Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 11: Major turnarounds for the Dbacks, Rockies and Twins

Getty Images
1 Comment

We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In the offseason we hear so much about long-term rebuilds, tanking and teardowns. We hear about moves that are aimed at “the next good [whoever] team,” which may by three or four years in the future. We’re conditioned to believe that there are only a handful of teams who can seriously contend and twenty or more who can’t add, say, a corner outfielder because doing so makes no sense when there are only 80 wins in their future.

Then the season takes place and real baseball shows us that, sometimes, all of that stuff is utter nonsense.

The Arizona Diamondbacks finished 69-93 in 2016, which prompted the firing of then-manager Chip Hale and a complete overhaul of the front office. The hiring of Torey Lovullo was praised all around, but most preseason predictions had them, at best, in third place in the National League West and nowhere close to playoff contention. So much for that: the Dbacks flipped their record to 93-69 and won the Wild Card and, eventually, advanced to the NLDS.

Behind the turnaround: Zack Greinke returning to ace-like form, the emergence of Robbie Ray as a top starter, Archie Bradley‘s astoundingly successful conversion to the relief duties, another MVP-caliber season from Paul Goldschmidt and the deadline acquisition of slugger J.D. Martinez, who smacked 29 homers in 62 games for the Snakes. All of that resulted in an enjoyable season for Dbacks fans and a Manager of the Year Award for Lovullo.

The Colorado Rockies finished in third place in both 2016 and 2017, but in the two Wild Card era, third place can be just fine if you’re in a tough division. That was the case with the Rockies who, place in the standings notwithstanding, improved by 12 games in 2017 behind new manager Bud Black, finishing 87-75 and making the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

As can be expected of a team that calls Coors Field home, the Rockies led the National League in runs, with MVP candidates Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado leading the attack. But unlike most Rockies teams in the past, they could pitch a little too, finishing in the middle of the pack in the league in runs allowed, which ain’t too shabby in Colorado. Of the eight pitchers who made starts for the Rockies in 2017, six had an ERA+ over 100, which is above average. Of the other two, one was a swingman and the other made nine starts after battling cancer. The bullpen, led by Greg Holland, was a strength as well.

The Minnesota Twins lost a major league-high 103 games in 2016, but nonetheless orchestrated a quick turnaround, going 85-77 in 2017, good for the second AL Wild Card. Your feelings about two Wild Card slots notwithstanding, it was the first time a team had lost 100 games and then reached the playoffs in the very next season.

In some ways it was a turnaround within a turnaround for Minnesota, as the Twins were sellers at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, dealing All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler and veteran starter Jaime Garcia, yet went on a 20-10 run in August to surge past the Angels, Orioles, Mariners, Rays and Royals and into playoff contention. Like Lovullo, Twins manager Paul Molitor was rewarded with the Manager of the Year Award for his efforts.

There are a lot of things that can go into a quick turnaround. A team could sharply underperform one season and simply get back to its expected level the following year, with said return appearing to be massive improvement. A team could have a number of players experience career years at once, giving them something of a lightning-in-a-bottle season. A team could, likewise, simply have a critical number of players progress to their true talent level at the same time, thereby having a rebuild culminate the way it expected.

Which of those was the case for the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Twins? We’ll see in 2018. We may also see three or more other teams experience faster-than-expected turnarounds. Regardless of how gloomy things look in the depths of winter.

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

aaron judge
Cole Burston/Getty Images
3 Comments

TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.