The Sunday Brief: Top Storylines to Follow This Week

All the stories you need to follow this week in the MLB.

It’s the final week of the 2021 regular season! It’s been a wild year, with multiple changes to the balls, multiple pitchers injured, grip enhancer enforcement, Shohei Ohtani (who gets his own category), and, and, and. Also, the Tampa Bay Rays are leading the AL East despite going against a host of other teams made of 6’7″ Monstars.

It’s been a fun year with you all, and I’ll be ending the regular season updates with this article as Pitcher List moves into post-season coverage. I would like to thank Nick Pollack for giving me an opportunity to write for Pitcher List, and thanks to Dave Cherman for being my point person on the Across the Seams division. I hope I’ve kept you updated well enough this year, and we’ll see what 2022 brings us!

For today, let’s do a bit of a recap of the biggest stories of the 2021 MLB Season and reflect on the year that was.

Post-Quarantine Baseball

 

The 2020 MLB season was largely lost to the COVID-19 pandemic as MLB took one of the more stringent approaches among professional sporting organizations to preventing player sickness and illness. With the coronavirus still raging through the United States and the world, fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant, baseball resumed in 2021 with crowds in the stands and players getting vaccinations and multiple COVID-19 tests. Although society’s discussion of the “new normal” played out in other workplaces, in baseball, it was generally a “back to business” affair, with many teams featuring greater than 80% vaccination rates among players and close team contacts.

Due to the COVID protocols and lack of playing time in 2020, most players — particularly pitchers — struggled to reach their workloads that were seen in earlier years. We’ll likely see the Cy Young Award go to at least one pitcher who didn’t top 200 IP in the 2021 regular season. There’s a chance that Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes may win the NL Cy Young, and his IP total will hardly break the top 30 among MLB starting pitchers this year.

Because baseball is such a data-driven game, future historians will likely look at the 2020-2021 period as the opening of a new era. MLB instituted multiple changes to the composition and size of the ball in 2021, and the results were wild. The season opened with a series of no-hitters — one duo of no-hitters even occurring on subsequent nights — to the point that MLB stepped in and banned grip enhancers on the baseball. Suddenly, pitchers were undressing and being checked every inning — and sometimes in the middle of the inning — for sticky substances that were legal for years and banned within a week.

Quickly, the narrative of the year became how the game would play when pitchers couldn’t use their favored grip enhancers. Superstars like Max Scherzer insisted they never used the strong stuff and balked when managers accused them of hiding sticky substances.

 

 

Fans and journalists rightly pointed out that the new system was embarrassing if not completely ineffective. Players who were making their MLB debut weren’t being showered with praise and given their first MLB ball as a souvenir, but rather being undressed publicly in the search of non-existent substances.

 

 

Over the course of the year, the sticky checks caught Mariners pitcher Hector Santiago, and by now, the checks are largely tolerated by the players. In part, the checks have become less necessary because hitters started cranking the ball after the grip enhancers disappeared, which brings us to our next big topic…

 

Shohei Ohtani

 

If you’re often on the interwebs, you’ll know there’s a growing debate over who should be the AL MVP: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., or Shohei Ohtani. On the Vladdy side — he might win the AL Triple Crown of batting average, RBI, and HR. On the Shohei side — he might lead the AL in home runs while also pitching 120 IP, going 9-2 with a 3.28 ERA and a 10.65 K/9.

What’s more amazing is that Ohtani put up his 45/25 year while having basically no protection in the Angels lineup. Whereas Vladdy had the likes of Bo Bichette, George Springer, Marcus Semien, and Teoscar Hernandez surrounding him to ensure that pitchers couldn’t just walk him, Ohtani’s performance comes despite the Angels missing star outfielder Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon for most of the season. At the time of writing, Ohtani is batting in-between [checks notes] Brandon Marsh and Phil Gosselin. Who are those guys, anyway?

The steam is off Ohtani likely because he missed nearly 2 seasons of pitching with arm injuries and batted a less-than-impressive .190 in the short 2020 season. But Ohtani’s low batting average seems to be the spark of the 2021 debate — does batting average matter all that much? If Vladdy wins the Triple Crown, it will be because his batting average was elite; but does a better batting average offset Ohtani’s contribution of nine pitching wins to his team and 100 R/RBI? That’s the debate for the pundits to decide. Meanwhile, how about you watch Ohtani get his second triple of the game last night:

 

 

Growing the Game

 

All of this season has been one big endeavor to grow the game of MLB baseball. MLB consults with fans and audiences to determine where they can grow and remain “America’s Pastime.” What they discovered was that nascent fans didn’t favor strikeouts as much, so MLB changed the shape of the ball and eliminated grip enhancers to lower strikeout rates. Nascent fans were bored of constant relief pitcher changes, so we got the 3-out minimum rule. Nascent fans didn’t like long extra-inning games, so MLB started the 10th inning with a runner on second base. Someone, somewhere, got into Rob Manfred’s head and told him that cryptocurrency and Barstool would be the next wave of MLB fans, so MLB cut deals to bring those groups into the fold. MLB is further studying moving the pitcher mound back another foot and has announced they will be fiddling with the composition of the ball yet again.

Sigh.

The job of the armchair analyst is to track the changes in MLB, but we don’t have to like them. Personally, I’ve transitioned in my role as a baseball historian into a new career, and it’ll be up to the next generation to track MLB changes and see if they like them. But change is inevitable. Everything changes. The question is whether those changes are sustainable to keep the “national pastime” a game for all people, or whether it becomes — even more so — a vehicle for investment by wealthy companies and owners.

All right, friends! Let me know what you’re reading down in the comments. Be a beacon of loving-kindness for yourself and the world right now, and we’ll check in next week. Enjoy the playoff race!

 

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Blair Williams

Blair holds a PhD in Japanese history and is the author of "Making Japan's National Game: A Cultural History of Baseball." He's a fan of sci-fi, prog metal, and sipping rums.

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