to say about a player or umpire on every pitch. “He’s got a slow bat!!!” “What are you looking at blue???!!!” “Hey number 20 (on deck) are you going to do better than him (the batter)? He’s (the batter) terrible.” “He was safe by a mile (definitely out, not even close).” Fans like these take some, not all, of the fun out of attending a baseball game. One of the fans kept bragging about being a coach while pointing at his players. I pity the umpire who has to handle their games, the kids have learned nothing about good sportsmanship from their coach.
There were several miscues throughout the game. Errors on what should have been normal, not necessarily simple, plays. The weather interrupted our road trip for the only time, with a 30 minute lightning delay. After dodging the lightning and biting my tongue with the annoying fans, the Whitecaps defeated the TinCaps 3-1. The home teams were now two for three.
The vendors at the ball park can be as entertaining as the game. We found John’s spirit animal in Fort Wayne. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
The lightning was starting to roll in, but it was still a beautiful night at the ball park in Fort Wayne. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
The final stop on our baseball road trip was South Bend, Indiana. The Lake County Captains were visiting the South Bend Cubs on Mr. Rogers Day. The cardigan jerseys were fantastic and were auctioned off to support the local PBS station. A between innings pep talk from Mr. Rogers turned every adult into a kid again as they listened. The game itself was solid. Several terrific defensive plays by the Cubs, who ultimately won 5-4. Cue “Go Cubs Go” The home team won three out of four games on our road trip.
Breaking down the road trip. The state of Michigan was undefeated, a perfect 3-0. Indiana teams split their games 1-1. Ohio struggles losing both games. Minnesota lost their only game as well. Bernie and I camped for two nights and stayed with a friend for one night. We drove through three states, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Bernie discovered the monotony of driving through Indiana. We enjoyed local food and watched some great baseball. We both checked Comerica Park off our list of Major League stadiums to visit.
Mr. Rogers was everywhere on the field in South Bend. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Cubs win and “Go Cubs Go” filled the air. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Our baseball road trip was wonderful. Watching four games in four days, you begin watching more than the ball. You see the little things that go into a baseball game. The movement of the pitches, the positioning of the defense, the rotation of the umpires. The more baseball you watch, the more you see the game behind the game. The great defensive plays are routine because of positioning before the pitch. The correct call on a bang-bang play at third because the plate umpire hustled down the line to cover the play after the base umpire ran out to make a call on a deep fly ball. The daily spectating meant seeing the parts of the game the normal fan is missing even though it is right in front of them. Bernie and I got below the surface of baseball.
People naturally try to avoid things they know will cause them pain. You only touch a hot stove once to understand it is not something you want to experience again. Getting hit by a baseball is not something people enjoy, it hurts. Baseballs can leave nasty bruises and broken bones if they hit a person just so. A batter’s natural reaction is to jump out of the way of the baseball when they believe the pitch is going to hit them. This is part of the reason most people have difficulty hitting a curveball. Your mind is telling you of the impending danger, yet you also know you need to hit the ball. The vast majority of people are never able to conquer this fear, stay in the box, and drive a curveball.
Baseball is a hard game played by hard people. It takes a toll on your body. Among those who are able to withstand the fear induced by curveballs is an even more select group, these players are those who turn getting hit by a pitch into an art form and a weapon. A run counts the same if you hit a home run or if you get hit by a pitch and then come around to score. These brave souls sacrifice their bodies to get on base. They are sacrificing themselves for the good of the team.
The official rule governing the hit by pitch (HBP), 5.05(b)(2), states:
“(b) The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when:
(2) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (A) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (B) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball.”
It is the second part of the rule, “The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball”, which often leads to heated debates about whether a batter attempted to avoid being hit by the pitch. Ultimately it is a judgement call by the umpire. This has lead to some players becoming creative in an attempt to be hit by the pitch. Some players are not afraid to be hit by a pitch and will subtly go out of their way to get hit.
