Craig Calcaterra

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.

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #5: The amazing NL Cy Young race

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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.

Sometimes the Cy Young Award goes to the guy with the most wins. Sometimes a guy posts an ERA so low that it’s impossible to ignore him. Sometimes there’s a strikeout pitcher so prolific that denying him the top vote is next to impossible. Every year the Cy Young voters balance these things. Some years it’s harder than others. It’s difficult to recall, however, a year in which it was harder to make a choice than it was in the 2015 NL Cy Young race.

Jake Arrieta led the league with 22 wins. Zack Greinke led the league with a microscopic 1.66 ERA. Clayton Kershaw struck out 301 batters and was the first to top 300 in that category in a dog’s age. The thing that made this even more difficult, however, was that each of those three category leaders were also spectacular in the other two categories and in just about every other statistical measure you could find. It was like paper-scissors-rock, writ-large, with every argument in favor of one pitcher making way for an argument in favor of another.

In pitching WAR, ERA and WHIP it went Greinke-Arrieta-Kershaw. In wins, Greinke was tied for second behind Arrieta while Kershaw posted a still-respectable 16 victories. Arrieta led the league in hits allowed per 9, just ahead of the two Dodgers pitchers. Kershaw led the league in innings pitched but Arrieta and Greinke were right behind him. Arrieta and Kershaw tied for the league lead in complete games, games started and shutouts. Arrieta was the stingiest in the league in allowing homers. Kershaw led the NL in Fielding Independent Pitching. The linear weights-based Adjusted Pitching Runs and Adjusted Pitcher Wins stats and the Win Probability Added stat said Greinke was the best in the game. Situational Wins — an adjusted Win Probability stat which takes more context into account — gave the nod to Arrieta.

Ultimately, there was no definitive answer and no wrong answer. And ultimately Arrieta won it, earning 17 first-place votes to Greinke’s 10 and Kershaw’s three.

If you wanted to parse the voters’ collective methodology it’s possible to construct an argument in which Arrieta’s very strong second half and the Cubs’ storybook surge to 97 wins carried the day while Kershaw’s slow start (at least slow for him) and the fact that he won the year before made his case somewhat less compelling in the minds of voters. For Greinke, you might argue that his second half was not as good as his first — he ONLY had a 1.99 ERA after the break, heaven forfend! — and that August, his worst month, is when voters start to think harder about postseason awards. Those are as good as can be expected as far as explanations go.

All of that is stretching things a bit, though. Ultimately, there were no wrong answers for voters, as long as those three pitchers appeared 1-2-3 on the Cy Young ballot in one combination or another. Those three pitchers who, in most other years, would each walk away with the Cy Young but, in 2015, found themselves in one of the best awards races we’ve ever seen.