Jul 23, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

⚾️ Good morning! Welcome to our 2020 MLB Season Preview. Hope you enjoy — Kendall (O's fan) & Jeff (Nats fan).

Opening Day: Tonight's doubleheader on ESPN will see Anthony Fauci throw out the ceremonial first pitch in the nation's capital, and Alyssa Nakken become the first woman to coach on-field during an official MLB game.

  • 7pm ET: Yankees (Cole) at Nationals (Scherzer)
  • 10pm ET: Giants (Cueto) at Dodgers (Kershaw)

Today's word count: 1,962 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: The weirdest baseball season ever

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The baseball season starts in a matter of hours, and we still don't know where the Blue Jays will play their home games, or how many teams will make the playoffs.

  • Welcome to the 2020 MLB campaign — a masked, fanless adventure into the great unknown.

Driving the news:

  • Nomadic birds: Canada won't let the Blue Jays play in Toronto, and Pennsylvania won't let them play in Pittsburgh. The next option is Baltimore, per ESPN. If that doesn't work, the Blue Jays could play their "home" games in road cities.
  • Expanded playoffs: MLB and the MLBPA are discussing expanding the playoffs from 10 teams to 16, per multiple reports.

The backdrop: As recently as February, the biggest story in baseball was the Astros' sign-stealing operation — a scandal so shocking it would have taken a global pandemic to make people forget about it.

  • Now, four months and one global pandemic later, MLB's investigative report and Houston's cringeworthy apology feel like distant memories.
  • And suddenly, the absurdity of grown men banging on garbage cans pales in comparison to the absurdity of grown men playing quarantine baseball.

What to know:

  • Regional schedule: Teams will play 40 games within their division and 20 interleague games against the corresponding geographical division (i.e. AL and NL Central).
  • Rule changes: The NL has temporarily adopted the DH to protect pitchers, extra innings start with a runner on second base and pitchers must face a minimum of three batters (or pitch to the end of a half-inning).
  • Health and safety: No high-fives, fist bumps, hugs or spitting. Players not likely to participate in the game will sit in the stands. Managers and coaches will wear masks in the dugout and bullpen at all times.
  • Roster sizes: Opening Day rosters will feature 30 active players (up from the normal 26) culled from each team's 60-man player pool. The active roster will be trimmed to 28 players on the 15th day of the season and then to 26 players on the 29th day.

What to expect:

  • Black Lives Matter support: Teams have the option of stenciling "Black Lives Matter" or "United For Change" on the back of the pitcher's mound during opening weekend games, and players can wear patches with either phrase on a jersey sleeve, per AP. In exhibition games this week, multiple players kneeled during the national anthem.
  • High-scoring games: "A number of [pitchers] admit that they feel far behind hitters in terms of preparedness — that the extra weeks they get to fine-tune pitches in a standard spring training make the difference between success and failure," writes ESPN's Jeff Passan. "Compound that with the muggy summer months ... and a run-scoring paradise is about to be unleashed."
  • Designated runners: More roster spots means more room for specialists, and pinch runners can change the game in an instant. Plus, with the extra innings rule, you could ostensibly pinch hit your pinch runner in an advantageous spot, sending them up to strike out so they can be placed on second base to start the next inning.
2. The beauty of a 60-game season
Data: Baseball Reference; Table: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

MLB's 60-game schedule will be unlike anything we've ever seen, transforming a marathon into a sprint, and turning statistical frontiers like a .400 batting average into (relatively) achievable goals.

  • Yes, but: As it turns out, there's a strong correlation between a team's 60-game and 162-game record, so 2020 won't be a total fluke. And, while a shortened season increases the likelihood that someone hits .400, it isn't as likely as you'd think.
  • Since the strike-shortened 1994 season, only three players — Tony Gwynn (1997), Larry Walker (1997) and Chipper Jones (2008) — have hit .400 through their team's first 60 games.

