Given the current state of negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, it still remains to be seen whether we’ll have baseball in 2020. With Friday’s news of eight positive COVID-19 tests at the Phillies’ spring training complex, we’re reminded that 2020 baseball may hinge less on the “when and where” than it does on the “how.”
With the constant stalemates and the associated swings in optimism for a baseball season, I’ve thought about what I could possibly write. It can be difficult to develop article ideas for a sport that remains sidelined, but longer-term research questions that I have had remain unsolved. So, baseball or not, I’m going to continue to attempt to answer them.
That’s what brings me back to 2019. Last year, an incredible 6,776 home runs were hit league wide. That figure broke the old record — set just two years prior — by 671. It’s more than 1,000 additional home runs than the season that sits in third place — 2000, which witnessed 5,693. It’s almost certainly the baseball that has driven this upswing (pun fully intended), though an increased focus on hitting more fly balls has likely contributed as well.
This got me thinking though: Were home runs less important last season? Thirty home runs used to be a milestone; in 2019, nearly 40 percent of qualified hitters eclipsed that mark, those as good as Mike Trout (180 wRC+) to as bad as Rougned Odor (77 wRC+). Thirty home runs seemingly meant very little.
But, for every home run hit, there was a home run surrendered. Trout went yard 45 times last season. Three of those came off of Ariel Jurado. Lance Lynn, Mike Fiers, Mike Leake and Aaron Sanchez allowed two each. That means that nearly one-quarter of Trout's 2019 home runs can be accounted for through just five pitchers.
On a macro level, this begs the question: How does home run differential factor into a team’s success? If home runs were so prevalent in 2019, then teams who both hit a lot of them and surrendered few likely did well overall, one would think.
After running the results, they did better than I ever would have expected.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said on Wednesday that “we're going to play baseball in 2020." He claimed he was saying so with “100 percent" certainty. And, given the March agreement between the league and the MLBPA, he’s right that a baseball season can be played.
In the worst-case scenario — the one in which MLB and the MLBPA do not come to terms on an economic agreement to start baseball — Manfred has the ability to unilaterally institute a season at prorated salaries. This would certainly result in a short, sprint-like season, since ownership seems unwilling to play even a half-season at prorated dollars. Reports have indicated that this scenario would put the 2020 season somewhere in the realm of 50 games, with some saying that 48 would be the magic number.
The response to this has been underwhelming. Baseball fans in the replies on Twitter seem unenthused about the idea of a 48-game season — would it even be worth it to play at that point?
That got me thinking — what exactly defines a baseball season as legitimate? The long answer probably has to do something with psychology, the definition of the word legitimacy and the ability (or lack thereof) of humans to accept a part of a whole as equal to the whole.
Welcome to "today in headlines I thought I'd never write."
Jokes aside, earlier this week, Darren Willman, the Director of Baseball Research and Development for MLB, tweeted out a pretty cool chart:
As you can see, in each portion of the strike zone, a pitcher's face represents who threw the most fastballs in that zone. And if you zoom in on the very center of the strike zone, you see a bearded man in a Texas Rangers cap appear rather frequently:
That, my friends, is Lance Lynn. Not just any Lance Lynn, but a Lance Lynn who somehow was the third most-valuable pitcher in baseball last year. A Lance Lynn who put up a 66 FIP- in 208.1 innings, striking out 28% of batters faced and walking just 7%. And he seemingly did this by just putting his mid-90s fastball in the middle of the strike zone.
Is Yoan Moncada actually good?
What a loaded question. On the surface, the former No. 1 overall prospect finally broke out in a big way last year at the age of 24. He slashed .315/.367/.548 with 25 home runs and a 141 wRC+ over 559 plate appearances. He was worth 5.7 WAR, making him the league's 16th-most valuable position player. There's no doubt about it -- Yoan Moncada had a good year.
But is he actually good? There's certainly a distinction here. Over the offseason, I've seen some try to make the argument that he's better than Kris Bryant. And I've seen others try to put him in a similar class as Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, and Francisco Lindor. Yes, Moncada's 2019 gave him that much helium, though perhaps that's really only been among White Sox fans. And while I'm all for defending your favorite team, I'm not sold on Moncada specifically.
Over the past couple of weeks, I've bothered my Twitter followers by asking them the same question every three days: Will MLB come back this year?
Unfortunately, that's the biggest question facing baseball -- and really, all sports -- right now. Though, it's far from the largest concern worldwide. The horrifying COVID-19 case numbers and deaths tolls make it, at least to me, feel like a major luxury to be able to think about sports.
As I wrote a little over a week ago, MLB is going to have some tough decisions to make. Should there be a season? And, if so, when is the appropriate time to start? As timing would have it, President Trump held a phone conversation with the commissioners of major American sports today, and he seemed to think that fans could be back in the seats of stadiums as soon as August. I have no idea whether that's actually possible, but I do know that at least California Governor Gavin Newsom seemed to downplay Trump's comments, saying that he "does not anticipate" that being a reality, at least within his state. Like with most of the fallout from the coronavirus, we're still in a wait-and-see pattern.
Either way, my followers have become significantly less optimistic in there being a baseball season in 2020. Here are the results.