Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Great Quelling of Winter: The New Modern Game and the Road to Opening Day

Baseball in the twenty-first century is a wild creature. It has been a force of stability in a time of unprecedented tragedy and a gravitational center for some of the greatest sins in modern sports. At the turn of the century, statistics and analytics were in the dark ages compared to today.

Then Billy Beane and his Oakland Athletics were catalysts for a sea change that lead to other teams pushing the boundary further.

The Tampa Bay Rays, once the runt of the litter without the means to financially compete with their world-class division mates, figured out how to game the system by integrating Wall Street strategy to their front office.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, long-suffering for something as simple as a winning season, used a watershed of defensive analytics to reverse their fortunes if only for a few years. The Second Wild Card Era began, and with it came opportunities for more chaos in October.

The 2014 World Series featured two Wild Card teams, one of which would not have made the postseason if not for the rule change adding a fifth playoff team to each league.

If there is one thing Major League Baseball loves, it's change. For a league so dug into its roots, latching on to nostalgia and the rich history of one hundred forty-nine years, the game is manipulated constantly. Now the hottest topics are pitch clocks, shorter inning breaks, and even adding a runner on base to start an inning if a game were to go to an eleventh frame. Purists cry foul. Progressives see it as inevitable. The initiative of Commissioner Manfred to speed up the game (and make it more appealing to casual fans) has caused a rift in the sport. Time will tell if any of these come to fruition, either by vote or unilateral force of power from the Commissioner's office.

On the field, where the game is still actually played, history continued to crumble away like the concrete at Wrigley Field.

The Houston Astros, whose previous franchise peak was a 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Chicago White Sox in a World Series that some have easily forgotten, won a magnificent seven game series over the Los Angeles Dodgers. For the third consecutive year, the team considered to be the best in baseball also won the World Series.

The Astros, not ready to cool their heels after a championship, traded for Gerrit Cole, the ace of the now-stripped Pirates. Returning is a roster that borders on the surreal. Much like the 2016 Cubs, these Astros were built from the basement up after a few years of bottom feeding, at one point chasing each other to historic levels of failure. Through trades, drafting, scouting and developing, Houston and Chicago have made the modern term "tanking" the new en-vogue style of roster overhaul.

Jose Altuve, known for being five-foot-six as much as he is known for slapping base hits, won the AL MVP award over a rookie who towers over him and most other people. Aaron Judge, the gap-tooth grinning adopted son of two teachers, took over the league last season. Receiving a unanimous thirty first place votes for AL Rookie of the Year, Judge finished second in AL MVP voting as well. Now paired with NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, Judge and the Yankees seem hellbent on avenging their game seven loss to the Astros in the American League Championship Series. Before I forget, and before everyone in baseball stops using it, I have to add that Judge's bat is nicknamed The Judicial Branch and I think that's just the coolest.

We are in, as many have dubbed it, the Superteam Era. There are six or seven teams who are head, shoulders and torso above the rest of the league. The aforementioned Astros, Dodgers, Cubs and Yankees all fit the bill, with the Nationals and Indians tagging along. I guess I'll throw in the Red Sox too. They're fine.

The problem many see with this is not just a lack of the parity that has been a cornerstone of twenty-first century MLB, but that the superteams are in markets that are known for spending. Cleveland doesn't necessarily fit that category, but the others do.

As for the rest of the league, the second wild card is there for a reason. As many teams try to duplicate the Cub's/Astro's plan, there is a middle ground of Twins, Angels, Brewers, Rockies and a few others that are doing their best to compete here and now. Those are the teams to watch come late September.

The biggest question mark on the season is the newest addition to the Los Angeles Angels. Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani has finally come stateside. Though his spring has shown to be a rough transition to American baseball, he is only twenty-three years old and will need time to develop.

Ichiro Suzuki, baseball's all-time hit king (fight me) returned to Seattle, likely to end his MLB career where it began. Now forty-four, the living legend has slowed considerably at the plate and in the field. His passion and drive to maintain his career are almost unbelievable.

Ichiro, along with Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, Bartolo Colon and a sparse few others are the last of a breed that have seen firsthand the game change dramatically over the young century.

Today begins the new season and with that new storylines, new heroes and new frustrations. Baseball's Opening Day is a sign of new beginnings. It is the great quelling of winter. Soon the grass will be green, the sky blue and the nacho cheese a suspicious and delicious shade of gold. So many people try to predict where a baseball season will go, but ultimately it is a chaotic exploitation of opportunity lasting seven months.

2,430 games are left to be played. Let us begin.

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