Craig Calcaterra

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #6: The Nationals choke. Literally.

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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.

There weren’t a ton of certainties entering the 2015 season but one of them was that the Washington Nationals were going to waltz to the NL East crown. The were just too talented not to.

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo made a big splash into the free agent market during the off-season, signing starter Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210 million contract and bolstering what was already a great rotation alongside Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez. The lineup looked pretty imposing too, with Anthony Rendon coming off a fine season, Denard Span, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth seemingly set to continue their solid play. A healthy Ryan Zimmerman was returning and with Bryce Harper one year older and, finally, fully healthy, was back to lead the way as well.

Between all of that and the fact that the Braves and Phillies were rebuilding, the Mets seemed to lack the pop to go along with their young, untested pitching and the Marlins, well, being the Marlins, there didn’t seem to be a greater lock in all of baseball than “the Nats will a ton of games and take the division in a cakewalk.”

Which made the Nats’ complete and utter implosion all the more sensational.

On the surface it looked like mere underachievement and injuries were sinking the Nationals. It was learned toward the end of the season, however, that beyond those things, the Nats’ clubhouse was in total chaos. As detailed in in an amazing article from Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post, general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Matt Williams lost this team totally and completely with the personnel moves of the former and the managerial style of the latter.

Williams demonstrated poor management of the bullpen which, in addition to putting the wrong guys in the wrong situations tactically speaking, alienated players and put them into a position where they were less likely to succeed. He likewise failed to communicate with players about their roles and playing time, leading to an intense exchange with Jayson Werth in which the Nats’ outfielder ripped up one of Williams’ lineup cards in front of his face and said to his manager,“when exactly do you think you lost this team?!”

For Rizzo’s part, his trade for Phillies’ closer Jonathan Papelbon roiled the clubhouse. Partially because it meant a demotion for closer Drew Storen, who had, in the past, showed that he was far less effective as a setup man than as a closer. Partially because a lot of people in baseball simply don’t like Jonathan Papelbon. On that count, the sentiments of the Nats’ clubhouse were shown to be pretty darn reasonable.

As the season wound down, Papelbon and the Nationals were playing the Orioles in what was, for all intents and purposes, a meaningless game. In the game Papelbon threw a pitch at Manny Machado for no good reason. After the game Bryce Harper took public issue with Papelbon throwing at Machado, noting that it was meaningless to do so and musing that, in all likelihood, it meant that he now would be thrown at by the Orioles the next day in retaliation.

A week later, in a totally meaningless game between the Nats and Phillies, Harper popped out and didn’t sprint the play out before the ball was caught. Papelbon went after Harper in the dugout. Papelbon later claimed to be trying to correct a young player for not giving 110%, but this was clearly in retaliation for Harper calling out Papelbon the week before. And it was far more than a calling out. Things got physical:

In a testament to his total lack of leadership all year, Matt Williams claimed he didn’t see this happen, even though he was standing in the dugout as it went down. What’s more, Harper was removed from the game and Papelbon, somehow, was left in to pitch the ninth inning. Eventually the Nats realized how insane this was and suspended Papelbon for the rest of the season. The would-be team leading veteran Papelbon is currently filing a grievance against the Nats for his pay being docked in the season’s final few games.

If there was any shot of Matt Williams keeping his job after the season, this incident killed it. He was fired immediately after the team’s final game. Hired to replace him: Dusty Baker who, whatever else you can say about the guy, always maintained harmonious clubhouses in his previous managerial stints. He’s got a big job ahead of him.

For all of that strife, the Nats finished above .500, winning 83 games and finishing seven games back of the Mets. Bryce Harper had a monster season and won the MVP award. Max Scherzer dominated NL batters, tossing two no-hitters. Both of those guys are back for 2016. So far this offseason Rizzo is addressing team depth and added Daniel Murphy to take over second base. All of that talent that caused the pundits to pick the Nats to win the 2015 NL East crown is still there. The Phillies and Braves are both sure-shot losing teams in 2016 and the Marlins are, well, still the Marlins. For the Mets part, they are the defending NL champions, but they haven’t exactly been tearing up the pea patch in the hot stove league. An injury or two, especially to the pitching staff, could totally transform the contours of the pennant race.

Against that backdrop, will the pundits once again pick the Nats to win the division next season? Or is there too much fear that, once again, they will . . . choke?

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #7: Bryce Harper truly arrives

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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.

Bryce Harper broke into the national consciousness when he was only 16-years-old, hitting the cover of Sports Illustrated, advertised as the hottest phenom the game had seen in ages. That’s a hell of a lot of hype to live up to and, for years, people criticized Harper for not living up it. They criticized his every immature act as a junior college player and then a minor leaguer, forgetting that he was basically still a kid. He topped the list of “most overrated players” last year (as voted on by other major leaguers).

