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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #9: Bryce Harper tries to Make Baseball Fun Again

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

When Jose Bautista tossed his bat following his home run un Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS, several years worth of arguments about bat flips, fist pumps and other on-field celebrations came to a head. While everyone seems to agree that athletes doing great things is exciting and impressive, many in the game, in the media and in the fan base at large seem to believe that maintaining some standard of buttoned-down decorum is essential to baseball. It’s an odd conservatism that is far more pronounced in baseball than in any other sport.

As spring training got underway one of baseball’s brightest young stars weighed in on the matter. It was Bryce Harper, who gave an interview to ESPN in which he lamented the fact that, for some reason, the baseball establishment doesn’t seem to want players to enjoy themselves on the field:

“Baseball’s tired,” he says. “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do. I’m not saying baseball is, you know, boring or anything like that, but it’s the excitement of the young guys who are coming into the game now who have flair. If that’s Matt Harvey or Jacob deGrom or Manny Machado or Joc Pederson or Andrew McCutchen or Yasiel Puig — there’s so many guys in the game now who are so much fun . . .

. . .  If a guy pumps his fist at me on the mound, I’m going to go, ‘Yeah, you got me. Good for you. Hopefully I get you next time.’ That’s what makes the game fun. You want kids to play the game, right? What are kids playing these days? Football, basketball. Look at those players — Steph Curry, LeBron James. It’s exciting to see those players in those sports. Cam Newton — I love the way Cam goes about it. He smiles, he laughs. It’s that flair. The dramatic.”

One read of that and it’s clear that Harper loves baseball, wants it to be exciting and was, in effect, merely adding his views to that long-standing debate about baseball decorum. His detractors, however, of which there were many, decided to focus on his use of the word “tired.”

Sergio Romo — himself a demonstrative on-field celebrator — told Harper to “shut up” or to find another job if he thinks baseball is “tired.”  Hall of Famer Goose Gossage claimed that Harper “doesn’t know squat about the game” saying that he should “look at the history” and “quit acting like a fool.” Even some random Rays minor leaguer felt it necessary to take the reigning NL MVP to task on Twitter for his alleged lack of fealty to the Baseball Gods.

A couple of weeks later Harper, as a joke, wore a “Make Baseball Fun Again” cap in the clubhouse, which set off another round of criticism, including some from outside the world of baseball. Talk radio hosts and fans in comment sections and on social media auto-piloted into their usual “Bryce Harper is a punk” schtick and talked about how There Are Proper Ways to Act on a baseball field. As if it was funeral. Or the site of a great battle.

As the season got underway the specific controversy died down, but battles over “playing the game the right way” or over young players speaking their minds, possibly out of turn, or over the cultural differences between American ballplayers and Latino ballplayers never seem to die. They pop up every week during the baseball season, manifested in glaring contests, fist pumps, home runs trots, purpose pitches and the particular cliches players use when talking to the press.

As I wrote in March, however, these battles aren’t going to last forever. In fact, you tend to see the arguing and controversy spike in any cultural clash closer to its resolution, when the losing side of that clash feels most threatened and under fire. The Goose Gossages, old baseball men and talk radio hosts of the world are raging against the dying of what they perceive to be the light. The Bryce Harpers of the world are merely giving voice to an emerging new normal. His detractors may have the loudest voices at times, but more people agree with him than disagree with him. More people think baseball is fun and should continue to be fun than believe that it’s an institution that depends on a certain set of rites and rituals.

Bryce Harper calling baseball “tired” in March was not the end of the world. But I do hope it represented the beginning of the end of baseball’s fixation on a certain sort of rules of decorum and deportment. Good riddance to it.

James Paxton will “nerd out big-time” to stay healthy next year

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To the surprise of, well, very few, the Mariners didn’t make the cut for the postseason this year. While they threw their hats in the ring for a wild card berth, their pitching staff just couldn’t stay healthy, from the handful of pitchers who contracted season-ending injuries in spring training to Felix Hernandez‘s shoulder bursitis to structural damage in Hisashi Iwakuma‘s right shoulder. Left-hander James Paxton missed 79 days with a lingering head cold, strained left forearm and pectoral strain. Heading into the 2018 season, the lefty told MLB.com’s Greg Johns that he plans to “nerd out big-time” in order to prepare for a healthy, consistent run with the club.

So far, Johns reports, that entails a new diet and workout program, hot yoga sessions and blood testing. “I just think there’s more I can do,” Paxton said. “I haven’t done the blood testing before. Finding out if there’s something I don’t know about myself. It’s just about learning and trying to find what works for me.”

When healthy, the 28-year-old southpaw was lights-out for the Mariners. He helped stabilize the front end of the rotation with a 12-5 record in 24 starts and supplemented his efforts with a 2.98 ERA, 2.4 BB/9 and 10.3 SO/9 through 136 innings. Despite taking multiple trips to the disabled list, he built up 4.6 fWAR — the most wins above replacement he’s compiled in any season of his career to date. Had he not been felled by a pectoral injury in mid-August — one that came with a five-week trip to the disabled list — the club might have been been able to make a bigger push for the playoffs.

Of course, even if Paxton manages to stay healthy next season, the Mariners still have the rest of the rotation to worry about. They cycled through 17 starters in 2017 and tied the 2014 Rangers with 40 total pitchers over the course of the season. Per GM Jerry Dipoto, their top four starters (Paxton, Hernandez, Iwakuma, and Tommy John candidate Drew Smyly) only contributed 17% of total innings pitched, just a tad below the 40% average. Finding adequate big league arms and compensating for injured aces (both current and former) will be tough. Still, getting a healthy, dominant Paxton back on the mound for 30+ starts would be a huge get for the team — whether or not the postseason is in their future next year.