The hit by pitch king is Hughie Jennings. He was hit by a pitch 287 times during his career. Jennings led the National League in HBP five consecutive seasons, 1894-1898. He was hit 51 times during the 1896 season, which remains the single season record. Jennings followed up his record setting season by being hit 46 times in 1897 and 1898, which are still the third and fourth highest single season HBP totals. Career record require longevity, Jennings played in the majors in 18 seasons, his last was in 1918 at the age of 49. However, he appeared in six or fewer games during his final six seasons, during which he had only one HBP. Jennings averaged 36 HBP per 162 games. All those bruises from being hit raised Jennings’ career OBP from .357 to .391. Was it all worth it? It is hard to judge but Jennings is forever enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. You be the judge.
The art of the HBP was not a weapon only during the dead ball era, it is alive and well today. Baseball could be in its Golden Age of the HBP. Eight of the top 20 in the career HBP rankings have played in Major League Baseball since 2002. The art and weaponization of the HBP was championed by Craig Biggio and today continues to be carried on by Chase Utley and Anthony Rizzo.
Chase Utley will take a pitch to the shoulder if it means getting on base. (Jenny Goldstick and Gemma Kaneko/ MLB.com)
Craig Biggio made a career out of doing whatever was necessary to win a baseball game. He willingness to transition from catching to the outfield to second base to help the team with his defense skills wherever they were needed on the diamond. When it came to the offensive side of Biggio’s game he understood his job was to get on base ahead of teammates like Jeff Bagwell. Driving the ball and hustling out of the box or using his elbow guard, and the rest of his body, to reach first base did not matter to Biggio. During his 20 year Major League career, Biggio was hit 285 times, just two behind the all time record. He led the National League five times in HBP. He was hit by a pitch 16 times per every 162 games played during his career. This durability and toughness are what helped Biggio be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The same sort of durability and toughness Biggio displayed throughout his Hall of Fame career is seen in Chase Utley. Utley is playing his 16th Major League season and has been hit by a pitch 200 times. He is the active leader in HBP, he ranks eighth all time, and first all time among left handed batters. Utley’s willingness to use hit body to get on base has seen him lead the National League three times in this painful category. Averaging 17 hit by pitches per 162 games played, Utley has put together a career that will get him some serious consideration for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It hurts, but Anthony Rizzo uses hit body to get on base. (www.sportsonearth.com)
The old guard of players like Biggio and Utley have shown the younger generation of players the value of using their body to reach first base. Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is positioning himself to make a legitimate run at the upper echelons of the record book. In his eighth Major League season, Rizzo has already been hit by 106 pitches, which ties him with Barry Bonds for 74th all time. He is currently ranked 22nd all time for left handed batters. Rizzo could threaten to break into the top 50 all time by the end of this season. He is averaging 18 hit by pitches per 162 games played, and as he enters his prime Rizzo is demonstrating his durability and toughness. Rizzo will turn 29 in August, he should have many more seasons of practicing this painful art ahead of him.
There is an art to getting hit by a pitch. Sometimes it is unavoidable, other times a batter attempts to avoid a fastball to the head. Some players willingly stick a leg or shoulder out on a hanging curveball to reach first base. No one enjoys unnecessary pain. However, baseball is a hard game played by hard people, at every levels. The willingness to endure pain to help the team win is a skill few possess. There are a select few who are willing and able be hit by a pitch if it means helping the team. Rizzo and the next generation of HBP artists need to remember one thing. Whatever you do, do not rub it.
After four seasons of attempting to predict how the Major League season will play out, one would think we would improve. Instead we were pitiful once again. The only consistency continues to be we are individually and collectively terrible at predicting the baseball future. Below is all the proof you need.
