Yes, baseball is back. Finally. While we wait for the warm spring weather to thaw the frozen tundra still present across much of the northeastern United States, at least baseball is here to give us hope. Summer will arrive. Warm days are around the corner.
PolisPandit wrote about the beauty of baseball back in 2015. If anything, the game has only become more exciting since then. This season begins following one of the most competitive and thrilling World Series match ups of all time. The Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers battled like two juggernauts, going the seven game distance before the Astros prevailed. Records were set, including the most combined home runs ever hit in a World Series with 25. The Astros also broke a franchise record with 15 home runs. Houston outfielder George Springer hit 5 of those long balls and was named World Series MVP.
Baseball has always been a beautiful reprieve from the daily grind of life, and it is arguably needed even more so this year. From the mass shootings and fractious political rhetoric, to the international conflicts with North Korea and now China over tariffs, baseball could not arrive at a more opportune time. Below are some storylines to follow throughout the 2018 season:
- Home Runs. The big fly is back in a big way. The steroid era seems lame compared to this new age of the long ball. Last year, teams shattered the Major League record for home runs in a season, which was previously 5,693. Per Baseball Reference, the league crushed that season record by belting 6,103 home runs in 2017. Are guys juicing again? Perhaps there is some new age drug or other advantage yet to be revealed, but most current evidence points to new swinging techniques as the cause. More hitters have adapted an uppercut swinging style, and have prolonged or reinvented their careers as a result. The effect is more balls in the air, and therefore, more home runs and extra base hits. Check the stats of notable players who have adapted this uppercut swinging technique (Chris Taylor, JD Martinez, Josh Donaldson, Justin Turner), and you will notice sudden surges in production. Watch for more hitters to implement this approach in 2018, but also look out for an increase in an uppercut swing’s corollary: strikeouts.
- Shohei Ohtani. Speaking of the long ball, this much hyped Japanese superstar is the real deal if the first week of the season is any indication of future performance. Not only has he homered in three straight games as of the publication of this article, but in his first pitching start, he struck out six in six innings while giving up three runs and securing the win. Babe Ruth’s legacy as the best two-way player may be in jeopardy. It will be fascinating to watch how the Angels use Ohtani throughout the year and whether he can continue this versatile and high level quality of production.
- Haves and Have-Nots. Similar to the competition for signing Ohtani in the offseason, baseball has great rivalries, but few teams realistically have a chance to vie for a championship. In 2018, the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” appears even wider, as evidenced by the almost nonexistent offseason free agent market and the popular tanking trend amongst the league’s worst teams (we’re looking at you, Marlins). Given the generous amount of revenue sharing, teams can afford to tank by selling current top talent and building their farm systems with high draft picks each year. The Houston Astros, who won the World Series last year, built this model and other teams around the league have taken notice. Many are weighing the costs and benefits of purposely tanking with the hopes of drafting a core group of superstars (Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer were all recent first round draft picks for the Astros). In the short term, teams that take this approach lose terribly and do not engage in the high priced free agent market, but build formidable farm systems that may pay dividends over the long haul, unless their front office is utterly incompetent.
- Seattle Mariners. When discussing the most incompetent front offices across baseball, no other team has exemplified more ineptitude than the Seattle Mariners. Similar to the Astros, the Mariners have had high draft picks, but used them on complete duds: Danny Hultzen, Nick Franklin, Dustin Ackley, Jeff Clement, and the list goes on. Do not even get us started on some of the trades they’ve made, many of which may be the worst in MLB history (e.g., trading for Erik Bedard in exchange for five players, including one named Adam Jones). The Mariners hold the current record for the longest playoff drought in MLB, which dates back to 2001 when the team won 116 games. A series of front office blunders, as superbly detailed by the Seattle Times, have left this team with a depleted farm system and a cast of aging superstars (Ichiro – 44 yr., Nelson Cruz – 37, Robinson Cano – 34, Felix Hernandez – only 32, but already with 8 seasons over 200 innings pitched). The window is closing on this current squad’s chances of making the playoffs, but with a potent offense (when healthy), a solid bullpen, and two ace pitchers (when effective) in Paxton and Hernandez, this team could surprise people come October. With the competition in the American League, however, their only hope probably lies in securing the second Wild Card spot.
- Shifts, Shifts, Shifts. Almost every team employs them now, and when Joey Gallo is up to bat, teams may even use four outfielders, as the Astros did this past week. When more hitters start to learn how to use the entire field is anyone’s guess. With analytics influencing almost every aspect of the game, however, expect to see creative shifts throughout the season. You may even see a five man outfield with the likes of Giancarlo Stanton. You heard it here first.