The intrigue: While there's something magical about a baseball season that starts in spring and ends in fall, the urgency of a 60-game season might actually make it more enjoyable, explains The Ringer's Rodger Sherman.

  • "A 162-game baseball season is an endless summer where there's seemingly always a tomorrow. Wins are pleasant; losses generally aren't worth losing sleep over. ... I enjoy having baseball on my TV, but rarely feel as if any regular-season game is a must-see event."
  • "In a 60-game season, however, each game is worth as much as an entire series in a 162-game season ... and the importance of every game is magnified. ... As a result, I'm going to do something I've never done: watch every game that my favorite team plays."

What they're saying:

"I think you're going to see more of a playoff-attitude managing ... more aggressive decision-making early in the game as opposed to what you would do in the first couple of months of the regular season."
— Angels manager Joe Maddon, per NYT

The bottom line, per Sherman: "While I can appreciate the beauty in baseball's 'Groundhog Day' (or 'Palm Springs') dust-it-off-and-come-back-to-the-park ethos, giving up a walkoff homer shouldn't be something that you can just dust off. It should be devastating. In a 60-game schedule, it will be."

Go deeper: Each team's best 60-game stretch since 2000 (MLB)

3. American League preview
Reproduced from FiveThirtyEight; Table: Axios Visuals
  • The juggernaut: The Yankees scored an MLB-best 943 runs last season, despite Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton playing 120 combined games. If those two can stay healthy, and $324 million ace Gerrit Cole delivers, New York should repeat as AL East champs for the first time since 2011-12.
  • The dark horse: After years of MacGyvering their way to 90-win seasons with triple-switches and "openers," the Rays will be right at home navigating this bizarre season. And thanks to expanded rosters, manager Kevin Cash will have more in-game substitution options and bullpen combinations than ever.
  • The villains: The Astros are the most hated team in baseball (and perhaps all of sports) at the moment. How will they respond?
  • The team on the rise: The White Sox trusted the process and are now legit AL Central contenders. The youth, power and excitement in Chicago is palpable, and if nothing else, the shortened 2020 season should provide a glimpse of the club's bright future.
  • The Big 3: Mike Trout confirmed he will play this season, and will headline perhaps the most gifted trio in baseball. New addition Anthony Rendon is the best teammate Trout's ever had, and the return of Shohei Ohtani as a two-way player (didn't pitch in 2019) will be must-see TV.

Awards predictions:

  • AL MVP: Mike Trout (Angels)
  • AL Cy Young: Gerrit Cole (Yankees)
  • AL ROY: Luis Robert (White Sox)
4. National League preview
Reproduced from FiveThirtyEight; Table: Axios Visuals
  • The juggernaut: The Dodgers might be the best on-paper team in MLB history. This is a club that won 106 games last year, then added Mookie Betts.
  • The champs: Despite losing Anthony Rendon, the Nationals' roster is still championship-quality. And they'll be able to ride the league's best rotation harder than usual thanks to the short season.
  • The team for sale: The sale of the Mets (valued at $2.4 billion, per Forbes) is a significant and rare event, so expect the expect the rumor mill, New York tabloid gossip and wall-to-wall coverage to continue through the summer.
  • The team on the rise: Cincinnati's rotation — led by Sonny Gray, Luis Castillo and a full season of Trevor Bauer — is superb, and they added sluggers Mike Moustakas and Nicholas Castellanos in a rare free agent splash.
  • The rookie skippers: There are a whopping 10 new MLB managers this season. Four of them are first-timers, and they're all in the NL: David Ross (Cubs), Luis Rojas (Mets), Derek Shelton (Pirates) and Jayce Tingler (Padres).

Awards predictions:

  • NL MVP: Fernando Tatís Jr. (Padres)
  • NL Cy Young: Walker Buehler (Dodgers)
  • NL ROY: Carter Kieboom (Nationals)
5. Fantasy baseball: Player rankings

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Fantasy sports began with baseball, and has since evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. The strategy/mantra for the 2020 fantasy baseball campaign: Let's get weird.