National League East
|1st||Washington Nationals||Washington Nationals||New York Muttz||Washington Nationals||Washington Nationals|
|2nd||Miami Marlins||New York Mets*||Washington Gnats||Atlanta Braves||New York Mets|
|3rd||Atlanta Braves||Miami Marlins||Atlanta Bravos||New York Mets||Miami Marlins|
|4th||New York Mets||Atlanta Braves||Miami Fish||Miami Marlins||Atlanta Braves|
|5th||Philadelphia Phillies||Philadelphia Phillies||Philadelphia Follies||Philadelphia Phillies||Philadelphia Phillies|
National League Central
|1st||Chicago Cubs||Chicago Cubs||Chicago Harry Caray’s||Chicago Cubs||Chicago Cubs|
|2nd||Milwaukee Brewers||Pittsburgh Pirates||Pittsburgh Buckos*||St. Louis Cardinals*||St. Louis Cardinals*|
|3rd||St. Louis Cardinals||St. Louis Cardinals||Cincinnati Fighting Vottos||Pittsburgh Pirates||Milwaukee Brewers|
|4th||Pittsburgh Pirates||Milwaukee Brewers||St. Louis Deadbirds||Milwaukee Brewers||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|5th||Cincinnati Reds||Cincinnati Reds||Milwaukee Brewniversity||Cincinnati Reds||Cincinnati Reds|
National League West
|1st||Los Angeles Dodgers||Los Angeles Dodgers||Colorado Silver Bullets||Los Angeles Dodgers||San Francisco Giants|
|2nd||Arizona Diamondbacks||San Francisco Giants*||Los Angeles Vin Scullys*||Colorado Rockies*||Los Angeles Dodgers*|
|3rd||Colorado Rockies||Colorado Rockies||San Padres Big Macs||San Francisco Giants||Colorado Rockies|
|4th||San Diego Padres||Arizona Diamondbacks||Arizona Trouser Snakes||Arizona Diamondbacks||Arizona Diamondbacks|
|5th||San Francisco Giants||San Diego Padres||San Francisco Gigantors||San Diego Padres||San Diego Padres|
Justin Turner and the Dodgers won the National League Pennant, we didn’t see that coming for some reason. (Richard Mackson- USA TODAY Sports)
American League East
|1st||Boston Red Sox||Boston Red Sox||Toronto Canucks||Boston Red Sox||Boston Red Sox|
|2nd||New York Yankees||Toronto Blue Jays*||New York Spankees||New York Yankees*||New York Yankees*|
|3rd||Tampa Bay Rays||New York Yankees||Baltimore Riots||Toronto Blue Jays||Baltimore Orioles|
|4th||Toronto Blue Jays||Baltimore Orioles||Steve Irwin Killers||Tampa Bay Rays||Toronto Blue Jays|
|5th||Baltimore Orioles||Tampa Bay Rays||Boston Dead Sux||Baltimore Orioles||Tampa Bay Rays|
American League Central
|1st||Cleveland Indians||Cleveland Indians||Kansas City Monarchs||Cleveland Indians||Cleveland Indians|
|2nd||Minnesota Twins||Detroit Tigers||Cleveland Up Three Games To None*||Detroit Tigers||Kansas City Royals|
|3rd||Kansas City Royals||Kansas City Royals||Chicago Black Sox||Minnesota Twins||Detroit Tigers|
|4th||Chicago White Sox||Minnesota Twins||Minnesota Twinkies||Kansas City Royals||Minnesota Twins|
|5th||Detroit Tigers||Chicago White Sox||Detroit Militarized Zone||Chicago White Sox||Chicago White Sox|
American League West
|1st||Houston Astros||Houston Astros||The Acute Angels of Anaheim||Seattle Mariners||Houston Astros|
|2nd||Los Angeles Angels||Seattle Mariners*||Houston Colt 45s*||Houston Astros*||Seattle Mariners|
|3rd||Seattle Mariners||Texas Rangers||Oakland White Elephants||Texas Rangers||Texas Rangers|
|4th||Texas Rangers||Los Angeles Angels||Texas Dangers||Los Angeles Angels||Los Angeles Angels|
|5th||Oakland Athletics||Oakland Athletics||Seattle Seamen||Oakland Athletics||Oakland Athletics|
The Yankees were a surprise in 2017, which seems weird to say now. (Ben Solomon- New York Times)
National League Wild Card
