Craig Calcaterra

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.

The Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2015 — #9: Max Scherzer tosses two no-hitters

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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 3 — the second to last game of the year — Nationals starter Max Scherzer became just the fifth player in major league history to throw two no-hitters in the same season. In so doing he joined Johnny Vander Meer, Allie Reynolds, Virgil Trucks and Nolan Ryan. It was the first time it had been done since Ryan did it in 1973.

On that day Scherzer struck out 17 Mets batters over his nine hitless innings. The only thing which kept him from a perfect game was a Yunel Escobar throwing error in the bottom of the sixth, allowing Kevin Plawecki to reach base.

Back on June 20, Scherzer’s first no-hitter of the year came against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That game was also almost a perfecto, with Scherzer’s only hiccup coming when he hit Jose Tabata with a pitch with only one out to go. He shook that off, however, and got Josh Harrison to fly out to end the game. There he threw 105 pitches, 80 for strikes. He recorded 10 strikeouts.

Scherzer’s first season in Washington following his signing of a $210 million contract was fantastic, even if the Nationals’ year was disappointing overall. The Nats ace went 14-12 with a 2.79 ERA and struck out 276 batters against only 34 walks in 228.2 innings pitched. He led the National League in starts (33) batters faced (899), complete games (4) and shutouts (3).

Oh, and he led the league in no-hitters too.