Top 25 hitters:

  • 1–5: Ronald Acuña Jr. (ATL), Christian Yelich (MIL), Cody Bellinger (LAD), Mookie Betts (LAD), Mike Trout (LAA)
  • 6–10: Francisco Lindor (CLE), Trevor Story (COL), Juan Soto (WSH), Trea Turner (WSH), Nolan Arenado (COL)
  • 11–15: Jose Ramirez (CLE), Alex Bregman (HOU), J.D. Martinez (BOS), Rafael Devers (BOS), Fernando Tatís Jr. (SD)
  • 16–20: Bryce Harper (PHI), Freddie Freeman (ATL), Starling Marte (ARI), Anthony Rendon (LAA), Javier Baez (CHC),
  • 21–25: Xander Bogaerts (BOS), Jose Altuve (HOU), Pete Alonso (NYM), George Springer (HOU), Gleyber Torres (NYY)

Top 25 pitchers:

  • 1–5: Gerrit Cole (NYY), Jacob deGrom (NYM), Max Scherzer (WSH), Justin Verlander (HOU), Walker Buehler (LAD)
  • 6–10: Stephen Strasburg (WSH), Shane Bieber (CLE), Jack Flaherty (STL), Mike Clevinger (CLE), Clayton Kershaw (LAD)
  • 11–15: Charlie Morton (TB), Blake Snell (TB), Luis Castillo (CIN), Patrick Corbin (WSH), Chris Paddack (SD)
  • 16–20: Lucas Giolito (CWS), Josh Hader (MIL), Zack Greinke (HOU), Yu Darvish (CHC), Aaron Nola (PHI)
  • 21–25: Kirby Yates (SD), Tyler Glasnow (TB), Jose Berrios (MIN), Trevor Bauer (CIN), Brandon Woodruff (MIL)

Go deeper: Full player rankings (FantasyPros)

6. 📆 July 23: Baseball through the years
Illustration from Harper's Weekly of the Cincinnati Red Stockings circa 1869. Photo: Stock Montage/Getty Images

July 23, 1866 — The Cincinnati Baseball Club is established. Three years later, the Cincinnati Red Stockings become the first fully professional baseball team.

Lou Gehrig whacks a double at Yankee Stadium in 1939. Photo: Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics via Getty Images

July 23, 1925 — Lou Gehrig hits the first of 23 career grand slams, which stood as the all-time record until Alex Rodriguez broke it on Sept. 20, 2013.

Tom Seaver (R) and Jerry Koosman flank Senators manager Ted Williams. Photo: Focus on Sport via Getty Images

July 23, 1969 — Three days after the first lunar landing, the NL beats the AL for the seventh straight time, 9-3, in the 40th MLB All-Star Game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. MVP: Willie McCovey.

Giphy

July 23, 1987 — Bill Buckner, whose infamous error made him the goat of the previous year's World Series, is waived by the Red Sox.

Mark Buehrle and his family after tossing a perfect game. Photo: Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

July 23, 2009 — White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle tosses the 18th perfect game in MLB history. There have been five more since: Dallas Braden (2010), Roy Halladay (2010), Philip Humber (2012), Matt Cain (2012) and Félix Hernández (2012).

Nationals Park during an exhibition game last week. Photo: Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

July 23, 2020 — Opening Day of the weirdest season ever.

7. 📚 Good reads

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Previously on MLB: A newbie's guide to watching baseball in 2020 (Sam Miller, ESPN)

"The oldest living human is 117, born in 1903 and probably incapable of having been a baseball fan any earlier than 1908 or so. By that point, the sport had already produced superstars, World Series champions, a common language of statistics, memorabilia, slang ... and most of the rule changes that brought the sport to its current shape. Which is all to say that every baseball fan alive today jumped into this show late."