|Winner||Arizona Diamondbacks||San Francisco Giants||Pittsburgh Buckos||Colorado Rockies||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Loser||Colorado Rockies||New York Mets||Los Angeles Vin Scullys||St. Louis Cardinals||St. Louis Cardinals|
American League Wild Card
|Winner||New York Yankees||Seattle Mariners||Cleveland Up Three Games To None||Houston Astros||New York Yankees|
|Loser||Minnesota Twins||Toronto Blue Jays||Houston Colt 45s||New York Yankees||Baltimore Orioles|
National League Divisional Series
|Winner||Los Angeles Dodgers||Washington Nationals||Colorado Silver Bullets||Washington Nationals||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Loser||Arizona Diamondbacks||San Francisco Giants||Pittsburgh Buckos||Colorado Rockies||Chicago Cubs|
|Winner||Chicago Cubs||Chicago Cubs||New York Muttz||Chicago Cubs||San Francisco Giants|
|Loser||Washington Nationals||Los Angeles Dodgers||Chicago Harry Caray’s||Los Angeles Dodgers||Washington Nationals|
American League Divisional Series
|Winner||New York Yankees||Boston Red Sox||Kansas City Monarchs||Cleveland Indians||New York Yankees|
|Loser||Cleveland Indians||Seattle Mariners||Cleveland Up Three Games To None||Houston Astros||Cleveland Indians|
|Winner||Houston Astros||Cleveland Indians||The Acute Angels of Anaheim||Seattle Mariners||Boston Red Sox|
|Loser||Boston Red Sox||Houston Astros||Toronto Canucks||Boston Red Sox||Houston Astros|
National League Championship Series
|Winner||Los Angeles Dodgers||Washington Nationals||Colorado Silver Bullets||Washington Nationals||San Francisco Giants|
|Loser||Chicago Cubs||Chicago Cubs||New York Muttz||Chicago Cubs||Los Angeles Dodgers|
American League Championship Series
|Winner||Houston Astros||Cleveland Indians||Kansas City Monarchs||Seattle Mariners||New York Yankees|
|Loser||New York Yankees||Boston Red Sox||The Acute Angels of Anaheim||Boston Red Sox||Boston Red Sox|
|Winner||Houston Astros||Washington Nationals||Colorado Silver Bullets||Seattle Mariners||New York Yankees|
|Loser||Los Angeles Dodgers||Boston Red Sox||Kansas City Monarchs||Washington Nationals||San Francisco Giants|
Some how none of us had the Astros in the World Series, much less winning it. WHY???!!!! (Eugene Garcia/ European Pressphoto Agency)
Breaking down how we did individually shows some bright spots here and there, but overall we were terrible. Here is a breakdown of everything we correctly predicted before last season began.
Jesse was the worst at predicting the season. He correctly predicted the final regular season standings of just seven teams, a sad showing at 23%. His correct predictions focused primarily on which teams would not contend. He was correct twice in the National League East, his best division, predicting the Braves would finish third and the Phillies would finish last. In the National League Central, he found his only correct prediction with the Cubs winning the division. Jesse looked into his crystal ball and saw the Giants finishing last in the National League West long before the rest of us. Moving over to the American League, the Yankees produced the second place finish he foresaw last April. In the Central, the Tigers followed through by finishing last. Finally, in the American League West, Jesse nailed it with his prediction of the Rangers finishing in fourth place. None of his playoff predictions were correct, and thus Jesse finished last in The Winning Run’s prediction standings.
