Homers, Tanking, and an Unlikely Champion: Recapping a Wild 2019 Season

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The Washington Nationals

May 24th of the 2019 season was a seemingly normal day across Major League Baseball. In Chicago, a bullpen meltdown in the 9th inning led to a brutal 6-5 loss for the Cubs against the Reds. In St. Louis, the Braves topped the Cardinals, 5-2. In Houston, the Astros won a close contest versus the Red Sox, 4-3. In Washington D.C., the Nationals won a barnburner, beating the lowly Marlins, 12-10.

At first glance, this appeared to be a nice win for the Nats. They trailed the game 4-1 in the second inning, as Washington starter Kyle McGowin gave up four early runs. The Nats tied the game in the bottom of the third on an Anthony Rendon two-run blast, only for Curtis Granderson to respond with a homer of his own in the top of the fourth to make it 5-4 in favor of Miami. The Marlins would push their lead to 8-4 in the fifth. Washington would once again even the score, this time 8-8 in the seventh, on a two-run double by young stud Victor Robles. The Nats’ bullpen, which had been a glaring weakness all season, predictably folded the following inning, allowing the Marlins to pull ahead 9-8. However, in the bottom of the eighth, Washington responded with a three-run bomb by Juan Soto and a solo shot by Matt Adams on their way to a come-from-behind win.

The Nationals’ gritty two-run victory was easily overlooked at the time. Even with the win, their record stood at just 20-31, ten full games behind the NL East leading Phillies. As it turned out, this type of gritty, never-say-die mentality would soon become the identity of a true team of destiny. The 2019 Washington Nationals would ignite following that innocent May evening, recording an 85-43 record from that point forward, including the postseason, en route to capturing their improbable franchise-first World Series championship.

“Juiced” Baseballs

The Nationals’ title run that captured the hearts of our nation’s capital embodied the unlikely nature of the 2019 season throughout Major League Baseball. The most talked-about phenomenon by the media was certainly the unprecedented number of homers that flew out of ballparks all over the country. ESPN notes that numerous home run records were set this past season, including the total number of combined dingers across the league (6,776), single-team marks for homers hit (Minnesota Twins, 307), and allowed (Baltimore Orioles, 305), along with a host of other all-time highs.

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We can trace the spike in home runs to the worst-kept secret in sports: MLB’s “juiced” ball. The science behind the baseball is explained here, as this 2018 FiveThirtyEight piece illustrates the fact that this controversy has been ongoing for years. The impact of Major League Baseball altering the most critical object of the game has been enormous in terms of increasing offense. However, strangely enough, everything changed in the 2019 Postseason. Perhaps as a result of widespread criticism of the “juiced” ball, it seemed as if the baseball returned to normal in the playoffs. MLB denied these claims, as they have with those of the entire “juiced” ball scandal, but the contrast was clear once many dug into the underlying statistics. Regardless of what the truth really was, MLB needs to get its story and the composition of baseballs straight going forward in order to end the flow of negative publicity these allegations have caused.

Tanking

The tank was out in full force in 2019. This season saw four teams (Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit, and Miami) finish with one hundred losses or more. Sixteen clubs recorded a winning record, which means that fourteen – nearly half of the league – were below the .500 mark. While intentionally weakening a roster in the short term in order to secure a better draft position is a proven method, it has negative consequences for local fan interest. MLB attendance saw yet another dip in 2019, and it is highly likely that fans have been turned away in disgust of their team’s poor performance. While avid followers of baseball understand the positive long-term implications of their club’s ugly present appearance, it often does little to soften the blow of attending a ballgame knowing that they are paying for a garbage on-the-field product.

Major League Baseball must address tanking in an attempt to plug the sinking ship of attendance. Implementing a draft lottery similar to the practices of the NHL and NBA would certainly be a start. Some semblance of parity needs to be restored to the Major Leagues, because featuring a handful of teams that are not remotely competitive is simply not acceptable.

2019 was a year that will be remembered forever in Major League Baseball. Here is to hoping 2020 will be even better.

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