The storylines to follow this season in Major League Baseball
1. Strikeouts vs. Hits: The Rematch
A funny thing happened in the last decade of Major League Baseball: More than 11,000 balls in play simply disappeared. It’s true — there were 131,860 balls in play in 2008, but only 120,737 last season. And what replaced all those balls in play? Mostly strikeouts. The 2018 season was the first in major league history to feature more strikeouts than hits, a trend that continued through the World Series, when the Dodgers and the Red Sox fanned 109 times while collecting just 76 hits. The ratio was much closer in the regular season — 41,207 strikeouts to 41,018 hits — but still, the K’s have it. There’s no reason to believe the trend will reverse in 2019, especially with so many teams using aggressive infield shifts to turn more ground balls into outs. In the postseason, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said that he hoped that the example of the Astros and the Red Sox, two successful teams with far more hits than strikeouts, would spread throughout the game. Manfred said he envisioned “an organic movement back in that direction,” with hitters prioritizing good old-fashioned contact over swinging for the fences. That sounds great, but in this era of ever-increasing velocity and spin, it is easier said than done. As long as pitchers are so dominant, many hitters say, it’s easier to score with one big swing than with a string of singles — a logical thought that makes for a discouraging trend.
2. Cardinals Revival
If you think a three-year playoff drought is bad, tell it to the fans in Seattle or San Diego. But when you root for the St. Louis Cardinals, three seasons without postseason baseball really does leave you starving. The Cardinals won their 11th championship in 2011, then returned to the October stage for the next four seasons. They haven’t been back since 2015, but now they look poised to return to their usual perch. In early December, the Cardinals traded for Paul Goldschmidt, a perennial All-Star for Arizona, and then signed him to a five-year, $130 million contract extension before the end of spring training. In late December, they signed closer Andrew Miller, a dominant lefty in Cleveland. With two moves, the Cardinals added the impact slugger they’ve lacked since Albert Pujols left, and the kind of experienced, lockdown reliever they struggled to find last year. Both moves came with a major concern: Goldschmidt’s contract expires after this season, and Miller struggled with knee, hamstring and shoulder trouble last year. But at their best, Goldschmidt and Miller can be high-level pieces on a championship team, and it’s reasonable to believe they can raise the Cardinals from 88 wins and a ticket home to 95 wins and a ticket to the playoffs. This is the longest Cardinals playoff drought since 1997-99, and we’re betting it ends here.
3. The Wonderful World of Alex Bregman
When you watch Alex Bregman, on and off the field, you come to an inevitable conclusion: “Baseball sure needs more guys like him.” Bregman, the Houston Astros’ third baseman, carries himself with an endearing combination of swagger and sweetness. Bregman has already thrived on the brightest stages — he singled to end a World Series game in 2017 and homered to win MVP of the 2018 All-Star Game. Last fall, after winning a first-round series played entirely in the daytime, Bregman wished for more prime-time games for the “Show-Stros.” Then, in the ALCS, he stirred up controversy by posting videos to Instagram of the Astros hitting home runs off Nate Eovaldi. After the season, Bregman stayed in the spotlight, appearing on the ESPN “GameDay” set in the jersey of his alma mater, LSU, and crashing the wedding of a fan who invited him on social media. He’s young, he’s talented, he’s brash, he’s fan-friendly — in short, Bregman is a one-man marketing machine for MLB. He's also one of baseball's new $100 million mans after agreeting to a six-year contract extension in mid-March.
The Tampa Bay Rays just might have broken baseball in 2018. Partly by design and partly by circumstance, they upended the entire concept of starting pitching — and it worked! The Rays went 90–72, despite playing nearly half of their games (78 of 162) with an “opener” rather than a traditional starter. Statistics show that the first inning is the highest-scoring inning, so the ever-innovative Rays often shuffled pitching roles, giving the first inning to a reliever and then using another pitcher for several innings. While the first-inning ERA in the American League was 4.71, the Rays’ first-inning ERA was an AL-low 3.44. Other teams adopted the strategy here and there, but we’re betting that it spreads widely in 2018. Two teams — Minnesota and Toronto — hired Rays coaches (Rocco Baldelli and Charlie Montoyo) to be managers, and every team is looking for bargains. Why pay top dollar for an average innings-eater when you can spread those innings among younger, cheaper arms specifically targeted for high-percentage matchups? The plan requires a lot of pitchers with minor league options, and the union is skeptical of the impact on salaries. For now, the blueprint of Rays manager Kevin Cash looks like the best of all worlds: a smarter, cheaper way to win.