Derek managed to finish with the bronze medal based on his predictions for the 2017 season. He predicted the final regular season standings for 12 teams, an impressive 40%, tied for the most. His predictions included picking every division winner before the season started. Consistency is the key to success in playing and predicting baseball. Derek was correct on the Nationals winning and the Phillies finishing last in the National League East. In the Central, Derek showed his prediction prowess as he was spot on with the Cubs winning, the Cardinals finishing third, and the Reds finishing last in the division. In the National League West, the Dodgers and Rockies came through finishing first and third respectively. The American League East was the weakest division for Derek, as he was correct only in predicting the Red Sox would win the division. The Indians and the Royals made Derek’s predictions true by finishing first and third in the American League Central. He was correct that the Astros would dominate and the Athletics would be left behind in the American League West. Success during the regular season is great, but as any Nationals fan know, success in the playoffs is what matters. Derek managed only two correct predictions in the playoffs, both concerned the Cubs. He was correct in predicting the Cubs would win their matchup in the National League Divisional Series and would lose in the National League Championship Series. Success in the playoffs is what matters, he will have to wait until next year to see if he climb higher on the podium.
Coming in second place, just missing the gold medal was John. While John managed only 10 correct regular season predictions, a respectable 33%, against Derek’s 12, his success in the playoffs earned him the silver medal. John got off to a good start with the Nationals winning and the Phillies finishing last in the National League East. His success continued in the Central as he again bookended the division with the Cubs and the Reds. The National League West saw him only predict the Dodgers winning the division. Moving over to the American League East we found John’s strength. He correctly predicting the Red Sox winning the division, the Yankees finishing second, and the Orioles finishing last. The rest of the American League was not as easy. In the Central, John managed to only predict the Indians winning. In the West he only correct prediction was the Athletics finishing last. However, once the calendar rolled over to October John made up for last time. He was correct, like Derek, in predicting the Cubs would win their matchup in the National League Divisional Series only to lose in the National League Championship Series. However, John predicted the Red Sox would be kicked out of the playoffs by losing in the American League Divisional Series. While his regular season predictions were a step behind, John was able to make up for his mistakes and use his predicting power to take silver with a solid playoff showing.
All four of us missed the most obvious sign to pick the Astros to win the World Series last season. (Sports Illustrated)
This leaves Bernie alone at the top of the podium. His success in the regular season and the playoffs earned Bernie the gold medal in predicting the 2017 Major League season. Bernie tied with Derek by correctly predicting the final regular season standings for 12 teams, 40%. In the National League East he had the Nationals winning with the Phillies bringing up the rear. The Central was his strength in the National League, as Bernie was spot on with the Cubs winning, the Pirates finishing fourth, and the Reds finishing last in the division. In the West Bernie found success with the Rockies finishing third. Once again the American League East was a source of strength, as Bernie had the Red Sox winning, the Yankees second, and the Blue Jays finishing fourth in the division. The Central was an easy pick at the top with the Indians, but below Cleveland his predictions missed. In the American League West, the Astros and Athletics finished as predicted first and last for Bernie. A strong regular season only gave way to an even strong playoff run. Bernie was correct in predicting the Yankees would win the American League Wild Card game. He was also correct in picking the Dodgers to win and the Nationals to lose in the National League Divisional Series. The gold medal winning push came in the American League Divisional Series. Bernie was perfect in predicting the four teams who would meet. He predicted the Yankees winning and the Indians losing in this round. If Bernie had only flipped his prediction to have the Astros winning over the Red Sox, he would have been perfect. Bernie found success in the playoffs while the rest of us faltered. The irony is Bernie lives in Washington D.C. and his local team is the Nationals, who are known for failing in the playoffs after a great regular season.
Collectively The Winning Run showed once again the more you know about baseball the less you know. Each of us love baseball and follow it religiously, yet we are terrible at these predictions. We all had the Cubs winning the National League Central and the Phillies finishing last in the National League West. Collectively, we failed at everything else. We failed to predict either the Dodgers or Astros would play in the World Series, even though we recognized both teams would be a force in 2017. We fail at predicting the baseball season every year, so why should this past season be any different?
DJ, JJ, JB, & BL
Pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training is without a doubt the most exciting time on the sports calendar where absolutely nothing happens. Literally it is a group of men reporting to the first day of work. They just show up and nothing, publicly, happens. There are no games, no monumental moments, just people walking in the door. Usually the free agents have been signed and introduced to the team and public, the draft picks have been around for almost a full year, nothing special is going on. Pitchers and catchers reporting is the most anticlimactic moment possible in sports, and yet baseball fans mark it down on their calendars every year.
