2019 MLB Season Wrap-Up

The 2019 World Series will be remembered as something of a sucker-punch.

We expected Justin Verlander’s storyline to center on dominance, and what we got was a man wearing a Clayton Kershaw costume. We expected two ace pitching staffs, and got a combined WHIP of 1.43. We wondered if Washington would be able to crack Houston’s dominant play at home, and got a funhouse mirror of a series in which both teams seemed determined to thwart their own fanbases.

It was an enjoyable, strange ride, and after five games in which the statistical oddities outpaced the play on the field, games 6 and 7 reminded everyone why baseball, at its core, is the most exciting game we have. The Nationals truly earned their championship, and are a fine example of what team baseball can produce.

With the offseason now upon us, it’s time to consider some possible storylines to watch through the winter. In no particular order:

  1. The Scott Boras Sweepstakes. MLB’s mega-agent represents three of the game’s best free agents in Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, and Stephen Strasburg (who’s expected to briefly opt-out of his remaining 4yrs/$100M to renegotiate with Washington). His Kris Bryant-related service-time grievance against the Cubs is likely to be resolved, and may be followed by Bryant’s departure from the North Side. Cole’s expected to sign with a West Coast team, while most of the non-tanking teams should be lining up for Rendon.
  2. Opioids. Tyler Skaggs’ death, and the investigation into it, may publicly be on the back burner, but with allegations of further player usage and questions over team involvement, we have not heard the last on this issue.
  3. Electronic Strike Zones. The World Series showed that unnecessary human error still plagues MLB, as poor third-strike calls affected multiple games. MLB needs to make sure it gets the technology right before integration, but it also needs to hit the gas pedal on this issue. Too often, the umpires were the story as much as the players were.
  4. Labor Peace (Or War). The players view the luxury tax as a salary cap, affecting both the terms of free-agent contract offers, and the lack of them. The owners feel that with individual and team salaries reaching new heights each year, the system’s simply not restricting player freedoms or salary potential. Both sides have proven intractable so far, but have also already begun negotiations well ahead of the end of the current agreement after 2021. The damage done by the 1994 strike has not been forgotten.
  5. Ball Changes. The percentage increase in home runs in 2019 surpassed that of any season, even the steroid years, and players throughout the game openly called out MLB for the changes to the balls that caused it. The Astros and Nationals proved throughout October that intelligent play – hitting through the holes in defensive shifts, bunting, using rundowns to advance runners – still gets you further than launch angles alone. It won’t take long into Spring Training to learn whether the league – who now owns the production company that produces them – will change the balls back to something less explosive.
  6. Shift Rules. We now have nearly a decade’s worth of proof that hitters will not change their approach against the shifts. Their shrugged-shoulder response to simply try and hit home runs every at-bat (aided by the league, at least in 2019) has led to longer games, less action, and offensive depths not seen in decades. It will not be easy for MLB to restrict shifts, but if it wants to grow the game with younger fans, it has to find a way to discourage the three-true-outcome trend that’s become so prevalent.
  7. Tanking. The luxury tax has fundamentally changed the way organizations build teams. Free agency has dwindled (either honestly, or not), and the dominant teams all have young, strong foundations. The industry has realized that the draft has replaced the checkbook as the strongest path to sustainable success. Unfortunately, they’ve also deduced that the best drafts are achieved by poor play. As a result, the number of franchises making no effort to contend has grown noticeably over the last decade. It’s hard to sell the game to young fans in places like Seattle, Miami, Pittsburgh and Detroit when it’s clear from the Winter Meetings onward that another 100-loss season is coming. This will certainly be a hot topic in labor negotiations.

At the end of the day, the World Series again showed that the best of baseball still exists – its unpredictability, the suddenness with which games, seasons, and reputations can flip, the ever-increasing athleticism, etc. The game itself can still be as vibrant, exciting, and simply fun as it ever was. But the industry has some issues, and the 113 days between now and the first Spring Training pitch could result in seismic changes on a number of fronts. 

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