Craig Calcaterra

SAN JUAN, PR - MARCH 10:  A statue of Hiram Bithorn at sunset before the game between Cuba and Puerto Rico at the World Baseball Classic at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on March 10, 2006 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — Full Countdown

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Over the past three days we’ve counted down the Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015. In case you missed a few entries, here they all are:

1.The Relentless Royals win it all
2.Contenders come from out of nowhere
3.Rise of the Rookies
4.Alex Rodriguez makes his triumphant return
5.The amazing NL Cy Young race
6.The Nationals choke. Literally.
7.Bryce Harper truly arrives
8.Rob Manfred becomes the new commissioner
9.Max Scherzer tosses two no-hitters
10.The Hall of Fame inducts a class for the ages
11.Major League Baseball institutes a domestic violence policy
12.Josh Hamilton has a relapse and winds up back in Texas
13.Pete Rose finally gets his appeal. And loses it.
14.Unrest in Baltimore leads to a fan-free Orioles game
15.Scott Boras, Matt Harvey and the shutdown that wasn’t
16.Legends Yogi Berra and Ernie Banks pass away
17.Chase Utley takes out Ruben Tejada with a questionable slide
18.Baseball recommends extended protective netting
19.The Cardinals hack the Astros database
20.David Ortiz announces that the 2016 season will be his last
21.A bunch of voters were kicked off the Hall of Fame rolls
22.Baseball reaches peak inexperienced manager
23.Some ballpark patriotism revealed to be sponsored by the military
24.Barry Bonds comes back to baseball
25.Curt Schilling’s Year in Social Media

Happy New Year!

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #1 The Relentless Royals win it all

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We’re a few short days away from 2016 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2015. 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.

If baseball were 100% fair — if the league remained 30 teams strong and if we were to extend history out infinitely — eventually we’d reach a place where, on average, each team would win a World Series ever 30 years. Baseball is not fair, however, its past is uneven, its circumstances vary and its future unpredictable. As such, the Royals not winning a World Series for 30 years seemed pretty darn bad to fans who rooted for the men in royal blue.

It wasn’t just the lack of championships after 1985 which stuck in their craw. It was the lack of any reasonable claim to bare respectability. They only had five seasons in which they were above .500 between 1986 and 2012. In 2013 they took a step forward, winning 86 games and finishing seven back. In 2014 they shocked baseball by going on a tear after winning the wild card and pushing the Giants to Game 7 of the World Series before falling just short. Finally, at long last, the Royals were back on the map.

But they had unfinished business.

It was business that many pundits didn’t think the 2015 Royals could complete. Their 2014 was seen as a fluke by many. Lightning in a bottle. Victories on the back of some lucky bounces, some seeing-eye singles, some missteps from their opponents and some performances that, however great, were due to regress a year later. Many predicted they’d miss the playoffs. Hardly anyone thought they’d win the division. But win it they did. Quite easily, actually. They traded first and second place out a couple of times early but they took over the top spot in the AL Central on June 9 and would never relinquish it. For almost all of August and September their lead was double digits.

If that didn’t convince everyone, the Royals showed that 2014 was no fluke whatsoever once the playoffs started. It wasn’t a cakewalk. To win the World Series you have to win 11 playoff games. In eight of those 11 wins, the Royals spotted the opposition the lead. It didn’t seem to bother them too much, though. A joke started circulating sometime in October: “How do we defeat ISIS?” The answer: “Spot them a two-run lead to the Kansas City Royals and they’ll lose for sure.” The jokesters weren’t wrong.

Early in the postseason people settled on the word “relentless” to describe the Royals and their style of play. I understand that from a purely tactical point of view. They pressured defenses with their running game, fouled everything in the world off and never ceased throwing pure gas at opposing hitters. But I’m not sure “relentless” was the most apt word, however, as “relentless” implies a dominance the Royals didn’t always demonstrate. Indeed, they experienced more than a few moments when they themselves were on the ropes.

But it didn’t matter:

We never quit. Never put our head down. Never think about, ‘OK game is over.’

That was World Series MVP Salvador Perez after Game 5, accurately describing the approach he and his teammates took throughout the season and, especially, the playoffs. As I wrote the night the Royals won the Series, I don’t think what Perez was describing was a team that was “relentless,” as such. If you’re simply unbowed you’re relentless, sure, but if you’re bloodied and unbowed — as Perez noted that, at times, the Royals were — I think you’re more properly referred to as indefatigable. These Royals were definitely that. And I consider that to be higher praise than merely noting the Royals’ “relentlessness.”

All teams which win a World Series are talented and the 2015 Royals were, without question, a talented team. But there are different types of World Series winners. Some are thought to be damn nigh unbeatable teams. The late 1980s Athletics were talked about that way. As such, when they lost two of the three World Series in which they played they were seen as somehow disappointing. And, in the one they won, they seen to have merely met expectations. Even if there wasn’t an earthquake in 1989, that A’s club would not have elicited tons of excitement and praise outside of its own fan base.

