The NBA and the NFL are in their quietest seasons: The top basketball players are resting before playoff runs, and football teams have nothing better to do with their time than talk themselves into Franchise Quarterback Josh Allen. But now that spring has finally sprung, Opening Day is upon us. So Ringer staffers discussed the topics which most excite them going into MLB’s 2018 season.
Seeing Giancarlo Stanton Play for the Yankees
Zach Kram: In eight years with the Marlins, Stanton never played for a team that finished with a winning record. With the Yankees, who traded for the prodigious slugger in December, he’s joining a team that hasn’t finished below .500 since Stanton turned 3 years old. Even more than the sight of Stanton striding to the plate behind Aaron Judge, his closest MLB analogue, and even more than the awe inspired by Stanton blasting pitches over new Yankee Stadium’s friendly fences, the broader, daily spectacle of the majors’ greatest power threat in a pennant race is the most exciting part of his move to New York.
Since the playoffs expanded to multiple rounds in 1969, only three players have homered more than Stanton without making the postseason—Adam Dunn, Jeromy Burnitz, and Vernon Wells—and Stanton is one good season away from passing the latter two in homers. Baseball would benefit from him playing in October, or even a meaningful series or two in September. He’ll crush hanging sliders into Monument Park and laser fastballs over Fenway’s Green Monster, and he’ll star in an FS1 playoffs ad or three come the fall. In the most extreme home run era in the sport’s history, there’s no better fit than the sport’s most eye-catching home run hitter on the sport’s most eye-catching team.
A Competitive Dodgers-Angels Rivalry
Craig Gaines: Dodgers fans hate the Giants and look down on the Angels. The Giants pose a threat as members of the National League West; the Angels would be dangerous only in a Freeway Series. The Giants represent the Bay Area’s preciousness and hypocritical elitism toward its megacity counterpart (if you’re looking down your nose at Los Angeles County, you’re sneering at millions of working-class people of color—not an attitude that one who self-identifies as a progressive would normally cop to); the Angels represent Orange Countians’ habit for wearing sunglasses on the backs of their heads, which is only embarrassing. The Giants represent San Francisco; the Angels do not represent Los Angeles. But! Finally, we have a reason for enmity. Shohei Ohtani’s toying around with the Dodgers during his tour of teams before signing with Anaheim moved Clayton Kershaw first to employ Public Enemy No. 1 during their first on-field meeting, and then to say, “I could care less now. He didn’t pick us. Good luck to him.” If we were to translate that from Claytonese to English, it would be unprintable under indecency laws. The Dodgers and Angels face off in two series in July. Let the real rivalry begin.
Going to Baseball Games
Jonathan Tjarks: I don’t get to follow baseball as much as I did when I was younger, but there’s nothing better than going to a Rangers game in the early spring (before it gets too hot!) with a few friends and hanging out for a few hours outdoors. I go to a bunch of basketball games for my day job here at The Ringer, and the atmosphere is just so much more relaxed at a baseball game. There isn’t a massive Jumbotron blaring at you and a million different things demanding your attention. You can relax, come in and out of watching the game, and hang out. Baseball kind of exists outside of time in that sense. No matter how sports or society changes, there’s always going to be a need for a leisurely social activity like that. I actually took my future wife to a Rangers game on our second date. Here’s a good rule of thumb for a relationship: If they aren’t a good hang at a baseball game, it’s not a good sign.
Monitoring the Performance of My Autodrafted Ringer Fantasy League Team
Miles Surrey: When I joined The Ringer’s fantasy baseball Slack channel, I said: “I [expletive] love fantasy baseball.” Because I really, really do—I’m entering Year 5 of a dynasty league with high school friends that includes a salary cap, multiyear player contracts, two Shohei Ohtanis, and money. I was really excited to join this league.
But then—through a combination of my own fatal misunderstanding of time difference, and not wanting to miss a screening of Isle of Dogs—my team was autodrafted.
Mallory,,,I agree. It’s my fault, and it’s bad. Not fantasy football commissioner Sean Yoo levels of bad, but very bad. And so with a pitching core led by aces like [squints] Cincinnati Reds closer Raisel Iglesias and pitcher Alex Cobb, who signed with the Baltimore Orioles a day after our draft, the team I’ve opted to name Reynolds Woodcock will try its best. I’m looking forward to tracking these players’ progress this MLB season. May they all be hungry boys.
Waiting for the First Time Someone Runs Afoul of the New Mound-Visit Rule
Michael Baumann: In a probably futile effort to speed up the game, commissioner Rob Manfred has declared that teams are allowed to make only six mound visits per game (plus one for each extra inning), and that visits by catchers now count as mound visits. Any subsequent mound visits would require a pitching change. This probably isn’t going to do much to make the game feel faster, but mound visits are boring, so I guess it’s worth a shot.
What I’m waiting for is for some absent-minded manager to screw this up, because it’s going to happen. No way is every manager going to be able to keep track of six mound visits for a game every time, not in a sport where three-ball walks happen once every so often. We had an illegal lineup re-entry last year and nobody noticed, for God’s sake! At some point this season, some manager or catcher is going to have a brainfart and lose his pitcher, just like Don Mattingly did when he ran afoul of Rule 8.06(d) in 2010. That’s going to be so embarrassing—depending on which manager screws up first, we could see a full-on tantrum of denial. I hope it’s Mike Scioscia.
Jeff Mathis, Power Hitter?
Ben Lindbergh: In 13 big league seasons, Diamondbacks backup catcher Jeff Mathis has recorded a combined .198/.256/.309 triple-slash line, producing exactly half as much offensive value as a league-average hitter would have in the same amount of playing time. Mathis is one of the 10 worst hitters ever to make more than 2,000 major league plate appearances, and as he enters his age-35 season, one wouldn’t normally expect his production to improve. The aging curve insists that Mathis’s bat will grow weaker and that he’ll last only as long as the perception persists that his pitcher-whispering and game-calling skills outweigh the cost of his out-making.