5. 300 Ks
As pitchers’ workloads dwindle, you’d think their so-called counting stats would fall accordingly. Yet, thankfully, we’ve seen a revival of the number 300 lately. True, nobody’s threatening to break into the 300-win club, and the 300-inning season is as dead as the rotary telephone. But 300 strikeouts? That benchmark is back. No pitcher reached that total in any season from 2003 through 2014. But Clayton Kershaw got there in 2015, Chris Sale in 2017 and Max Scherzer last season. Could Justin Verlander be next? The Astros righty fanned a career-high 290 in 2018 and now stands 294 strikeouts from 3,000 for his career. Verlander is 36 and has always been keenly aware of his place in history. Imagine if he arrives at his final regular-season start with, say, 293 strikeouts. How fun would it be to see him join the 3,000 club in the first inning and the 300 club in the third or fourth?
6. The Champions' Arms
The Red Sox gave the rest of the sport a lesson in team-first selflessness last October. Five of their pitchers — Chris Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi, Rick Porcello and Eduardo Rodriguez — made both starting and relief appearances in the postseason, with Sale striking out the side to close out the World Series in Game 5 at Dodger Stadium. The Red Sox planned for this, in a way, by significantly scaling back workloads last spring and keeping all but Porcello under 180 innings in the regular season. But there’s a reason no team has repeated as World Series champion since the 2000 Yankees — the extra month of pitching can make it hard to recover. The Red Sox still haven’t found a way to keep Sale strong down the stretch; shoulder inflammation limited him to one start per postseason series, none more than 5.1 innings. Price’s heroics silenced all who doubted his toughness, but it’s fair to wonder how multiple starts on short rest will impact a 33-year-old arm with more than 2,000 career innings (postseason included) on it. And Eovaldi, who returned to Boston with a four-year, $68 million deal after superhuman relief work in the World Series, has two Tommy John surgeries in his background. Whatever happens to their arms, though, the pitchers can always admire their championship rings and remember the reason for their effort.
7. Plunging Attendance
Let’s face it: Last season wasn’t the best for the industry of baseball. A record eight teams lost at least 95 games. Batters struck out at a record pace. Managers used more relievers than ever. The average time of games stayed above the three-hour threshold. The World Series featured two large-market teams, yet ratings cratered. Most troubling, perhaps, is the way fans responded at the box office: Attendance fell by more than three million fans, dropping below 70 million for the first time since 2003. Baseball officials largely attributed the drop-off to unusually bad weather early in the season, which caused 54 postponements, the most since 1989. The Miami Marlins also calculated attendance differently last season, eliminating giveaways from the total, so that was another factor. But with so many teams opting for long-range rebuilding plans over pricey free agents, a lot of fans did just what the team owners did: They decided to save their money for better days. If that’s the cause of the problem, it might not be so concerning; bad teams don’t stay bad forever. But if fans are turned off by the modern style of play — largely dictated by analytics and the growing supply of pitchers who are too tough to hit — that’s a much more daunting challenge for the leaders of the game.
8. Cooperstown Becomes Mo-town
The mainstays of the Yankees’ recent dynasty are starting to arrive at their ultimate destiny: the Hall of Fame. While the writers rejected stalwarts like Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada, this year will feature the induction of Mariano Rivera and serve as a warm-up act for the 2020 induction of Derek Jeter. Rivera was a closer without peer, with a record 652 saves in the regular season and 42 more in the postseason, when he helped lead the Yankees to five championships with a microscopic 0.70 postseason ERA. Rivera rose from humble beginnings as a fisherman’s son in Panama to become an all-time baseball great. His ceremony could attract record crowds to upstate New York, and his speech promises to be a tale almost too good to be true.
