From the beginning of one round-ish year to the verge of the next, arbitrary as that may be within the boundaries of whatever Pope Gregory XIII had in mind beyond solstices and equinoxes and his own teams of the era (the plague had just had another good run), a baseball decade closes in a wintry storm of back-legged offenses, labor grouses and Scott Boras platitudes.
Also, of course, a parade in D.C., a scandal in Houston and some terrible goodbyes, the sorts that smear time into one long, hard bellyache.
“The Tens,” “The Teens,” “The Tenties,” it’s all very unsexy, so maybe the “The Trouties,” are over, ushering in what’s next — “The Roaring Trouties,” let’s say — and asking how a whole decade can be over when it just freakin’ started.
Didn’t Bryce Harper just get drafted? Didn’t the San Francisco Giants just win their first World Series in forever? Didn’t Roy Halladay just throw a perfect game? Did we just go an entire decade with Freddie Freeman, with Kenley Jansen, with Lorenzo Cain and without George Steinbrenner, without Sparky Anderson, without Bob Feller?
So, perhaps, the final hours of 2019 seek perspective from the 10 years that preceded them. The Chicago Cubs won a damned World Series. So did the Kansas City Royals. And the Washington Nationals. And the Houston Astros. The San Francisco Giants won three. The New York Yankees won none. Neither did the Los Angeles Dodgers, for a third decade running. The Boston Red Sox won two, which hardly even counts as news anymore.
The best player was Mike Trout. The best pitcher was Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer. The Yankees won the most games (921) and tied for the least number of championships. The Miami Marlins began the decade as the Florida Marlins and, combined, lost the most number of games (911), tied the Yankees (and others) for the least number of championships, and led both leagues in face-palm folly.
The Tens brought batters’ launch angles, or the broad recognition of them as launch angles and not uppercut swings. The Tens popularized pitchers’ spin rates. Not a single manager survived the decade in the place he started it. There were 44 major league suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs, the evidence ranging from paper trails and stakeouts to Stanozolol. Jenrry Mejia got banged three times, subsequently was banned for life and then pitched last season in the minor leagues for the Red Sox, the Joint Drug Agreement apparently failing to specify “human” life and in the end going with “mayfly” life.
There were 51,931 home runs hit, most by the 1,848 different position players who batted. It wasn’t all bad for the pitchers, however, as the 2,146 who did pitch amassed 379,933 strikeouts. The massive spike in home runs and strikeouts — 2019 was a record year for both, again — circles back to launch angles and spin rates and, well, the baseballs themselves, which were hacksaw-autopsied like never before. When The Tens began a pitcher’s third time through the order was pretty much how he got to the fourth time through the order and by the end of The Tens it was a way to sit on the bench watching someone else pitch.
The trends were mostly analytic in nature, a baseball game played out — who knows — millions of times on a computer screen before it was allowed onto an actual baseball field. So, there were defensive shifts and pitching changes and roster makeovers and the Cubs and Astros ruined everything by winning after being stripped bare, which has resulted in a lot of the latter and not much of the former.
Adam Jones played in the most games. Nelson Cruz hit the most home runs. Miguel Cabrera hit for the highest batting average. Robinson Cano had the most hits. Albert Pujols drove in the most runs. Jose Altuve stole the most bases. Trout OPSed 1.000.
Jose Fernandez, Oscar Taveras, Yordano Ventura, Luis Valbuena, Tyler Skaggs, Tommy Hanson, Michael Weiner, Brooks Hill, Eric Cooper. Farewell.
Scherzer had the most wins and the most strikeouts. Verlander made the most starts and pitched the most innings. Kershaw had the most shutouts and the best winning percentage. Craig Kimbrel had the most saves. Tyler Clippard pitched in the most games. There were 203 Tommy John surgeries, give or take, including more than a few repeats.
Frank Robinson, Tony Gwynn, Ernie Banks, Yogi Berra, Roy Halladay, Don Baylor, Red Schoendienst, Stan Musial, Gary Carter, Mel Stottlemyre. Godspeed.
It is, then, simply and entangled and beautifully and clouded, time. Too much, not enough, doesn’t matter, but another opportunity for retrospection. The 25,000-ish games played, however long those took (2:54 in 2010, 3:10 in 2019, those 16 minutes like an escaped sock). The curveball thrown by Ryan Pressly in 2019, in a minute spinning 3,300 times. The knuckleballs thrown by R.A. Dickey until 2017, over a couple seconds spinning once or twice.
Bud Selig, commissioner emeritus, has an office in Milwaukee with a glorious view. He had the first half of the decade, along with the 12 years before that. Rob Manfred, had next, and has a view of a $10-billion industry (and, recently, a minor-league bonfire.) The wild-card game was born. Mariano Rivera was unanimous. Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez were most definitely not. The winner of the All-Star Game gets a $20,000 check and a hearty handshake but not a World Series Game 7. Gambling’s OK now.
The lessons, at the conclusion of one decade and the beginning of the next, come with the context of the time. There are different — let’s say more defined or refined — methods of winning baseball games, that change the way the games are played, even the way they are viewed. For example, 10 years ago, over the course of a baseball season, a typical team required 500 innings of relief pitching. In the past season, that deployment had risen to an average of 609 innings, a massive strategic shift. The games are played on those back legs of hitters whose goal, to a man, as one player once shouted into the night, is to, “Elevate and celebrate, baby.”
So it is where the game finds itself on a random day, 10 years after another random day, as it turns out. Players adapted to a new game, as they always do. Unless, perhaps, it was the game that adapted to the new player, as it always does. Regardless, the kids played, everyone else watched, the adults bickered, the sun came up and the Gregorian calendar was undeterred.
What’s next? More. Just more. The good. The sad. The experience. Then, with any luck at all, you might look briefly back and shout into the night, “Elevate and celebrate, baby.” Elevate and celebrate.
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