It all begins today. Barring any postponements, for the first time since 1968, every team will begin play on the first day of the MLB season — the way it should be every season.
The Los Angeles Dodgers begin their chase for history. They are trying to become the first team since the 2000 New York Yankees to win back-to-back World Series titles. Behind a power-packed starting rotation, maybe they even have a chance at the single-season record of 116 wins — their 162-game pace from 2020 equated to … 116 wins. Then they added Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer.
We’re back to a normal 162-game schedule and 10-team playoff format. Winning the division and avoiding the wild-card game again becomes paramount. On the field, the biggest issue teams will face is getting their pitchers through the season as their workloads increase from 2020’s short schedule. Many in the game feel the 2021 season will be a battle of attrition. Stay healthy and you have a chance. We have new rules that remain from 2020 (like a runner starting on second base in extra innings) and old rules that are back from 2019 (pitchers hitting).
As Yankees starter Gerrit Cole said on Wednesday about Opening Day: “It’s always a special day because there are a lot of different emotions. Everyone is tired of spring training, ready for Opening Day. There’s a lot of hope, there’s a lot of excitement, there’s a lot of projections, there is a lot of baseball out in front of you. You just want the gates to open. It’s an important day, but it’s the first of many.”
Things will not be fully normal, however, at least not yet. Fans are back in ballparks, although at limited capacity to begin the season (the Rangers will allow full capacity for their home opener, but then deploy socially distanced seating). The Washington Nationals are down five players for their opener against the New York Mets, after one player tested positive for COVID-19 and four others will have to quarantine due to contact tracing — a reminder that we are a long way from being free of the pandemic.
We have plenty of time to get into all that stuff. For now, let’s enjoy the first day of the season. Here’s a look at all 15 games:
Jump to a game:
Biggest storyline: The American League East favorite against the team that loaded up to make a run for the top. Two Cy Young contenders. Two powerful lineups. Yankee Stadium on Opening Day (even if it won’t be full). A great kickoff to the season.
For all the deserved concern about the durability and results of new rotation members Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, it’s worth pointing out that the Yankees’ offense is absolutely loaded — if everyone stays healthy. They led the AL in runs per game last season even though Stanton and Judge combined to play just 51 games in the 60-game season while Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez both struggled. They are without major league home run leader Luke Voit, who starts the season on the injured list after knee surgery. If any team challenges the Yankees for best offense in the AL, it might be the Blue Jays, with the additions of George Springer (who will miss the opener with an oblique strain) and Marcus Semien, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. poised for a big breakout.
Prediction: Both starters dominate and then we see how the bullpens hold up. Yankees pull it out 4-2 with two late runs.
Biggest storyline: Shane Bieber begins defense of his Cy Young Award. He has made six career starts against the Tigers and allowed no runs in three of them. On the Detroit side, manager AJ Hinch returns to the dugout after serving his 2020 suspension from the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal.
Key number: Cleveland is 65-20 against Detroit over the past five seasons, including an 18-1 record in 2019.
After going 8-1 with 1.63 ERA and holding batters to a .167 average, the question isn’t whether Bieber can get better — that’s basically impossible — but simply whether he can perform close to that level over 32 starts and 200-plus innings. His strikeout rate has improved from 24.3% as a rookie to 30.2% to a ridiculous 41.1% in 2020. He’s my AL Cy Young pick.
Prediction: Bieber tosses seven scoreless innings. Cleveland wins 5-1.
Biggest storyline: The under-the-radar-revamped Red Sox. Will a bunch of small moves following a disastrous 2020 add up to a big change in the win column?
Key number: The Red Sox allowed 5.85 runs per game in 2020 — the highest in franchise history since 1932.
After churning through 16 starters in just 60 games — including such luminaries as Robinson Leyer, Matt Hall, Josh Osich and Mike Kickham — the Red Sox are simply hoping for stability and then for Chris Sale to make a big impact when he returns. This plan is not off to a great start as the Red Sox had to skip Eduardo Rodriguez as their Opening Day starter due to a “dead arm.” Their most likely path to the playoffs will require the offense to carry the load, which means much better seasons from J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers and some quality production from newcomers Hunter Renfroe and Enrique Hernandez.
Prediction: John Means, the one reliable starter on what projects to be an otherwise awful rotation for the Orioles, puts a damper on the Fenway opener with a good outing as the Orioles win 6-3.
Biggest storyline: Which Christian Yelich will we see in 2021?
Key number: Yelich finished fourth in the majors in wRC+ in 2018 and second in 2019 … and then collapsed to 70th in 2020.
I love, love this pitching matchup. Kenta Maeda finished second in the Cy Young voting in 2020 and, take this for what it’s worth, probably had the best spring training of any starter in the majors. One thing that will create a comfort level for all Twins pitchers: Byron Buxton in center field and Andrelton Simmons at shortstop. If those two stay healthy, which has been an issue for both, Minnesota’s up-the-middle defense will be tremendous. Brandon Woodruff throws as hard as almost any starter in baseball and projects as a sleeper Cy Young contender.
Prediction: Maeda continues to stay hot and Buxton robs a home run AND hits one as the Twins go home happy with a 2-1 victory.
Biggest storyline: The walk-year Cubs begin their final run together, This is a storyline that will hover over the team all season. Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant will be free agents next winter, along with the one-year guys the Cubs brought in, such as Joc Pederson and Zach Davies.
Key number: Rizzo, Baez and Bryant hit a combined .210 in 2020.