So ... what if the Astros win the 2020 World Series? (Zach Kram, The Ringer)

"As if this season weren't already sufficiently twisted, then, beware the cognitive dissonance that might arise between ... the thrills of an actual month of playoffs if MLB manages to safely field a season ... and the bitterness of another Houston celebration."

Daniel Bard's long road back from the yips (Stephanie Apstein, SI)

"Baseball's most mysterious ailment completely derailed the former Red Sox flamethrower. He's finally found his way back to the big leagues."
8. 🥜 Ballpark peanuts get a summer break

Peanut vendor at Dodger Stadium circa 1980. Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Baseball fans consume between four and seven million bags of ballpark peanuts each season — and that doesn't even include the minors or independent leagues.

  • This year, that number will likely be zero.

History lesson: Baseball's union with peanuts began in the 1890s, when British immigrant Harry Stevens moved to Ohio and fell in love with the game.

  • Stevens then invented scorecards, and an enterprising peanut company traded bags of their product in exchange for ad space on his cards.
  • With more peanuts than he could possibly eat, Stevens sold them to ballparks, who then sold them to fans as concessions.

By the numbers: Of the four peanut varieties — Runner, Virginia, Spanish and Valencia — Runners and Virginias make up about 95% of the market, per the National Peanut Board.

  • 80% are runners, which are used to make peanut butter, while 15% are the bigger Virginias — the ballpark staple.
  • Though Virginia peanuts have been in their own form of quarantine, the peanut industry at-large has thrived during the pandemic thanks to families stocking their pantries with peanut butter.
9. 💸 Mookie trivia
Giphy

Mookie Betts' 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers gives him the second-richest contract by total value in MLB history, trailing only Mike Trout.

  • Question: Since 2016, Betts (33.4 WAR) has the second-most Wins Above Replacement in MLB, trailing only Trout (35.5 WAR). Who's third?
  • Hint: American League pitcher.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports
Jackie Robinson circa 1945. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Rob S. (New York native) writes:

"I was too young to remember the details surrounding my brush with history, but my father wrote an account of it in a letter to the New York Times shortly after Jackie Robinson died, in October 1972. The clipping helps refresh my memory.
"It was 1956. I had just turned seven and was recovering from mononucleosis. To celebrate, my father took me to my first baseball game, a Brooklyn-Cincinnati double-header at Ebbets Field.
"My mother wrote a letter to Jackie explaining how much it would mean to me if he would stop by and say hello. My father told her that ballplayers couldn't possibly respond to such requests, but he did bring his camera, just in case.
"'We got to the park early,' my father wrote in the Times. 'Maybe 10 or 15 minutes before game time, I saw Jackie pigeon-toeing his way out toward right field. He was playing left field quite often in those days, but there was no reason for him to come to right. No reason except one. I reached for the camera.'
"'Is there a boy named Rob Slocum up there?' Jackie called out. According to my father, I 'leaped' out of my seat and 'made the few steps to the rail without touching the ground.'
A young Rob talking with Jackie Robinson. Photo: Rob S.
"Jackie had a baseball in his hand and said he'd bring it back once he got his teammates to sign it, which is exactly what he did. A few days later, my mother wrote him a thank you note, and he replied with a note of his own.
"'I am sure that most feel as I that we are only ballplayers and don't quite understand what [meeting us] may mean to young boys,' he wrote. 'To get such a nice letter makes me aware of how much more it should be done. Thanks for making me realize this fact. Sincerely, Jackie Robinson.'
"I saved that letter and make sure to re-read Jackie's words every now and then. And needless to say, I still have the ball."

✍️ Submit your story: Do you have a fondest sports memory? Or an example of sports having a positive impact on your life? If you'd like to share, simply reply to this email. We'll be telling your stories until they run out.

Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Play ball!" Baker

Trivia answer: Justin Verlander (28.0 WAR)