We’re here. Now what do you want us to do? (www.dodgersphotog.mlblogs.com)
It is not what is happening, rather it is what could happen. This could be the first step teams take towards winning the World Series. This is the day baseball tells the world that summer and warm weather are coming soon. Players know this is when all their off-season work will begin to show. Umpires too. Fans know the sounds of baseball will soon return to their lives. The crack of the bat, the pop of the glove, the roar of the crowd, the static on the radio. The smells of baseball will return too. The fresh cut grass, hot dogs, beer, the smell of your glove. Every day until Halloween you can escape for a few hours and lose yourself in the game. Pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training is anticlimactic, however what will follow is not.
Once again Major League Baseball is worrying about pace of play during games. Commissioner Rob Manfred and Executive Director of the Player’s Association Tony Clark have gone back and forth about proposed rule changes to speed up games in 2018. The latest round of pace of play rules include limiting catchers to one mound visit per inning per pitcher, a 20 second pitch clock, and raising the strike zone from the bottom of the kneecap to the top. All of these changes have been rejected by the Player’s Association, yet MLB could still institute them unilaterally for the 2018 season. The average game in 2017 lasted three hours and five minutes, which is longer than before the last round of pace of play rules were instituted. So with longer games comes more tinkering.
Baseball, like all sports, will have slow boring games from time to time, this is just reality. Instead of trying to change the game, why not take some steps that would improve fan interaction with baseball. Shorten commercial breaks for those watching at home. All the talk is about pace of play, what about when fans cannot even see the game. Obviously baseball makes a great deal of money off commercials, so raise the price of those commercials. How can you raise the price of commercials throughout the year? Market the players more. Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Jose Altuve, Bryce Harper, and many more should be as well know as the top football and basketball players. If MLB marketed the players more aggressively, they could charge advertisers more for commercials and partnerships as the endorsement of these players would have greater weight nationally. Increased revenue from advertising would mean shorter commercial breaks during games. Take away one 30 second commercial from each break and you have saved close to 10 minutes during each game.
Baseball should focus on eliminating down time not necessarily the time needed to complete a game. Shorter commercial breaks are a great place to start. (Chuck Solomon/ Sports Illistrated)
The pitch clock, which is already used in the minor leagues, and does not do much. I have not seen nor heard of any pitcher getting charged a ball for taking too long. It is a friendly reminder to get on with the next pitch, but little else. Limiting mound visits could minimally speed up the game, however multiple mound visits in an inning usually only occurs in late game, high leverage moments. Let the players play. Speed the game up in when little is happening, not when the game is on the line.
This off season has also seen an incredibly slow free agent market. Call it what you want: collusion, low balling the players, players and agents having unrealistic salary expectations. Whatever. Yes, both sides, owners and players, want to make as much money as possible. Owners want a return on their financial investments, players want to maximize their earnings during their playing careers. However, when agents like Brodie Van Wagenen start floating ideas like players boycotting Spring Training this makes baseball look bad. Baseball has had labor peace for almost a quarter century, one slow off season and you are ready to blow it up? The Strike in 1994 did major, lasting damage to baseball. Lots of fans lost interest and it took years for the game to come back. Cal Ripken Jr. passing Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak and the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa helped bring many fans back, but not all of them. Is another scandalous era like the steroid era really in baseball’s best interest?
Baseball needs to market itself and the players more aggressively. If people are interested, they will not care that a game lasts a little over three hours. Give the fans something to be interested in, even if the game itself is not great. Start games a little earlier so kids can watch more of a game, or the whole game before they have to go to bed. Starting a game at 6:45 pm instead of 7:05 pm would give a kid twenty more minutes of baseball, or roughly a full inning of baseball. Getting kids and young adults interested in baseball will grow baseball to new heights. Shaving a minute or two off the average length of a game ultimately does not matter if the sport itself is not drawing and holding the attention of an ever growing audience. Pace of play is important, but not if people were never interested in the first place. Put the game and players on display, not the advertisers.