The Cubs will be one of the most fascinating stories of 2020, in a season that new president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said will be “a little more focused toward the future than usual.” They traded Yu Darvish, and many expect some or all of the impending free agents to be dealt during the season, which leads to the potential conundrum of what the Cubs do if they’re in the thick of the National League Central race in July.
Prediction: Pederson continues his hot spring with two home runs, Rizzo and Baez each hit one and the Cubs romp 9-2.
Key number: The Phillies haven’t finished over .500 in any of the past nine seasons.
It’s hard to believe, but the Phillies now own the second-longest playoff drought in the majors, with only Seattle having a longer one. The Braves and Mets are the consensus co-favorites in the NL East, but the Phillies certainly have the talent to make a run. The key will be the bullpen, which posted a 6.92 ERA in 2020 that was the second-worst mark in MLB history.
Only the Dodgers led more games than the Phillies in 2020, but the pen went 9-14 and had 13 blown saves. Jose Alvarado, Archie Bradley, Brandon Kintzler and hard-throwing Sam Coonrod are the key new arms along with Vince Velasquez moving from the rotation to the bullpen. The Phillies will be tested early: Their first 16 games are against the Braves (6), Mets (7) and Cardinals (3).
Prediction: It seems we have more great pitching matchups than normal even for Opening Day. This is another one. Both teams have to figure out their bullpen pecking order. Harper, who has five career Opening Day home runs, hits one and Aaron Nola goes six strong … but the bullpen blows it with the Braves rallying for a 6-5 victory.
Biggest storyline: Yu Darvish makes his Padres debut, but all eyes will be on Fernando Tatis Jr. — the owner of a shiny new 14-year, $340 million contract.
Key number: Tatis is the only player in MLB history with at least 35 home runs and 25 steals in his first 150 career games (he has 39 and 27 in 143 games). He turned 22 in January.
The Padres are the third-highest betting favorite to win the World Series — but predicted to finish second in their own division. Can they snap the Dodgers’ eight-year stranglehold on the NL West? That aspiration will depend heavily on the performances of rotation newcomers Darvish and Blake Snell, along with the continued MVP-caliber performance from Tatis and Manny Machado that we saw in 2020 and the offensive improvements from Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers.
Prediction: Tatis goes 3-for-4 with a home run and a stolen base, and Darvish fans 11 as the Padres win 6-2.
Biggest storyline: The Dodgers begin defense of their crown as Kershaw makes his ninth Opening Day start.
Key number: Including the postseason, the Dodgers outscored their opponents by an average of 2.19 runs per game in 2020. That’s the fourth-highest total in MLB history since 1903, trailing only the 1939 Yankees (2.71), 1927 Yankees (2.45) and 1936 Yankees (2.19).
How loaded are the Dodgers after adding Trevor Bauer to their rotation? David Price and Tony Gonsolin will begin the season in the bullpen. L.A.’s over/under of 104.5 wins is tied with the 1999 Yankees for the highest in the past 30 years. Those Yankees were coming off 114 wins, and while they won “only” 98 games, they did win the World Series. Maybe the Dodgers get wrecked by a bunch of injuries and don’t even beat out the Padres, although it’s hard to envision a scenario in which they don’t make the playoffs. More likely, the deepest pitching staff and best lineup in the league will carry them to a ninth straight division title — and maybe the first repeat World Series championship in 21 years.
Prediction: Clayton Kershaw allowed eight runs and nine hits in 3.1 innings in his final spring start. He struggles again, while German Marquez pitches a gem in a 5-3 Rockies win. It will be the only time all season the Dodgers are under .500.
Biggest storyline: Nolan Arenado makes his Cardinals debut.
Key number: The Reds hit .212 in 2020, the lowest team batting average since the 1910 White Sox hit .210. The Cardinals, however, actually had the lower team OPS.
This is another must-see pitching duel between potential Cy Young contenders, but also a fascinating matchup between two clubs that leave spring training with some issues.
The Cardinals are scrambling a bit in the rotation. Dakota Hudson was already out for the season after Tommy John surgery, and now Kwang Hyun Kim (back tightness) and Miles Mikolas (shoulder soreness) won’t be ready to start the season. Carlos Martinez, whose last good year as a starter was 2017, is now in the rotation, and he wasn’t great this spring.
The Reds, desperate for a shortstop, moved third baseman Eugenio Suarez there late in spring training, plus starters Sonny Gray and Michael Lorenzen are out with what are hopefully just minor injuries.
Prediction: Luis Castillo dominates with two hits over six innings, and Suarez blasts a home run and makes three routine plays in the field. Reds go home happy with a 4-1 victory.
Biggest storyline: The battle of Florida! The Rays start defense of their AL title. The Marlins play their first official game under new general manager Kim Ng.
Key number: Randy Arozarena had a 1.022 OPS after his call-up last September and then belted 10 home runs in 20 playoff games.
After the trade of Snell and departure of Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow is one of the most important players of 2021. The Rays really need him to step up and dominate for 30 starts, not just in short flashes like we’ve seen. Likewise, Arozarena gives the Rays’ lineup a potential impact bat. They will also have to work around the loss of their best reliever, as Nick Anderson is out for at least half the season with a partially torn elbow ligament. Don’t assume the Rays will be the best team in Florida, however. The Marlins have an exciting young rotation to build around. They’re another team that will be tested early as their first four series are the Rays, Cardinals, Mets and Braves.
Prediction: Glasnow strikes out 13 and, yes, Arozarena homers in a 7-3 win for the Rays.
Biggest storyline: The underrated Brad Keller starts things off for what could be a sneaky solid rotation and sneaky playoff contender.
