MLB Season Returns to Normalcy, but Not Without Changes

In a season that featured a return to the full slate of 162 games, Major League Baseball also experienced a number of remarkable developments — including an international, two-way MVP candidate and a hectic wild-card race.

After the sprint that was the 2020 Covid-shortened 60-game season, the MLB returned to its traditional marathon of 162 games in 2021, which concluded its final games on Sunday, Oct 3. The transition from an unprecedented shortened season back to normalcy facilitated a number of unusual trends in a sport that has been evolving over the last decade or so. Before getting into a preview of what’s to come during the postseason, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting storylines from this year’s season

The Year of Ohtani

2021 can best be described as the year of Shohei Ohtani. Coming to the United States as an international phenomenon in 2017 after lighting up the Nippon Baseball League in Japan from both the plate and the mound, Ohtani was advertised as a generational superstar and the first true two-way player since Babe Ruth — enormous expectations to live up to. Ohtani showed flashes of potential in his previous seasons, winning the American League (AL) Rookie of the Year in 2018, but he has suffered unfortunate injuries that have greatly impeded his success, as he was attempting to play two different positions at an elite level. In 2021, however, Ohtani seems to have cracked the code. His 2021 accomplishments will be remembered as one of the most remarkable seasons in MLB history.

Playing in 155 games, Ohtani recorded 130.1 (130 and 1/3) innings pitched and 639 plate appearances. From the mound, Ohtani finished with a 9-2 record in 23 starts, registering 151 strikeouts, good for 10.8 per nine innings, and an ERA of 3.18. His ERA+, which accounts for factors like a pitcher’s ballpark and the ERA of a pitcher’s league, was higher than AL Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole.

From the plate, Ohtani had an arguably more spectacular year. He smashed 46 home runs and led the league for the majority of the year, only to finish third overall behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Salvador Perez, who tied for first with 48. His home runs were spectacular, however, with 24 homers at 100 or more miles per hour, the most in the league. He had a .965 OPS, good for fifth in the league, and an OPS+ higher than Aaron Judge, Paul Goldschmidt and Freddie Freeman. His 78 extra base hits exceeds both Guerro Jr. and National League (NL) MVP frontrunner Bryce Harper. He led the American League with eight triples, making him one of only six players in AL history to hit 45 home runs and eight triples — the other five players are currently in the Hall of Fame. To add the icing on the cake, Ohtani recorded 26 stolen bases, making him the only player in MLB history with at least 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 20 innings pitched in a single season.

If Ohtani the pitcher and Ohtani the hitter were two different players, both would be heralded as having incredible seasons. Considering he was able to achieve what he did in both aspects of his game, Ohtani is the sure-fire AL MVP. While recognizing Ohtani’s extraordinary successes, his next test will be proving that he can maintain his level of performance over the course of multiple seasons and overcome the stress of both playing two positions at once and the colossal expectations that will follow him for the remainder of his career.

The Return to 162 Games

Though it was an interesting change of pace and a necessity to accommodate the challenges presented at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 60-game shortened season in 2020 simply was not MLB baseball. The professional baseball season is almost twice as long as the 82-game NBA and NHL seasons, and it is inherently a test of endurance. This year’s results after 60 games look dramatically different compared to the final outcome from Sunday. After the 60 game mark, the Cubs, Mets and A’s were all in first place in their respective divisions, and the Padres were in position to host the NL wild card game — none of these teams finished in a playoff position. The Braves, Brewers, Cardinals and Yankees all would have missed the playoffs if the season ended after 60 games.

The shift from a shortened season back to the norm had league-wide effects. Injury numbers took a huge jump, likely because of these changing dynamics. The number of players who went on the Injured List (IL) shot up 37 percent compared to the last two full seasons (2019 and 2018). Without even considering the special Covid-19 IL, the average team used the IL 32 times, up from 23 in 2019, and 216 players made multiple visits to the IL, compared to just 131 in 2019.

In terms of other statistics, the league average was the lowest it has been since 1968 at .244, possibly due to the sticky substances used by pitchers that plagued the first half of the season. There was a record number of batters hit by a pitch this year, exceeding 2,000 for the first time ever. Teams stole bases at the lowest rate since 1967, at only 0.45 a game, but the stolen base success rate was the highest it has ever been at 75.5 percent, illustrating how important analytics have become in making in-game decisions.

