Passing Time with a Pastime

30 Oct

Call it a side perk of a pandemic, I suppose. With the social calendar on hold and weekend outings limited, I watched more baseball games than I have in years, and sucked up as much baseball as I could. The national pastime proved a marvelous diversion this summer: when my politics-related text strings wallowed in masochism during the first presidential debate, I blissfully sat back and watched the Yankees beat up on Cleveland.

The Yankees, the team of this Minnesota sports traitor, delivered on the entertainment value, if not always the wins. DJ LeMahieu won a batting title and Luke Voit won a home run crown and Clint Frazier, who I’d always wanted to succeed, broke out. The rest of the offense was an injury-riven or declining mess, which lent itself to a streaky and drama-filled season that came together at the end until it didn’t. A questionable pitching decision in Game Two of their Division Series with the Rays gets the biggest bit of the blame, but a starting rotation with only one truly reliable arm and a bullpen thinner than in years past created the separation. For a second straight season, the Yankees’ hopes ended on a late-inning home run off Aroldis Chapman. Yes, we now officially miss Mariano Rivera, knowing we’ll never see the likes again.

Baseball has undergone a revolution over the past twenty years, and after immersing myself so fully in the sport in the late 90s and early 00s, I’m still adjusting. Instead of checking the daily paper for a box score, I now enjoy MLB.TV and look up WAR and other various sabermetrics. Ever since Billy Beane and the Moneyball Oakland Athletics burst on the scene, baseball has herded toward a series of new insights into how games are won and lost, first valorizing on-base percentage above all else and now reaching an apex of openers, short leashes on starters, and extreme defensive shifts. I’m torn: I’ve always been a believer in using every piece of available knowledge to gain an advantage (Bill James’ 1984 Baseball Abstract remains a seminal text in my life), but sometimes the end result feels blandly scripted.

By 2020, that trend came to involve something we might call three-outcome power baseball, a game reduced largely to walks, strikeouts, and home runs. It might be a road map to success, but it’s also often rather boring. Baseball is at its best when there’s a full range of skills on display, but we’ve now learned that the game, as currently structured, often does not incentivize that. For some time I’ve held out hope that some losing team will start trying to intentionally beat the defensive shift with everything it has and start a new analytical revolution against it, but since it really is so hard for people not named Ichiro or DJ LeMahieu to exhibit the bat control necessary to spray the ball to all fields, I am now a card-carrying member of the Ban the Shift Club. I want baseball with high-average hitters, with speed and grace and not just station-to-station mashing.

Some of the realities imposed by 2020 made the game even less recognizable. The 60-game season turned a marathon season into a mid-distance push, a novelistic sport into a lurching novella. Empty stadiums in places other than Florida never stopped feeling unnatural, and while Atlanta’s all-dog section amused me, the cardboard cutouts mostly just seemed weird, and I was glad the Yankees stayed on-brand and snobbishly dismissed such gimmicks. The lack of travel outside divisions left fans in the dark about two-thirds of the teams, and the central divisions got exposed as posers when all seven of their playoff entrants accounted for seven of the eight of the first-round losers. At one point, it looked like the Yankees’ season might die on a couple of late August games played in Buffalo, the home-in-exile for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Baseball also got creative with some rule experiments only tangentially related to the pandemic. I didn’t much like the changes. The extra innings rules were wacky but excusable given the circumstances. Expanded rosters only exacerbated the spree of pitching changes and bullpen reliance, which only seems to slow games down and dim the luster of some of the pitching stars who should be the face of the sport. And I don’t care if it supposedly makes for better baseball: the complications that come from forcing pitchers to hit will forever entertain me more than a universal DH. Futility begets creativity, and sometimes genuine achievement. The expanded postseason was excessive for a sport whose marathon regular season should count for something, and too friendly to lower seeds. Three-batter minimums for relievers, on the other hand, are a perk that can help speed up the game, even if it may leave a few of my brethren, the LOOGYs (left-handed one-out guys), out of work.

For all the changes, the World Series still delivered the best two teams in baseball over the regular season, and it presented a collision between a team that embodies everything about the baseball analytics movement and a team that combines some of its sensibilities with a very large budget. Despite my annoyance with their style and their defeat of the Yankees, it was hard not to like the underdog Rays, especially when they pulled off that most improbable of wins in the Game Four instant classic. I was on the Rays’ bandwagon until manager Kevin Cash yanked the dominant Blake Snell after he gave up his second hit in the sixth inning of Game Six. They deserved a comeuppance for such mechanical thinking, and my schadenfreude surged with a vengeance when Nick Anderson promptly blew the Ray lead. Score one for the eye test, and the joy that comes from full immersion in sports.

The Bums who long ago left Brooklyn fully deserved their title after falling short with strong teams over the past three seasons. Corey Seager and Mookie Betts were the golden boy stars; Clayton Kershaw, perhaps the greatest pitcher of his generation, finally shook his reputation as a playoff choker. Julio Urías, the one Hispanic player whose name the FOX crew decided to pronounce with an accent, was reborn as a relief ace, a true example of how a manager should ride a hot hand. Their depth across the board made them impossible to match, and they did enough creative and different things that they don’t seem representative of the analytics era, even though many of their players fit the trends well enough. This was a dynamic team that did everything well, and there’s no reason to think they can’t go on dominating the National League for years to come. Baseball goes through all sorts of trends, from power to pitching to speed, but the best of the bunch can do a little bit of everything.

In Yankees circles, there’s a raging debate over where to cast the blame for the Bombers’ inability to reach a World Series over the past four years, despite Dodger-level talent and money: does it fall on manager Aaron Boone, a formulaic focus on the analytics in the front office, choking high-priced players like Giancarlo Stanton in past years and Chapman this year, or the sheer random happenstance of playoff baseball? For my part, despite the analytical grumbling, I still blame the starting pitching. The most predictable way to win a tight series comes when star pitchers seize the moment, whether it was the Nationals last season or the Astros’ aces before that or Madison Bumgarner earlier this decade. For all the hype of the Rays’ bullpen, it became rather less dominant upon repeated viewing, while Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler were simply their otherworldly selves, and Urías and even Tony Gonsolin filled in admirably behind.

In the end, the Dodgers showed us what a great baseball team looks like, even if they didn’t get to show that over a full 162 games. Baseball was a welcome preoccupation, and now it becomes still harder to avert one’s eyes from election-related blather. But we can start to speculate on what an offseason will look like, and find new rule changes to grumble about. Meanwhile, can we please clone Gerrit Cole?

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