If the Twins and White Sox falter, and neither team should be viewed as a playoff lock, you can see a path to success for the Royals if the young starters in the rotation improve and the projected meat of the lineup all improve from their 2020 performance. Throw in a dose of Bobby Witt Jr. at midseason and this could be your surprise team of 2021. A fast start in April will be key. Thirteen of the Royals’ first 18 games are at home, and then they go on the road to face projected last-place teams in Detroit and Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Keller gets 16 ground ball outs in his six innings of work and Soler — on his way to another home run crown — drives in five runs on two homers. Royals 8, Rangers 0.
Key number: Since deGrom’s rookie season in 2014, he’s second among the top pitchers in WAR (36.6). Scherzer would like to remind everyone that he’s first (41.8).
This will be the seventh time deGrom and Scherzer have faced off as NL East rivals, including an Opening Day matchup in 2019 when deGrom pitched six shutout innings with 10 strikeouts while Scherzer fanned 12 in 7.2 innings but allowed two runs. The past two battles haven’t been of the same caliber (one in 2020 and one in September 2019) as both allowed seven runs over 12 innings. Assuming the weather holds up — stay away, rain — I’m going with a low-scoring pitcher’s duel.
Prediction: It’s 0-0 when Lindor hits the go-ahead home run in the top of the ninth in his Mets debut. That’s why you gave him $341 million!
Key number: 51.2 — that’s the number of innings Ohtani pitched back in 2018, the most he has pitched in a season since 2016 in Japan.
Ohtani was the talk of spring training with his electric performance at the plate (.552, five home runs) and flashes of brilliance on the mound, leading to some MVP talk. As thrilling as it would be if Ohtani succeeds in both roles, as he did during the first two months of 2018, I’m skeptical about the pitching side of things working out. Yes, he was throwing hard in spring training but also allowed 14 runs with 10 walks in 10.1 innings. He just hasn’t shown any consistent ability to throw strikes since his return from Tommy John surgery. If he struggles on the mound, it will be interesting to see how long Joe Maddon sticks with him.
The White Sox, meanwhile, have to work around Eloy Jimenez‘s injury, which could include playing Rookie of the Year candidate Andrew Vaughn in left field.
Prediction: Ohtani goes yard, but that’s not enough to overcome Lucas Giolito’s otherwise brilliant performance. Luis Robert backs him up with a home runs, and Nick Madrigal hits three opposite-field singles. White Sox 5, Angels 1.
Biggest storyline: This time with fans! How much will the Astros hear it from A’s fans? (The A’s will begin with 20% capacity, or about 9,400 fans.)
Key number: In 2019, the Astros led the majors in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. In 2020, they fell to 20th, 16th and 16th in those categories.
Let’s get ready to rumble. The A’s ended the Astros’ three-year run atop the AL West with their first division title since 2013 — only to lose to the Astros in the division series. The Astros lost outfielder George Springer in free agency and then starter Framber Valdez in spring training because of a broken finger. They get slugger Yordan Alvarez back, however, after he played just two games last year. The A’s lost shortstop Marcus Semien and closer Liam Hendriks, but are looking for better offensive seasons from Matt Chapman and Matt Olson in the middle of the order. This is the first of 19 matchups of what promises to be one of the best rivalries of the season.
Biggest storyline: Jarred Kelenic, Kiley McDaniel’s No. 3 overall prospect, isn’t on the Opening Day roster for Seattle, but Taylor Trammell, No. 84, earned a job with a nice spring.
Key number: 20 — the number of years since the Mariners last made the postseason.
The Giants and Mariners are in a similar position. They’re not tanking like the Orioles or Pirates, but it will take just about everything to go right for either club to be interesting. That might be more likely in Seattle’s case because the M’s aren’t in a division with the Dodgers and Padres. Where they are not similar is where they are in the rebuilding cycle. The Mariners have some young players on the brink of becoming big-time contributors — not just Kelenic, but starter Logan Gilbert and outfielder Julio Rodriguez, with Gold Glove winners J.P. Crawford and Evan White already on the big league roster — while the Giants will once again roll out one of the oldest lineups in the league.
Prediction: The underrated Gonzales pitches like he’s in midseason form with seven good innings, and 2021 batting champ Ty France begins his season with three hits. Mariners 4, Giants 3.
Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony moved to Sept. 8
The Class of 2020 — Derek Jeter, Marvin Miller, Ted Simmons and Larry Walker — will have to wait a little bit longer to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, it was announced Wednesday.
The induction ceremony, which had been scheduled for July 25 in Cooperstown, New York, instead will be held at 1:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Sept. 8. It will take place outdoors in front of limited crowds as coronavirus restrictions ease.
“On behalf of our Board of Directors and our Staff, we are thrilled to be able to welcome our Hall of Famers — the living legends — and fans back to Cooperstown to celebrate the Induction of the Class of 2020,” Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark said in a statement. “Returning the Induction Ceremony to an outdoor event will provide the baseball community with the opportunity to visit Cooperstown and celebrate the Induction of four of the game’s Greats.”
No players were elected for induction in the Class of 2021.
An estimated 55,000 fans attended the 2019 induction ceremony. Last year’s event was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic — the first time since 1960 without an induction ceremony.
The ceremony will take place outdoors on the Hall’s lawn as a ticketed event, the Hall said Wednesday. Tickets will be available starting July 12.