Changes to Consider Going Forward

Though there are many traditionalists who would say otherwise, baseball is and always has been an evolving sport, especially in recent years as teams have been driven by data and analytics more than ever. Given these changes in the game and its dwindling audience, it is important for the MLB to consider implementing changes to modernize the game and keep fans interested.

The primary area of concern is the lack of competition among the lower tiered teams in the league. Four different teams lost over 100 games this year in the Diamondbacks, Orioles, Pirates and Rangers. Before 2018, this had happened only once in MLB history — it has now happened twice over the last two full seasons. What is even more shocking is that the Diamondbacks and Orioles both lost 110 games, only the second time in MLB history this has happened and the first year in which two non-expansion teams lost this many games, as the first instance occurred during the first year of existence for the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos. The MLB desperately needs some sort of action to discourage teams from tanking and keep competition steady — there is a massive problem when multiple teams don’t have an incentive to win.

One possible solution is to alter the way the draft functions, such as implementing a lottery system like the NBA or limiting the number of times a team can have a certain high draft choice like in the NHL. Another consideration could be a reverse luxury tax that penalizes teams for spending too little.

Speeding up the pace of the game is another area that the MLB has tried to address. In an attempt to shorten dead time caused by pitching changes, the MLB enacted a rule which states that relief pitchers must face at least three batters unless the inning ends first. The policy has seemingly had the opposite effect, however, as the average for this year’s games was the longest it has ever been at three hours and 10 minutes. The number of pitching changes teams make per game has also reached a peak, as teams used an average of 3.4 relief pitchers per game. Many within the game agree that the rule should be overturned — Phillies manager Joe Girardi called the three-batter minimum his “least favorite rule.” The number of pitchers used as an overall trend has also drastically increased. 846 pitchers took the mound this season, up from 642 ten years ago and just 560 twenty years ago. Five teams used over 40 pitchers throughout the course of the season — previously, only two teams had ever used more than 40 — while only one team used less than 25 pitchers. The MLB should certainly consider implementing the 13-pitcher roster limit that was intended to take effect before the pandemic, as the constant roster shuffling between the minors and majors greatly impacts the livelihoods of players.

2021 Postseason Preview

The final day of the regular season was certainly not without drama. Possibilities abounded in the AL wild card, as there was a genuine chance for a four-way tie between the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Mariners going into the final game of the season, as the Yankees and Red Sox were tied with 91 wins, while Toronto and Seattle were only a game behind with 90 wins. To the dismay of the casual fan, the 17th tiebreaker game in MLB history did not take place, as both the Red Sox and the Yankees won to set up a wild card matchup between the two teams that make up what many consider to be the most heated rivalry in all of sports. The Yankees and Red Sox have met in the postseason only four times, with each team winning two series a piece, though the pair have never played in the wild card game. The AL leading Rays await the winner in the AL division series.

The Astros and the White Sox face off in the opposite divisional series, led by the two oldest managers to ever face each other in postseason history. The White Sox’s Tony La Russa, 77, has won 13 division titles, placing him second all-time, and is 28 years removed from his first title in 1983. Astros manager Dusty Baker, 72, has managed five different teams in his career and finished first in his respective division at some point with all of them, though he has yet to win a World Series title. The first time the two managers faced each other was in May of 1996, before five of the players between their two current rosters were even born, and the pair are 104-104 against each other in regular season matchups.  

The conclusion to the National League was less exciting, though the San Francisco Giants secured the NL west division title and the best record in baseball with a win in their final game. The Giants were predicted to finish with 75 wins and miss the playoffs before the season began, though they have greatly surpassed expectations and finished with an impressive 107 wins, exceeding the Dodgers by only one. The Dodgers, on the other hand, are now forced to play in the winner-takes-all wild card game, an incredibly bittersweet reward for having the second best record in the entire league by a margin of six games. They are the first defending World Series champion to win 100 games the following year and not finish first in their division since 1954. This highlights the absurdity of the current playoff format, as, given the nature of the sport, anything can happen in a single game of baseball — a reliable pitcher could have a bad day, a powerful lineup could go ice cold and so on. Many have argued that the structure needs to be altered, with series implemented at every round instead of single games, or that teams should be seeded based on overall records rather than where they place in their divisions. There is a strong belief around baseball that changes will be implemented next year.

The Dodgers will battle the red-hot Cardinals, who had a 2.8 percent chance of making the postseason on Sept. 10 before beginning a franchise-record 17 game win streak. The Giants will play the winner, while the Braves play the Brewers in the other NLDS series.