Teams with large payrolls are not guaranteed to win championships. In sports the more talented the player, the more expensive their services become once they reach free agency, thus teams with large payrolls are filled with players who are, or at one time were, extremely talented at their chosen profession. The road to a championship requires a commitment to excellence, and for the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers that journey was just beginning.
The Best Team Money Can Buy by Molly Knight explores the transition of the Dodgers from the disastrous ownership tenure of Frank McCourt to the new ownership of Mark Walter. Knight explores the team on the field, in the front office, and the world around them. Major League Baseball understood the value of ensuring the transition from McCourt to Walter went smoothly and acted in the best interest of baseball.
*Spoilers beyond this point.*
Knight does an excellent job of examining the players on and off the field. The Dodgers to securing their ace, Clayton Kershaw, for the long term was critical to the health of the team. If Kershaw was able to walk away from the Dodgers, like Zack Greinke eventually did, the immediate future for the team would have been about building towards division not World Series titles. Los Angeles’ front office knew their fans would turn on the team if Kershaw was allowed to walk. Resigning Kershaw was as much a baseball move as it was a public relations move. Contrasting the focus and dominance of Kershaw was the explosion of Yasiel Puig. The willingness to sign a relatively unknown talent was a risk, however the excitement Puig brought with him to the Dodgers out weighed the risk in the eyes of the fans. Puig’s experience with his teammates and the insight Knight provides shows the difficulty many Latin American players have in adjusting to life in the United States, especially Cuban players. Puig’s near instant success meant he found some of the pitfalls that caused other superstars stumble. While electrifying on the field, Puig’s antics off the field and in the clubhouse rubbed many of his teammates the wrong way. This left manager Don Mattingly with the delicate job of keeping Puig happy while not alienating the rest of the team. This challenge was made even more difficult as the Dodgers showed little faith in Mattingly, who never felt secure in his job while in Los Angeles. This constant balancing act in the clubhouse made performing on the field more difficult than normal. The internal drama was overshadowed as the ownership regime of Frank McCourt came crashing down all around Dodger Stadium.
The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse (Simon & Schuster)
Prior to owning the Dodgers, Frank McCourt owned a parking lot in south Boston. He attempted to buy the Red Sox and move them to a new stadium that he would construct on his parking lot. When this plan failed he turned his attention to the Dodgers. McCourt had bigger dreams than bank accounts, but was able to purchase the Dodgers with loans he secured by putting the parking lot up as collateral. Eventually the loans went unpaid and the parking lot was seized. Ultimately the Dodgers were sold to McCourt for a parking lot in south Boston.
McCourt ran the Dodgers into the ground. He had little interest in the team beyond how they could make him richer. As his personal life went up in flames he attempted to hold onto the Dodgers through a television deal that would pay him enough to remain owner after his divorce was finalized. Major League Baseball was forced to step in to prevent the deal. His divorce turning nasty and dragging on, McCourt was ordered to sell the team. The Dodger fan base was skeptical of new owner Mark Walter. However, Walter was only interested in winning. Signing fan favorite Andre Ethier to an over priced contract was more of a public relations deal than a smart baseball deal. Walter understood he had to win back the fans after many had rightly walked away under McCourt. Winning was the most important thing, money would solve some problems but not everything.
The early building blocks of the perennial contender the Dodgers have become were laid in 2013. Molly Knight examines the circumstances surround the team during this critical time, yet she also helps the reader understand why the rebirth of the Dodgers is so important to baseball. She does an excellent job of exposing the personalities on the team that made the team successful and struggle. Sports teams are often not seen as being made up of people, but Knight makes you see the quirks and craziness that each player brings to the Dodger clubhouse. Molly Knight’s work in The Best Team Money Can Buy is as critical to the understanding of baseball’s current state as Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. Money does not guarantee championships, as baseball cannot be bought and sold, but it does not hurt.