The Hall’s award presentations will remain on July 24 as an indoor, television-only event. The presentations include the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Career Excellence Awards for 2020 to the late Nick Cafardo and for 2021 to Dick Kaegel, of the Ford C. Frick Awards for broadcasting excellence for 2020 to Ken Harrelson and for 2021 to Al Michaels, and of the 2020 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award winner, David Montgomery.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes loses home run after missing first base
PITTSBURGH — Ke’Bryan Hayes forgot to touch ’em all.
Hayes stung an opposite-field line drive in the first inning against the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler that narrowly cleared the right-field wall, just inside the foul pole. Running hard and with his eyes on the ball, Hayes missed touching first base with his left foot by two or three inches and kept on going.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts challenged, and umpires overturned the call after a short video review.
“Obviously, Ke’ got caught watching the ball,” Pittsburgh manager Derek Shelton said. “It’s one of those things that Ke’ thought he caught the back corner of [the bag], and he didn’t. If he even thinks he misses it, he has to go back and touch it.”
The Pirates did not make Hayes available to reporters following the game.
Hayes was also thrown out at second base trying to tag up from first on a flyout to left field to end the third inning.
The 24-year-old Hayes — the son of former 14-year big leaguer Charlie Hayes — hit .376 with five homers in 24 games last season and entered 2021 as a heavy favorite to win NL Rookie of the Year. He sprained his left wrist in Pittsburgh’s second game and missed two months, finally returning to action last week.
Hayes wasn’t the only top prospect with a homer trot miscue Tuesday. Kansas City Royals minor leaguer Bobby Witt Jr., the club’s top prospect, was called out after an umpire ruled he missed home plate finishing out a homer for Double-A Northwest Arkansas. It would have been Witt’s second homer of the game.
Earlier this season, the Pirates’ Will Craig made an egregious fielding mistake when all he had to do was tag Chicago Cubs baserunner Javier Baez or touch first for the final out of an inning. Craig has since been designated for assignment by Pittsburgh.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
‘Sorry you had to see that’ — How baserunning has become an embarrassing problem in Major League Baseball
Editor’s note: From rising strikeout totals and unwritten rules debates to connecting with a new generation of fans and a looming labor battle, baseball is at a crossroads. As MLB faces these challenges, we are embarking on a season-long look at The State of Baseball, examining the storylines that will determine how the game looks in 2021 and far beyond.
Six years ago, in a spring training game, the Mariners had a runner at first base with one out in the eighth inning of a blowout. Andy Van Slyke, the first base coach for the Mariners, told the runner, a young minor leaguer, that, given the score, there was no need to crush the shortstop or second baseman on a potential double play. Instead, just peel off toward right field. Then the batter struck out for the second out. The next batter hit a ground ball deep in the hole at shortstop. The runner on first base, not realizing that a double play was no longer possible, didn’t run all the way to second base. He peeled off toward right field. If he had kept running, he probably would have beaten the throw.
Van Slyke, astonished and confused, returned to the dugout.
“What the f— was that!?” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon asked him.
Van Slyke just shrugged.
“I have no idea what that was,” he said. “I didn’t think I had to tell him he had to run to second.”
That was another example, albeit extreme, of an on-field crisis that faces baseball today: bad baserunning, the worst I can remember in the 41 years that I have covered the game. The players today are spectacularly talented — bigger, stronger, faster and better than ever. They overpower the sport with their amazing physical gifts, yet too many of them have no instincts for the game. They have no feel for the game. They have less of an idea and an understanding of how to play the game than any time I can remember. And their most egregious mistakes are made on the bases, mistakes that happen in every ballpark, every night.
“Baserunning is terrible today,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “The two things we need the most work on is outfielders throwing and baserunning. Baserunning is just horrible.”
“Baserunning is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Van Slyke, who played in the major leagues from 1983 to 1995 and was one of the game’s premier base runners. “It started a generation ago, and it has gotten progressively worse. It’s the worst part of Major League Baseball.”
Hall of Famer Paul Molitor might be the best baserunner of his era — one of the best of any era.
“The value of baserunning has been diminished somewhat,” he said. “I watch the game. It’s a little hard to watch these days. And I see [baserunning] mistakes constantly. There are just too many instances where you say to yourself, ‘What is this guy thinking about?”’
Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley, who played in the major leagues from 1984 to 1992, agreed.
“There are still some good base runners, but nowhere near as many as there used to be,” he said.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was a great baserunner. His famous stolen base against the Yankees in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series helped the Red Sox come back from a 3-0 series deficit. Then Boston went on to win its first World Series since 1918.
“Baserunning is not as valued today,” he said. “And it is not done as well as in past years.”
The Cubs’ Kris Bryant is one of the game’s best baserunners. When asked about baserunning in the majors, he tried to suppress a laugh.
“It is not talked about enough,” he said. “It’s gotten a little lazy. Baserunning is only about effort. But we do have some highlight baserunning that picks up the slack for others who don’t take it seriously.”
Buck Showalter managed in the big leagues for 20 years. No one loves the game more than him, and no one wants to see it played properly more than him.
“Baserunning, oh my gosh, I wouldn’t know where to start,” he said. “I do a couple of Yankee games a month (as a broadcaster for YES Network). I see two or three baserunning mistakes [per game]. Baserunning is the ultimate team play. If you don’t run the bases well, you are selfish. We have lost the shame of the strikeout in the game. We are losing the shame of bad baserunning.”
It is not necessarily the fault of the players. The industry, infatuated with home runs being the primary way to score runs in today’s game, has de-emphasized baserunning. It hasn’t taught it very well. It doesn’t pay for great baserunning. It doesn’t penalize bad baserunning. The industry has decided that the risk of getting thrown out trying to advance 90 feet is far greater than the reward for hitting a three-run home run. That was one of Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver’s philosophies 50 years ago.
