Craig Calcaterra

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?

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #3 Rise of the Rookies

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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.

Every year there is a rookie or two who makes an impact. We note their promotion, admire their performance, give them a Rookie of the Year Award, pat them on the head and send them on their merry way. Rarely, however, do a whole BUNCH of rookies make an impact and rarely the sort of impact a whole bunch of them made in 2015.

Baseball America ranks the top 100 prospects in baseball before each season. Of those 100 prospects for 2015, 49 made their major league debut this year, including 30 of the top 46, 16 of the top 21 and all six of the top six prospects: Kris Bryant, Byron Buxton, Addison Russell, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Joey Gallo (hat tip to Cliff Corcoran of SI for pointing that out). In addition to those rookies, Jung-Ho Kang, late of the KBO, made his debut for the Pirates.

But it wasn’t just about making mere appearances. Many of these rookies made big impacts. In fact, 18 rookie hitters compiled 2.0 bWAR or more, which is the most in major league history (further hat tip to Cliff). Bryant himself posted a WAR of 5.9, with a batting line of .275/.369/.488 (OPS+ 133) with 26 homers and 99 RBI. In the American League Correa batted .279/.345/.512 with 22 home runs, 68 RBI, and 14 stolen bases over 99 games (he didn’t debut until June). His .857 OPS was the best among all MLB shortstops (min. 300 PA). He didn’t even turn 21 until September.

Why so many rookies this year? A number of factors, I suppose. On a very basic level, there were a LOT of talented rookies. Throw in the fact that there is a lot of parity in baseball right now along with two wild cards and we’re at a place where even one good player could mean the difference between playing in October or not, giving teams stronger incentives to make incremental moves or to promote young players than there used to be.

It’s also the case that, in the age of drug testing and front offices who are loathe to spend as big for veterans as they used to, younger, cheaper players are simply more valuable than they used to be. We may not always see rookie classes like the one we saw in 2015, but we’ll certainly see more rookies playing key roles than they used to. We’ll also likely see more service time manipulation in an effort to keep that good young talent as cheap as possible for as long as possible, but that’s another topic altogether.

In the meantime, youth is served.

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #4: Alex Rodriguez makes his triumphant return

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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.

On October 1, the Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox 4-1 in the season’s 159th game. That win clinched a playoff spot for New York and, as has become custom in Major League Baseball, the champagne flowed in the Yankees’ clubhouse.

The most notable celebrant? This guy:

Alex Rodriguez

As recently as seven months before this, no sports book in Las Vegas would’ve given you odds that such a scene would have unfolded. Indeed, less than a year previously Alex Rodriguez was living in exile, suspended from baseball due to his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. The Yankees seemed to all but have cut bait on A-Rod, trading for Chase Headley and naming him their starting third baseman. Carlos Beltran was seen as the Yankees’ DH. While Rodriguez was still under contract with the Yankees, he had to come to spring training and compete for a roster spot. There were no guarantees in Rodriguez’s future outside of the fact that he’d be getting a paycheck signed by a Steinbrenner.

How about two years prior? That was when A-Rod wound down the 2013 season on borrowed time, having missed half of it with injury and having the rest of the summer dominated by ugly revelations of his drug use, acrimonious legal proceedings and toxic accusations between him, the league and his employer. That’s when his season-long suspension was issued and then upheld. At that time many claimed that he’d never play baseball again, let alone play for the Yankees. Let alone play well for the Yankees, let alone lead them to the postseason at the age of 40.

But he made the team. And he played well. And he helped lead them to the postseason. I’m still surprised it happened as I write it at this very moment, even having witnessed it. Having witnessed a 40-year-old player who had missed an entire year and whose previous output was aided by performance enhancing drugs come back to the game and put up a line of .250/.356/.486 (an OPS+ of 131) with 33 homers and 86 RBI. Maybe the most amazing part was that he played in 151 games. Rodriguez hadn’t done that since his MVP season in 2007.

Wait, that’s not the most amazing part. The most amazing part is the reception Rodriguez received. From the fans and, eventually, even from the New York Yankees and, to some extent, the media which covered him.

The fans were always going to come back to him if he produced. That’s the one thing the commentators never got right when it came to the A-Rod story. While they literally compared him to mass murderers and tried to outdo one another in just how hot their A-Rod takes could be, the fans’ view of him was always pretty straightforward: if he was helping the Yankees win, go-A-Rod! If he was not, the guy was a bum. Note: this is how almost all players are treated by almost all fans. The extremes of those two reactions were intensified by the amount of money A-Rod made — and yes, A-Rod was always laughed at a good bit due to his various antics — but for the most part, he was treated no different than any other player by Yankees fans.

Yankees management was another thing. It was complicated. They didn’t like him embarrassing the club or having him attack them and their employees, which he did. They certainly didn’t like paying him. Once it became clear that they had no choice but to pay him they figured they’d get as much baseball out of him as they could. Things were still icy, however, as the club tried to get out of paying Rodriguez the home run milestone bonuses he was owed under a marketing agreement with the man, even going so far as to go full-Pravda with it, failing to note his statistical accomplishments in daily media notes. While A-Rod started the season well and while it appeared that, lo and behold, the Yankees had their superstar back, it seemed like only a matter of time before A-Rod and the Yankees would be at war again. You could almost see the tabloid writers’ mouths watering at the prospect.

But then a funny thing happened: A-Rod kept hitting, he and the Yankees reached a compromise on his milestone bonus and the mid-season blowup everyone expected never occurred. By the end of the year the Yankees were honoring Rodriguez in on-the-field ceremonies like he was any other star player.

Rodriguez swooned at the plate in August and, while he rebounded from that, his September and October were worse than his April, May, June and July. For as great as his story was, a 40-year-old ballplayer is a 40-year-old ballplayer, and even with a year off, this 40-year-old ballplayer had over 2,700 games and nearly 12,000 plate appearances on his odometer.

But the falloff notwithstanding, A-Rod stood in that clubhouse on October 1, wearing a champagne-soaked playoff T-shirt, a cigar in his mouth and had triumphant teammates patting him on the back who accepted his pats back in return. The man so many pundits said was irredeemable was being cast in a bonafide redemption story, whether we wanted such a story or not. The dude even went on to conquer the media which once tried to bury him by serving as a postseason analyst for Fox and getting fantastic reviews for his work.

Did you suspect that would happen? Yeah, suuuuure you did.