Which, quite frankly, was insane. Human beings, let alone baseball-playing human beings, do not emerge, fully-formed and fully-mature at age 16. Maturity and deportment aside, it takes years and years for even the most talented players to become top major leaguers. Statistical analysis will tell you that most players improve until they’re around 27 or so, then have a couple of years of peak performance, then decline. On that traditional scale it would not have been shocking if Harper didn’t totally realize his potential for several more years. He didn’t turn 22 until after the end of the 2014 season for crying out loud and, even then, showed flashes of amazing play, even as he fought injury during his first three seasons in the bigs. If Harper didn’t turn into an all-world superstar until, say, 2018, he’d still be well within the normal career path of even many Hall of Fame talents.

Harper wasn’t waiting until 2018, however. Indeed, Harper thoroughly dominated baseball in 2015, in ways few if any 22-year-olds ever have.

While the Nationals underachieved in 2015 — more on that in #6 on our countdown — Harper broke out with a historically great season, batting .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs and 99 RBI. He led the majors in bWAR (9.9), on-base percentage (.460), slugging percentage (.649), and OPS (1.109) while tying Colorado’s Nolan Arenado for first in the National League with 42 home runs. He led the National League in runs (118) while only Cincinnati’s Joey Votto bested his total of 124 walks. In an era where pitching dominates, these were video game numbers. His 195 OPS+ — which adjusts for his era — ranked as the 71st all-time for a single season. It was the best mark in the majors since Barry Bonds in 2004.

Historically speaking, Harper’s 1.109 OPS was the second-best all-time at age-22 or younger, behind only Ted Williams, who had a 1.287 OPS in 1941. In September, he became just the seventh player to reach 40 home runs at age-22 or younger. In November Harper became the youngest player to win the NL MVP since Johnny Bench in 1970.

I wonder what those players who voted Harper “most overrated” are saying now.

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #8 Rob Manfred becomes the new commissioner

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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.

Bud Selig took over as Major League Baseball’s commissioner in the early 90s as the result of an owners’ coup. While he almost immediately drove the game over a cliff with by forcing the 1994-95 strike, he somehow survived, eventually learned from his mistakes and, over the next 20 years, consolidated his power. By the time he was ready to step down he had a case for being the most successful commissioner in the history of the game.

Selig announced that he was stepping down well before Rob Manfred took over in late January and he did so for the express purpose of making sure Rob Manfred became the next commissioner. There was some drama about all of that in August of 2014 when the owners vote was held — a small insurgency led by Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox sought an alternative candidate — but eventually Bud Selig’s heir apparent got the job.

But just because Manfred was Selig’s chosen successor does not mean that he is much if anything like Selig. Indeed, his history in the game before last January was as a complementary force to Bud, not a yes-man. He was the Consigliere to Selig’s Don, working behind the scenes opportunistically and, often, adversarially, while Selig was building consensus among the owners. Selig waited to act until the moment his will, due to consensus, seemed inevitable. Manfred was far less deliberate.

That being said, Manfred’s first year on the job hasn’t really put him to any serious tests and hasn’t required him to act, publicly anyway, any differently than Selig had. Revenues continue to grow and, for the most part, the owners who employ Manfred have been happy. Or at least quiet. Manfred’s most notable initiative has been to speed up the pace of play, instituting new rules about when batters can step out of the box and requiring pitchers to deliver the ball in a certain amount of time. That saw some success in 2015 and those efforts will likely continue. He likewise oversaw the implementation of baseball’s domestic violence policy. He’ll soon have to impose discipline under it and that will likely lead to some criticism no matter what penalties he hands down.

Manfred’s biggest test, however, will come in 2016. That’s when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires and a new pact will have to be forged with the union. Manfred outmaneuvered Tony Clark and the union fairly easily with respect to performance enhancing drugs both as Selig’s assistant and as commissioner, extracting concessions from the union without giving up anything in return. Will that embolden Manfred to take a hardline stance with MLBPA regarding the CBA, or will he appreciate that the union is far more resistant to public pressure when pocketbook issues are on the table as opposed to drug issues?

Hard to say. All that can be said for certain is that Manfred has never been impulsive, reckless or unwise. And if he’s lost battles he’s waged in the past, they weren’t very big battles and his losses weren’t well known. He’s a formidable figure. Whether he’s formidable enough to get all 30 owners on the same page for labor negotiations and reach a new deal with the union without a work stoppage will go a long way toward establishing his legacy as commissioner.