But the industry has gone too far. It has taken one of the most exciting and most critical parts of the game and devalued it. In doing so, it has turned baseball into a slower game, one base at a time. It has become a game that, at times, can be spectacularly boring.
“[Former Twins manager] Tom Kelly had a conversation with [then-Yankees manager] Joe Torre 20 years ago and they agreed that other than starting pitching, they thought that baserunning was the important component for a team’s success,” Molitor said. “We have definitely gotten away from that. To take away an element of the game that has been such a huge part of the game’s history just doesn’t seem right. I hope we start moving backwards in that direction.”
To be fair, there are some excellent baserunners today. Bryant is one. So is Javy Baez. So is Mike Trout.
“[Shohei] Ohtani is good,” Baker said. “He checks everyone [on the field], every time.”
The best might be Mookie Betts, who helped the World Champion Dodgers win two games in the 2020 World Series with brilliant baserunning.
The Padres, at least statistically, appear to be an exception. Through June 6, they led the major leagues in stolen bases by a wide margin. They went first-to-third more often than any team, and they had made fewer outs on the bases — eight — than any major league team, 20 fewer times than the Yankees.
“We feel that base running is a huge component of baseball,” manager Jayce Tingler said.
Not coincidentally, the Padres are 12 games over .500.
“There are a handful of games every year that are won solely on baserunning,” Bryant said.
This year, the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres scored from first base on an infield single. The Astros were in a severe shift. Third base and home plate were left unattended. Torres recognized that just by watching the ball and alertly circled the bases.
“That was nothing but awareness,” Bradley said. “No one was telling him or waving him.”
This year, the Padres’ Manny Machado broke up a double play by up-ending Cardinals second baseman Tommy Edman with a hard, clean, legal slide halfway to second base. But we have lost our way so badly on baserunning, some people thought it was a dirty play.
“Nothing dirty about that,” said Showalter. “That was an ultimate baserunning play because it was a team play.”
And to be fair, bad baserunning plays have happened in all eras. In 1908, in a pennant-race game, the Giants’ Fred Merkle was on first base in the ninth inning when the winning run was driven in against the Cubs. But Merkle, age 19, didn’t run to second because the fans were storming the field. Since it was a force at second and he never arrived there safely, the Cubs appealed the play. He was called out.
The Cubs eventually won the game, the pennant and the World Series. It has been forever known as “Merkle’s Bonehead” play.
In 1926, the great Babe Ruth made the final out of the World Series when he was caught trying to steal second with Bob Meusel (a .315 hitter) at the plate in a 3-2 game.
In 1959, in Harvey Haddix’s 12-inning perfect game, Joe Adcock lost a home run in the 13th inning when he passed Hank Aaron on the bases because Aaron thought the walk-off home run by Adcock had just hit the wall, and he ran off the field.
But there are more baserunning mistakes today than perhaps ever.
“Today,” Showalter said, “baserunning is a necessary evil.”
So, how bad is it? What began the demise of base running? Can we put a stop sign up on all these mistakes?
Where was he going on that play?
The mistakes aren’t just happening in meaningless, blowout games in spring training. They are happening in the biggest games of the season.
In the fourth inning of Game 7 of the 2020 National League Championship Series, the Braves had a 3-2 lead over the Dodgers. The Braves had runners on second and third with no one out.
Where was he going on that play?
Turner got him in a rundown, and with a headlong dive, tagged him out. For some reason, the Braves’ Austin Riley, who started the play at second base, decided to try to advance to third. Turner, from his back, threw to shortstop Corey Seager, who tagged out Riley for a bizarre and crippling double play that kept the Braves from going to the World Series for the first time since 1999.
It was the first time that a double play on a ground ball, with second and third and no outs, had happened in a major league game since the Mets ran themselves into a double play in July 2019. But the winner of that game wasn’t advancing to the World Series. The Dodgers came back that day to beat the Braves 4-3, and then went on to beat the Rays in the World Series.
“That play can’t happen,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
But it did.
Does Molitor slap his forehead in amazement after seeing such poor baserunning?
“All the time,” he said. “I used to think when I was more directly involved that you could watch the postseason and bookmark about 15 plays that you could use in a video that when these things happened, they cost teams games on the biggest stage of the season.”
There were multiple other base running mistakes in the 2020 postseason, plays that simply can’t happen in games of that magnitude.
In Game 3 of the Braves-Marlins series, Atlanta’s Travis d’Arnaud was on third base with the bases loaded and one out in the second inning of a scoreless game. Markakis hit a line drive to left-center field. The Marlins’ Corey Dickerson made a diving, tumbling catch then got to his feet. But d’Arnaud didn’t tag up on the play; he should have scored easily.
In Game 2 of the Twins-Astros series, an elimination game for the Twins, Byron Buxton was sent in to pinch-run in the eighth inning, with the Twins behind 2-1. He was picked off at first base for the third out of the inning. The Astros won, 2-1, and advanced. The Twins went home.
The 2021 season began embarrassingly for the defending champion Dodgers. On Opening Day, Cody Bellinger hit a drive to deep left field. Justin Turner, the runner on first with no outs, took off, rounded second base and was a third of the way to third base — that’s too far, he should have stopped at second to see if the ball had been caught — when Rockies left fielder Raimel Tapia just missed making a leaping catch at the wall. The ball went over the fence for a home run. But Turner thought the ball had been caught, so he re-touched second and headed back to first — all the while with his head down. On the way, he passed Bellinger on the bases. Bellinger lost a home run and was credited with a single.