9. Vlad Jr.
The best prospect in baseball will be a teenager for most of spring training. But Vladimir Guerrero Jr. showed last year that he was ready for the major leagues. Guerrero, the heir to Josh Donaldson as the Toronto Blue Jays’ third baseman, hit .381 last season — the best batting average in the minor leagues (minimum 200 at-bats) — with 20 home runs in 95 games. At 6'1" and 200 pounds, he is built differently than his Hall of Fame father, who was taller and leaner. But both have an uncanny knack for making hard contact with all kinds of pitches. Vladimir Jr. actually has more walks than strikeouts in his career, and Class AAA pitchers fanned him just 10 times in 128 plate appearances last summer. He’s a threat to do damage at any time, and he has the added benefit of stirring Canadian baseball pride for local fans, since he was born in Montreal during his father’s tenure with the Expos. An olblique injury suffered during spring training ended any speculation that Guerrero would make the Opening Day roster, but it shouldn't delay his arrival much, and it makes it easier for the Blye Jays to deal with those pesky questions related to service time (and gives them an extra year of club control).
10. An A's Ace in Waiting
Nobody expected the Oakland A’s to win 97 games last season. After winning just 75 times in 2017, Bob Melvin’s team took the biggest leap in the majors last season — and did it despite a devastating rash of injuries to their rotation. The trend infected their farm system, too, as top prospect A.J. Puk needed Tommy John surgery. With Puk, Jharel Cotton and Daniel Gossett recovering from that operation, and Sean Manaea from his shoulder surgery, the A’s should finally turn to 21-year-old lefty Jesus Luzardo, whose electric fastball and disappearing changeup remind club officials of Johan Santana. The A’s deserve credit for resisting the urge to promote Luzardo last season, protecting a pitcher who had Tommy John surgery as a high schooler in 2016. In Luzardo, the A’s will see yet another payoff from the 2017 trade that sent relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Washington Nationals. The A’s got Luzardo in that deal, as well as their All-Star closer, Blake Treinen. Fun fact about Luzardo: Though he grew up in Florida and his family is from Venezuela, he was born in Peru, a country that has never produced a major league player.
11. Players' Weekend Part 3
It seemed silly. Nicknames on jerseys? And special V-neck jerseys at that, with wacky socks and custom-made, any-style-will-do equipment? But after the first glimpse of Players’ Weekend in 2017, even the most hardened traditionalist could take comfort: This is a kids’ game, and allowing players to express themselves like kids is a cool gesture. The addition of an actual game in Williamsport, Pa. — where MLB players interact with Little League World Series players — adds to the fun, with the Cubs taking on the Pirates in this year’s edition on Aug. 18. The nicknames alone make for a weekend of laughs; last season, Walker Buehler chose “FERRIS”, Hunter Pence went with “UNDERPANTS” and Shane Bieber, of course, was “NOT JUSTIN”.
12. Whatever Happened to Miguel Cabrera?
When baseball-reference.com lists the 10 most similar hitters to Miguel Cabrera, through age 35, the list includes eight Hall of Famers, plus Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez. That is the kind of career Cabrera has fashioned, a reminder that when he is hitting, we are witnessing an all-time giant of the sport. Yet last season, Cabrera all but disappeared. He played in just 38 games because of a ruptured biceps tendon, raising questions about how the injury will impact his technically sound and powerful swing going forward. Cabrera’s two lowest slugging percentages have come in the last two seasons, but if he’s right, he could reach a milestone in 2019: He needs 35 home runs for 500 in his career. The rebuilding Tigers won’t win much, but they need their two-time MVP, four-time batting champion and 11-time All-Star to be an example for their young players — and a gate attraction for an otherwise uninspiring team. The Tigers are certainly paying Cabrera like a superstar, with a staggering $154 million due to him through 2023, the year he turns 40.
13. London Calling
Major League Baseball has staged regular-season games in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Australia and Japan, where the Mariners and the A’s begin this season. But MLB has never taken its act to Europe — until June 29 and 30, when the Yankees and the Red Sox play a two-game series at London’s Olympic Stadium, which will seat 57,000 for baseball. Fox will televise the first game as part of its Saturday “Game of the Week” coverage, with an afternoon start on the East Coast, and ESPN will broadcast the second game, with a “Sunday Morning Baseball” edition at 10 a.m. EDT. CC Sabathia and Jackie Bradley Jr. traveled to England in December to promote the event, with Sabathia taking in a soccer game in London and Bradley attending one in Liverpool. “Consider me the Yankees’ advance scout for London,” Sabathia said.
—by Tyler Kepner