A team which is not completely perfect, however, but which overcomes its imperfections through application of not only its talent but its determination and sheer force of will, well, that’s something special. And that was the 2015 Kansas City Royals. The best team in baseball. And the best story in baseball, all year long.

Hope you had a good 2015, folks. See you next year.

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #2: Contenders come from out of nowhere

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We’re a few short days away from 2016 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2015. 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.

In 2014, the Chicago Cubs were 73-89, the New York Mets were 79-83, the Houston Astros were 70-92 and the Texas Rangers were way the heck down at 67-95. For their part, the Toronto Blue Jays were a relatively fat 83-79. None of them even sniffed the postseason. In 2015: all of them made the playoff dance.

There stories weren’t all the same, of course.

The Texas Rangers improved by 21 wins due to a number of factors. Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder were healthy and effective. As was the case across baseball, youth played a big part with second baseman Rougned Odor, 22-year-old reliever Keone Kela and 22-year-old Rule 5 pick center fielder Delino DeShields all contributing. Trades for Yovani Gallardo and Cole Hamels made a big impact in the rotation. It also didn’t hurt that the Angels, Mariners and A’s all took a step back, making the AL East a two-team show.

That other AL West team, the Houston Astros, finally saw a years-long rebuilding effort bear fruit. And bear fruit way earlier than many outside the organization figured it would. While everyone scoffed at Sports Illustrated playfully declaring the Astros the 2017 World Series Champions on a cover a couple of years back, that may have a pessimistic assessment. The improvement wasn’t all Carlos Correa and a cast of rookies, however. Veteran pickups like Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis aided the effort and, in the space of six months, Astros fans all but forgot those three straight 100+ loss seasons and 2014’s 92 in the tank.

The New York Mets didn’t improve by as many wins as the Rangers and Astros did — “only” 11 more than in 2014 — but they certainly flipped the script on the general Mets narrative and the NL East as a whole. The Nationals’ collapse certainly helped them, but the real story of the Mets’ season was the return of Matt Harvey the continued dominance of Jacob deGrom and the emergence of Noah Syndergaard and, late in the season, Steven Matz. A nice improvement from Curtis Granderson, the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes and, in the second half, the return of David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud from the disabled-list made a huge difference as well. A club which, in the middle of the year elicited the familiar “LOL Mets!” was, by October, National League Champions.

Finally, the Toronto Blue Jays who only improved by 10 games, but certainly changed the dynamic of the organization and their division. The big splash came last offseason when GM Alex Anthopoulos straight up stole Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics, only to see him put up an MVP season. He and newcomer Russell Martin joined Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista to keep the Jays at the top of the Hit List and leading all of baseball in runs scored. The runs weren’t the only story, however. The second half improvement, much like the Mets’ improvement, was. They picked up David Price from the Tigers and Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies in twin splashes. Less splashy but nonetheless important were the additions of Ben Revere and relievers LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe. Starting in August the Jays sped away from the rest of the division and electrified Toronto. The Jays were GOING FOR IT. There are two World Series title banners hanging in Rogers Centre and Joe Carter once hit a walkoff World Series-winning homer, but Jose Bautista’s bat-flipping Game 5 ALDS homer ranks right up there in all-time franchise highlights.

Can we draw any larger lessons from these teams coming from, seemingly anyway, out of nowhere to contend? Perhaps a couple.

First, we are reminded just how much parity there is in Major League Baseball these days. Not just in the sense that, in any one season, teams are closer together than they used to be, but in the sense that season-by-season win totals can vary far more than they used to. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it just wasn’t logical to expect that a club could improve by 20 games. “Worst to First” really meant something. Now? Anything is possible, it seems.

Another lesson, more applicable to the Astros and Cubs, is that a wholesale rebuild — complete with “tanking,” even if that word seems somewhat inapplicable to baseball in the way it is to basketball — works. As the great Joe Sheehan notes in his newsletter today:

Whether Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers in Houston, or Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in Chicago, the stars of those teams were explicitly the product of losing lots of baseball games. You can see the next wave behind them; the Phillies won’t win this year, but they have Aaron Nola and J.P. Crawford and Cornelius Randolph and a 2018 payroll of nothing. The Braves have Dansby Swanson because they were willing to punt 2016. The Reds and the Rockies could be next in line. Until and unless MLB changes its rules to lessen the incentives teams have to lose 105 games rather than 95, we’re going to see 10% of the league going Sixers at any point in time, because it works.

It remains to be seen if the Phillies and Braves can do what the Cubs and Astros did. It likewise remains to be seen whether such “tanking” is truly a problem in baseball from the fans’ perspective. We all want to see enjoyable baseball, but there’s likely some fair disagreement among fans regarding whether watching a 105-loss team is appreciably worse than watching a 95-loss team if the 105-loss team has a better argument for contention in X number of years. But he is absolutely right that neither the Cubs nor the Astros enjoy the 2015s they did if they didn’t have to endure some pretty crappy years before it.

That stuff aside, it was an exciting year in baseball, as some long-time also-rans and never-rans catapulted into contention awakening fan bases which had long been dormant. It was a lot of fun, dadgummit, and isn’t that the point of it all?