“It was a confusing play,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
Our players today, for all their talent and greatness, are confused far too often on the bases. In spring training 2019, Yankees manager Aaron Boone, during infield drills, instructed his players that when the Yankees are in the field, if there’s an infield fly rule, his fielders should consider intentionally letting the ball drop because it might totally confuse the runners on the other team. They might not know what to do, and they might run themselves into another out.
A couple weeks later, on Opening Day against the Orioles, the Yankees had runners on first and second with one out when Gary Sanchez hit a towering pop-up — infield fly rule, batter is out automatically — that Orioles catcher Jesus Sucre dropped. Luke Voit, the runner on second, got confused and took off for third — even though he didn’t have to go anywhere. He was tagged out in a rundown for a double play.
The next day, Boone separately texted the three broadcasters who did the game on ESPN.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” he wrote.
In 2017, the Phillies’ Odubel Herrera was on third base when the hitter walked, loading the bases. Herrera, thinking the bases were already loaded, started to walk home. If not for third base coach Juan Samuel, Herrera would have been tagged out going home on a walk.
“I watch two baseball games a day, sometimes three,” said Pete Rose, who played in the major leagues for 24 years. “One week this year, I saw three games in which the team was running off the field with only two outs. How can you run the bases well when you don’t know how many outs there are?”
Seemingly every night, someone gets doubled off a base on a line drive when that runner is taught to freeze, then start edging back to the bag until he sees the ball go through the infield.
On May 23, the Cardinals’ Harrison Bader led off the fourth inning with a double. Justin Williams hit a relatively soft line drive to Cubs second baseman Nico Hoerner, who was playing in shallow right field because of a shift. He made a leaping grab, set himself and doubled Bader off second.
“I hear it all the time, a guy gets doubled off on a line drive, and they say, ‘There was nothing he could do about it.’ Bull—-!” Showalter said. “My coach in college and high school would have said, ‘Where in the hell are you going!?’ They [players today] don’t know how to freeze on a line drive and start the momentum back. The only double-off you should ever have is when you’re on first base and a line drive is hit and the first baseman is holding the runner. That’s it. I don’t want to hear any other excuses. None.”
Seemingly every night a runner makes a poor decision to advance to the next base — or not advance to the next base.
On May 10, the Astros lost 5-4 to the Angels. The final out of a one-run game was made when Houston’s Yuli Gurriel, who was on second base, ran to third on a ground ball to third baseman Phil Gosselin, who would have had to make a semi-difficult throw to get Carlos Correa at first. But Gosselin didn’t even have to throw because Gurriel ran into an out at third. All Gosselin had to do was reach down and tag him.
“I didn’t say anything to him, he knew he made a mistake,” Baker said. “And he’s one of our best baserunners. You make that mistake in Cuba, you might not eat for a week. But there are no repercussions [here] for making a mistake like that. No one is going to take your job.”
On May 2, the Braves’ Ozzie Albies reached base on a throwing error by Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette. But Albies lost track of the ball. He thought he was out, so he slowly turned into fair territory and started walking to second base. He was tagged out. Then he glared at his first base coach, Eric Young, for not telling him where the ball was.
On May 30, the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez reached on an infield hit in the eighth inning. He took off for second when the ball skipped past Tigers first baseman Jonathan Schoop, but the ball bounced right back to Schoop. Sanchez inexplicably stopped running halfway to second, then started again, but it was too late. He made the last out of the inning, down four runs.
“Here’s the other part of the baserunning drills that they don’t do anymore: Every time you run to first base and run through the bag, you hit the bag, and you were taught to immediately look to your right to check for an overthrow,” Showalter said. “Every time.”
Even in an instance when a player like the Cubs’ Javy Baez, makes a clever base running decision, it exposes the game’s lack of knowledge about running the bases.
Javier Baez helps the Cubs steal a run from the Pirates with some fancy footwork.
On May 27, Baez hit a ground ball to the third baseman with two outs and a runner, Willson Contreras, on second. The throw pulled Pirates first baseman Will Craig off the bag. Baez stopped before he could be tagged, then got in a rundown between first base and home, which is entirely legal.
Craig could have just tagged the bag and the inning would have been over. It’s a force play! Instead, he chased after Baez, then flipped the ball to catcher Michael Perez to try to get the runner, Contreras, who was sliding across the plate. Craig apparently didn’t know the rule that no run can score in that situation if Baez doesn’t safely achieve first base.
And maybe Perez didn’t know, either. After motioning that Contreras was safe at the plate, only then did Baez run back to first, which he reached safely because second baseman Adam Frazier was late covering the bag. It was a comedy of errors, one of the stupidest plays in baseball history.
Sadly, though, it confused so many players.
“I learned something on that play,” Bryant said. “I didn’t know the rule.”
On June 4, the Phillies were trailing the Nationals 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth inning. Rhys Hoskins hit a leadoff double. Travis Jankowski pinch-ran for him. A 2-2 pitch to J.T. Realmuto was bobbled slightly by Nationals catcher Alex Avila, who never lost control of the ball. With no outs — where was he going on this play? — Jankowski got trapped off second base. Avila ran right at him, and eventually tagged him out for an exceptionally odd catcher-unassisted putout. Avila made a very smart play, but it was assisted by terrible base running by Jankowski. The Phillies lost the game 2-1.
Baserunners have a lot to learn, about rules, about cutting a bag, about anticipating. They are so athletic and so fast, they should run the bases better than any era in history. Still, it’s fair to say that we don’t have nearly as many great baserunners as we used to. We have few who can compare to Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Molitor, Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr., Rickey Henderson, Don Baylor, Phil Bradley, Larry Walker, Don Mattingly and Scott Rolen.
