MLB Is a Game of Extremes in 2019. What Does That Mean for the Sport's Future?
Welcome back to Nine Innings, SI’s weekly look at what’s fun, cool, and somewhat stupid around the league. Today’s topics include: some thoughts on baseball’s future; Josh Donaldson turning into Mary Poppins; Alex Rodriguez’s losing battle with math; and much more.
How many times has baseball been declared dead? My colleague Emma Baccellieri attempted to tackle that very question last week and found that writers and columnists have been shoveling dirt on the sport’s shallow grave for the better part of the last 100 years. The game, it seems, is constantly teetering on the edge of extinction, and always changing in a way that leaves its elders fearing for the worst. A few years ago, I stumbled across a piece in one of Sports Illustrated’s earliest issues in which several Hall of Famers were asked if the game had gotten softer. Most said yes, including Jimmie Foxx, who offered a look back to a bygone age: “Today they don’t have the great number of tough players and hitters. That is because life is different. As a kid I used to shovel manure with a pitchfork. Today everything is done by machines.”
The revolution came too late to save Double X from a childhood full of crap, but he’s right that the future—and particularly technology—changed both life and the game. In the most advanced age in human history, baseball now exists in a form that Foxx and the rest of his Cooperstown compatriots would likely barely recognize. Data, analytics, training, nutrition, science—all of those have helped create a generation of players who are, by every measure, the best the sport has ever seen. Baseball has never hosted more talent or more talented players. The result is something you see across the other sports too: Individual performance that is touching the upper bound of human ability, with pitchers and hitters who are stronger and faster than their predecessors.
That’s also created a game, though, that has morphed into a contest of extremes. Two weeks ago, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale decided to trudge through the seemingly annual column that is “old players hate how the game is now played.” To that end, he dug up two of the sport’s resident embarrassing Thanksgiving uncles in Goose Gossage and Pete Rose and recorded their bloviations. Normally, the complaints of such fossils are good for a dismissive gesture and maybe a laugh or two. But there is something to be said about some of what they dislike. “It’s like a video game now,” Gossage carped, later launching into an expletive-filled rant about how general managers now are nerds directly imported from fantasy baseball and the Ivy League into each team’s C-suite. To his chorus are Rose and Lou Piniella, each worrying that the explosion of home runs creates a version of baseball that isn’t baseball.
They’re not wrong. (To be fair, they’re not entirely right; the death of the hit-and-run is not a national crisis, as Piniella would seem to think.) Baseball is all homers and strikeouts now—unsurprisingly given the physical makeup of its stars, men who excel at throwing 97 mph and hitting 110, and by analytically-inclined executives who value and target those specific skills. The future of the game lies in the extremes of power, and it’s worth wondering what baseball will look like the longer that continues. Before the Home Run Derby, ESPN’s Sam Miller imagined a world in which the derby grew out of baseball to become its own hyper-popular sport—one that surpassed its predecessor. Given the game as it now exists, that doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Baseball won’t die. It’s existed since the Civil War in some form or another, adapting and changing to the times and its talent pool. But if it keeps pushing in this direction, where the three true outcomes become the majority of the action, will fans still enjoy it? Will people look back on a year like 2019, full of excess, and see this as a demarcation point on the way to a new version of the sport?
It’ll be fascinating if, in the end, the modern game leads not to baseball’s death but its reinvention—one that Commissioner Rob Manfred, with his endless tinkering, seems to welcome. Some will decry it, some will be thrilled. Baseball, throughout, will stay alive. But the more the game embraces its extremes, you have to wonder how much longer before baseball becomes something else entirely.
This Week In … Prop Comedy!
If you’ve followed Josh Donaldson’s career, you know that his nickname is “Bringer of Rain,” because the homers he hits go so high that they shatter the sky and bring a deluge. (Though apparently that’s not why he’s actually called Bringer of Rain, but still.) Amazingly, though, it took until Saturday’s game against the White Sox for Donaldson to lean into the moniker with an appropriate celebration: bringing out an umbrella.
More like Mary Prop-ins, amirite?
The gag wasn’t Donaldson’s idea—it was the brainstorm (get it?) of teammates Mike Foltynewicz and Luke Jackson—but I fully support it. In fact, more teams should find their inner Gallagher and celebrate homers with props. Shower Mike Trout with rubber fish after dingers. Put a robe and fancy wig on Aaron Judge after he goes deep and have him swing a gavel. Let Mike Moustakas ride a moose through the dugout. Baseball is more fun the stupider it gets.
This Week In … Nick Castellanos Smash!
Speaking of innovations in the realm of celebration: Here’s Nick Castellanos taking bat flips to the next level after a homer on Friday with a two-handed lumber spike.
Unlike Donaldson’s umbrella bit, there’s no real creativity here, but the unbridled emotion is just as cool. And regardless of how clever or not this smash is, I appreciate Castellanos trying to find a new way to express himself—of really exploring the bat flip studio space.
But even if the Bat Smash doesn’t catch on, I hope players keep coming up with different ways to #disrupt the bat flip. Some suggestions:
• Javelin toss the bat
• Dizzy bat spin
• Pretend the bat is a sword and mock-fence the pitcher
• Use the bat as a cane on your way to first base
• Play the bat like a guitar and then act like Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival and set it on fire
Anyway, the possibilities are endless. Let Castellanos be your guide, folks.