Except for this: Mathis has joined the air-ball revolution. Radicalized in the second half of last season by his proximity to high-profile swing-changing success story J.D. Martinez, whom Arizona acquired at the trade deadline, Mathis started tinkering with his own swing down the stretch. Martinez is no longer a Diamondback, but he’s left multiple uppercut converts (and a new hitting strategist) in his wake. Mathis, who showed up to camp this spring with noticeably new-look mechanics geared toward lifting his launch angle, is the most unlikely of all.
Recently, Red Sox VP of pitching development Brian Bannister told The Boston Globe that teams are restricting their spending on free agents because they’re increasingly confident that they can improve their own players through DIY, data-driven makeovers; with the right swing alteration or tweak to a pitch, today’s one-win player could become tomorrow’s two- or three-win player. “What teams think they can do with players is as important as what the player has already done,” Bannister said.
We know this makeover movement can work almost miraculously well in some cases. What we haven’t yet learned is where its limits lie. Mathis may help us test its potential. I’m not betting on a Mathis power surge—in small samples, the light-hitting backstop has fooled me before—but I’m fascinated to follow his attempted late-career reinvention. Martinez, Josh Donaldson, Daniel Murphy, and Justin Turner may be baseball’s signature swing-changers, but making Mathis something other than an easy out would be just as big a breakthrough.
Learning New Walk-up Music
Megan Schuster: To be a fan of baseball, one must be ready to deal with a certain amount of repetition: The same (or similar) batting orders, plus a limited rotation of pitchers, played out nearly every day for a total of 162 games. Within each game, a given hitter will step up to the plate somewhere around three to five times, multiplied out over 18 batters. So when the games get long and the time between pitches seems even longer, what’s the best thing to focus on to break up the monotony? The walk-up music.
A player’s walk-up music is a fingerprint of sorts—it allows you a glimpse into their personality via the song they chose to hear hundreds of times over the course of the season. Last year I discovered that Justin Turner is a big Ed Sheeran fan (questionable as that may be). And by the 10th time Joc Pederson stepped up to the plate in the World Series, I was shocked to discover I’d become a fan of Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder.” To me, the true mark of baseball fandom is not being able to quote a player’s WAR, or OPS+, or their K/BB percentage. It’s knowing the history of their walk-up music.
Watching Shohei Ohtani
Paolo Uggetti: The phrase typically goes, “I’m not here to talk about the past ...” But well, I’m here to actually talk about the past because the present is a little too bleak for my liking. If I ignore the present, I don’t have to mention that Shohei Ohtani has struggled in every spring training appearance and looks like he is going to need to be graded on a curve for the near future or play in the minors to get acclimated, right? Right? OK, good. Moving on. Let’s talk potential. Let’s talk Shohei Ohtani. Let’s talk ignoring realities and reveling instead in the endless possibilities. Let’s talk about a guy who will hit and pitch and bask in how glorious that may be. Let’s talk about seeing this for 162 games:
I’ll leave the fantasy baseball theorizing and stat-analyzing to the smart baseball people at The Ringer dot com. I just want to marvel at the fact we’re getting a video game player in a sport in need of more stars. Ohtani probably isn’t going to embrace the limelight, at least not at first, but by simply being himself—a two-way player with the potential to become must-watch TV on his own—he’s could be transcendent. Does it help that he’ll be playing a little over 50 miles south of where I live? Yes. Like I said, I don’t want to talk about the present, but I can’t wait for the hopeful, Ohtani-filled future.
The Little Things (and a Baby-Faced Third Baseman)
Jack McCluskey: It may be cliché, but after another long winter, I’m looking forward to all the little things that make baseball special: The smell of fresh-cut grass. The crack of bat on ball. The pop of ball hitting glove. The lazy drone of 30,000 fans during a break in the action. The heat of the sun on your shoulders, the savory whiff of hotdogs, and the peanut shells crunching underfoot. The little nod a pitcher gives just before he throws. The way infielders crouch just a touch before the pitch is delivered. The way a fielder smiles after snagging a line drive more by reflex than intention. The way every hitter sets up a little differently in the batter’s box. The inhalation-pause-roar of the crowd when a ball’s hit squarely and sent soaring over the fence. The unique celebrations between players, clearly planned during the game’s abundant downtime.
What’s that? You want a specific player we’re excited to watch? Oh, then give me a full season of this from baby-faced Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers.
Seeing Whether or Not the Nationals Will Finally Win a Playoff Series
One year after taking the college phenomenon Stephen Strasburg—considered by most scouts to be the best pitching prospect since the Major League Baseball draft began in 1965—the Nationals can now pick what many view to be the best teenage power-hitting prospect since perhaps Mickey Mantle.
And now we’re here, eight years after the Nationals selected the Next Mickey Mantle, who instead turned out to be the Next Ted Williams. Bryce Harper has lived up to the hype, and so has Strasburg. Since Strasburg debuted a few months after Schwarz’s piece was published, he’s second among all starters in strikeouts per nine innings, third in K/BB, sixth in HR/9, second in K%, third in K-BB%, third in opposing batting average, fourth in WHIP, second in FIP—and OK, you get it. The only thing more improbable, it seems, than Harper and Strasburg both scratching against their impossibly high ceilings is that they still haven’t won a playoff series. Over the past five years, Washington has the second-best record in baseball—until October happens. With Harper headed toward free agency, the pair may have only one year left to wrangle the randomness of a five-game postseason series. Harper and Strasburg have both done everything they can, and somehow, it still might not be enough.