“Baserunning is an art and it is a skill,” Van Slyke said. “It takes time and emphasis to make it important. But it’s not important today because no one cares about baserunning.”
Why run when you can jog?
Partial blame for bad baserunning goes where partial blame always goes, fairly or unfairly, these days — analytics.
“It’s the three outcomes: walks, strikeouts and home runs,” Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said. “Guys don’t get on base as much. They’re not used to running the bases. And they don’t think it’s important. But it is. They figure they can make up for it with home runs.”
The numbers support it. In 1980, there were more stolen bases per game than home runs per game. 1.56 to 1.47. There were .51 triples per game. By 2000, things had changed dramatically. There were 2.34 home runs per game, 1.2 steals per game and .39 triples per game.
In 2020, they had changed drastically again: 2.57 homers per game, .99 steals per game and .27 triples per game, the lowest rate in any season in history. So, 40 years ago, there were more steals than homers per game. Now there are nearly three times as many homers as steals per game. And even though stolen bases are only a small part of baserunning, it shows how much the game has become about power and slugging rather than running.
“We walk back to the dugout [a strikeout] today and circle the bases [a home run] more than we ever have,” Van Slyke said. “The emphasis on exit velocity and launch angle has eliminated the nuances of the game. They have blown up the equation on base running.”
Molitor is quick to identify one of the issues.
“We have all these formulas to score runs,” he said. “But there’s an art to scoring runs. And part of that art is being able to know where you can get 90 feet whether it’s a passed ball, a ball in the dirt, a missed relay. If you leave 90 feet out there too often, it is going to hinder your chances to win games. We have re-thought, probably to a fault, the value of an out, and where those outs should come from. If you are losing too many outs to calculated risks on the bases, it’s going to cost you. The amount of singles has dwindled. Do you have as good a chance of scoring today from first as you do from second? In some ways. . .”
In some ways, yes. And that’s a problem.
And what about getting the extra base?
“One of the most important things in baseball is going first to third on a base hit, knowing when to go,” Bradley said. “It goes back to the Branch Rickey theory: The best baserunners go two bases at a time. If you’re on first, you should be thinking about going first to third. Now, if you’re on first, you’re waiting to see if the guy is going to hit a homer. Then you can jog.”
It’s about perception, too.
“Baserunning is not cool (to today’s players),” Showalter said. “They think, ‘Who cares? No one steals bases any more. You hit a homer, I trot home. You hit a single, I trot 90 feet.”’
There is too much jogging and too much trotting in today’s game.
“Good baserunning is only about effort. It’s a pet peeve of mine,” Bryant said. “When you don’t run hard to beat out a double-play grounder, that doesn’t look good. It is so easy to run as hard as you can for four seconds at a time. My dad always reminded me that baseball is hard, you get frustrated when you make an out, so you take out your aggression by running as hard as you can. I have embraced that. I ground out to shortstop, I am so mad, I run as hard as I can to first base. Now we have fans back watching us play. You don’t want to dog it to first base on a double play, someone bobbles a ball, and they still get the double play. You beat out the double play, and it might be a big run in the game.”
Bryant was taught well. But we have stopped teaching players the intricacies of baserunning.
“[Some players] look at you like you have two heads when you talk about baserunning,” said Showalter. “My last year [as the manager] in Baltimore (2018), we had a young player. We were talking about a delayed steal. He had no idea what I was talking about.”
Our coaches and instructors today are different. Many of them didn’t play in the big leagues. Some didn’t play professionally. Some didn’t play collegiately. Some didn’t play at all.
“It needs to be taught,” Baker said, “but the guys who can teach it aren’t in the game anymore … Vince Coleman, guys like that.”
No one taught the game, especially baserunning, better than the late George Kissell. He was a player, manager, coach, scout, instructor and mentor for the Cardinals for 59 years.
“I never talk about my career — never — but I was a great baserunner because I cared,” Van Slyke said. “George Kissell taught me to care about base running. He would tell me over and over again: 90 feet really matters, 90 feet is imperative in his game — 90 feet, 90 feet, 90 feet.”
Showalter is a great teacher of baserunning.
“We were taught to hit the bag with your left foot, to cross over with your right,” he said. “Now, these guys hit the bag with the wrong foot. Hit it with your left foot it’s worth half a step. Players today have no idea what you’re talking about. We used to have a guy who stood at first base, and if you hit the bag with the wrong foot, he would whack you with a fungo.”
Nobody today, Van Slyke said, thinks ahead.
“You have to think about the next base first,” he said. “But players today are not thinking about two and three bases ahead. They don’t anticipate. They don’t ask, ‘What do I do if it’s hit softly? What do I do if it’s hit hard? Does the outfielder have a good arm or a bad arm?’ These are the questions, the nuances, that have to be asked before the ball is pitched. But today’s player waits until the ball is hit, then he decides. Too many of our players are thinking after the ball is hit, ‘How am I going to celebrate when I get to third base?”’
Another huge change in the game is the leadership, the counsel provided from veteran players.
“When I was a young player with the Yankees, Don Baylor was on our team. He was a great baserunner,” Bradley said. “If there was a ball where maybe he thought you could go first-to-third, or made a double on, when you got back to the dugout, he would let you know. He’d say, ‘What were you looking at? Did you see where that guy was playing you?”’
Being a great baserunner is about instincts and feel and anticipation.
“Speed is important, but it is not a prerequisite,” Molitor said.