This Week In … Relaxing, Roxane!
Available on newsstands right now: Christian Yelich’s bare ass, thanks to ESPN the Magazine, which included the defending NL MVP in its annual Body Issue. That’s to the likely delight of many, but not Roxane J., an otherwise random Twitter user who took to the internet last Tuesday to upbraid Yelich for not “giv[ing] a thought about all the kids that idolize [him]” by appearing sans trousers in print.
Ordinarily, that kind of mild criticism from a relative nobody disappears like a fart in the wind. Yelich, however, decided to make it clear to the world that Roxane can pound sand.
Roxane ultimately took her account private to avoid the deluge of dunks that followed, but that wasn’t enough for Yelich, who upped his Troll Game and took the joke to the next level in Tuesday night’s game against the Cardinals by changing his walk-up song to—you guessed it—”Roxanne,” by the Police.
This Week In … Vlad Guerrero Jr.!
The good for Vlad Jr. as September begins: He hit .341/.406/.571 in August, his best month as a big leaguer so far. The bad: You can quibble about him homering only four times (with zero in the last week-plus) and striking out more often than he walks. But then you remember that Guerrero is still only 20, and then think about what you did at 20, and how it involved eating an entire sleeve of Fig Newtons in one sitting in your college dorm room, and so what Vlad has done looks that much better.
But what’s been most notable about Guerrero’s rookie season is that, relative to the thunder we were all promised, it’s been light on highlights. His MLB.com video page over the last week features a throw to first base, an ejection, a pair of RBI singles, a fan interfering with a catch, and an RBI groundout. It’s not exactly the stuff of legend.
Were the expectations too high? Probably. Was that deserved? Also probably. The progeny of a Hall of Famer doesn’t come along every day (unless you’re the Blue Jays, I guess), and particularly not one who did what Vlad Jr. did in the minors. Still, I can’t help but feel like the hype cycle spun a bit out of control; I bought in particularly hard, given this running weekly segment dedicated to all things Guerrero.
All of which is a way of saying that this will be the last installment in 2019 of This Week In Vlad Jr., if only because it feels unfair to keep trying to make this particular brand of fetch happen. Guerrero’s brilliance will still be spotlighted if it happens, but from here on out, I want that to happen organically. Fare thee well, Vladdy.
This Week In … Odds vs. Evens!
When we last left Alex Rodriguez, he’d lost $500,000 worth of stuff that he left in his car, because that’s a thing you can do when you have so much money that it loses any and all meaning. Apparently, those thieves made off with more than just some jewelry, though; they may have swiped a sizable chunk of A-Rod’s brain, if this loopy bit of strategy he debuted during Sunday night’s ESPN telecast of Mets-Phillies is any indication.
It’s kind of amazing that Rodriguez wanting to bunt with a runner in scoring position, a lead and nobody out isn’t even the dumbest part of this bit. But I can’t make heads or tails of his preferring an even lead versus an odd one. Yes, a solo homer can’t beat you if you lead by two, but it also can’t beat you if you lead by three or five or seven or any number greater than one. (I feel like Gary Cole in Talladega Nights explaining to Will Ferrell that there are many other places you can finish in a race between first and last.) And a two-run lead—A-Rod’s highly sought even advantage—won’t do you much good against a grand slam.
Either way, I’m hard pressed to pick a favorite moment here: Rodriguez’s satisfied Keep It Simple at the end of this bit of skull-melting math, or the matter-of-fact way Matt Vasgersian ignores his booth-mate’s bizarre logic and just goes on with the game. That seems like the best response, honestly.
This Week In … Cracking Open the Universe!
Elsewhere in the realm of things that, like A-Rod’s numerology, are designed expressly for people who are galactically high: Here’s Rhys Hoskins briefly shattering physics.
There are laws that govern the universe—that are designed to keep the heavenly bodies spinning and everything neatly balanced. But for a moment, Hoskins was like Neo in The Matrix: He made reality bend to his will.
This Week In … Novel Equipment Serendipity!
Here’s proof, meanwhile, that the universe moves in mysterious ways. During Friday’s Braves game, the Fox Sports broadcast crew—with Chipper Jones in attendance—was given gloves, for some reason. The how and why don’t matter, honestly. What does matter is the size of the glove given to color guy and former overgrown MLB puppy Jeff Francoeur.
(Let me also please note with joy the headline, a perfect example of giving you all the news you need to know quickly.)
But yeah, the draw here is Frenchy’s giant glove—and how, weirdly enough, this isn’t the first time he’s gotten one. And you know how I know that? Because for the last three-plus years, I’ve had this photo of Francoeur as a Met with a giant glove sitting on my laptop.
I can’t tell you there’s a reason for keeping it, beyond the fact that, well, look at it and how wonderfully goofy it is. But now I like to think that the world meant for it to be there, so that the cipher could be closed. Behold the alpha and omega of Jeff Francoeur, Giant Glove Enthusiast.
This Week In … This Week’s Worst Play of the Week!
Behold, the baseball equivalent of a joke going over your head.
And behold, the moment when you can see the whole world laughing at you.
There’s no moment quite like when everything goes to hell.