Rolen ran pretty well, but he was a great baserunner. Mattingly ran pretty well, but he was an exceptional baserunner. The worry in the game is if a player doesn’t have instincts on the bases at age 27, will he ever have them?
“I think you are past the chance of having a great influence,” Molitor said. “There is an innateness to it. I think with a guy who is 27, you can eliminate poor decisions. But you might not be able to create a good decision.”
The way home
There is a way out of this.
There is a way to fix this.
It’s going to take time.
“It has to start at the youth level,” Bradley said. “When I was a kid, we played a game called ‘Running Bases.’ ‘Pickle.’ Those are base running games. I don’t even know if they exist anymore. Kids are getting better these days with all the coaching they get. And that’s great. But it’s all about them improving their swing. It’s about their private pitching coaches.”
Molitor called it “Hot Box.”
“That used to kill a couple hours every day playing a little Hot Box,” he said. “I didn’t want to get in a rundown in the big leagues, but when I did, it gave me flashbacks to the playground. If you can get out of a big league hot box, that was a pretty good accomplishment.”
Kudos to all of our Little League coaches teaching kids to play the game, but. ..
“Our kids on the Little League level, even through high school, are literally told when to run, when to stop. They are never left on their own to trust their own instincts, to know when a ball might drop,” Bradley said. “It’s like, ‘I’m not going to run unless the first-base coach tells me to go.’ If you are waiting for the coach to tell you, it’s too late. I’ve talked to coaches. We need to trust our kids to make decisions on their own. Find ways in practice. Don’t have base coaches in practice. And tell the kids why you don’t have base coaches in practice. Play situations where the players can figure it out on their own.”
It starts with education. But the focus of the education is a big part of the problem.
“When I taught it, and when I coached and managed at the major-league level, I encouraged players that making your own decisions is critical to being a good base runner,” Molitor said. “I do have to rely on the coach when the ball is behind me, but what drives me crazy if when you’re on first base with one out, you should be thinking first-to-third anyway. Say there’s a ground ball up the middle to the center fielder. You should know where he’s playing, you should know how he throws, but as the runner approaches second base, even with the play right in front of him, he looks over at the third base coach.”
Willie Mays didn’t need a coach. Neither did Jackie Robinson. Neither did Molitor.
“I had the freedom throughout college, the minor leagues and even when I got to the big leagues — I had the green light right out of chute as a 21-year-old player,” he said. “You earn that trust. Look at all the great baserunners, you won’t find one who wasn’t an independent thinker. It’s like a basketball player with great court vision, or Gretzky behind the net. There are some people who are just going to see the whole field. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens.”
Bryant earned that trust soon after arriving in the big leagues in 2016.
“I learned to run the bases in high school, but it was mostly watching, doing base running drills,” he said. “But when I got to college, we really got into the ins and outs. My coaches at The University of San Diego really helped us develop our IQ on baserunning.”
After we re-teach our Little Leaguers how to run the bases, the next step is to work with high school players. Their goal is to play collegiately, or professionally, and the best way to do that is to attend showcase camps. But there, they emphasize individual skills, especially power for a hitter and velocity for a pitcher. They don’t specialize in teaching baserunning.
“If they aren’t testing it,” Showalter asked, “do they care?”
It is time to care about running.
MLB is so concerned about base running, or lack thereof, it is experimenting with several rule changes at different levels of minor league baseball. At Class AAA, the base size has been increased from 15-by-15 inches to 18-by-18 inches. The thinking is, the shorter distance between bases could mean a higher rate of success on stolen bases as well as lead to more infield hits and bunt attempts.
In High-A Leagues, a rule that was used in the Atlantic League in 2019 will be adopted: Pitchers will be required to completely disengage from the rubber before throwing to any base. Using that rule, the Atlantic League saw a significant increase in stolen bases.
In Low-A Leagues, pitchers will be limited to two step-offs or pickoff attempts during any plate appearance — a third pickoff attempt will be ruled a balk unless it results in a successful pickoff. By reducing step-off and pickoff attempts, in theory, players might have a greater chance to steal a base.
“I think there are a lot of people who are starting to understand that there are ways to make the game more aesthetically enjoyable,” Molitor said. “A return to prioritizing baserunning is starting to be re-kindled, it makes me very happy. I think a return to that will make our game more appealing.”
It is up to the industry to make it happen, to lessen the value of the home run and increase the value of baserunning. Pay for good baserunning. Penalize for bad baserunning.
“The stolen base has become so obsolete,” one National League coach said. “Teams aren’t trying to stop the running game like they used to. They don’t even care if you run.”
Molitor lamented that runners, especially when in a rundown, no longer practice trying to draw an obstruction call. Yet on May 30, the Diamondbacks’ Tim Locastro, stuck in a rundown, tried to draw an obstruction call. It didn’t work, he was called out, but at least he tried.
We are bunting more often. Slowly. It is happening with old-school managers such as Baker, the Indians’ Tito Francona and the Angels’ Joe Maddon. On May 29, Baker had his rookie catcher, Garrett Stubbs, bunt twice in one game. One was a squeeze play, perfectly executed. It was the 11th RBI bunt of this season. That’s not very many. But it provides hope for the future.
Van Slyke was the first base coach that day when the young player, with two out, peeled off into right field instead of running to second. Van Slyke has hope for the future of base running.
“Remember,” he said, “that was a major league game, not a high school game. But if MLB really cares about the product on the field, we need to get the Players Association in on this, we need to bring the instincts back to the game of baseball. The only way this will turn if things are done incorrectly so many times, you finally correct it.”
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