Tag Archives: Baseball

World Baseball Classic Marks a Perfect Start to Baseball Season

Each spring, baseball fans can look forward to the unofficial return to baseball that is spring training as they eagerly await Opening Day. But every four years, there is an entirely different brand of baseball going on. Some people will say it’s just exhibition, but the World Baseball Classic’s intensity and competitiveness is a drastic contrast to the more easygoing nature of spring training games.

Even though the WBC has its critics, I personally think it’s a great thing for everyone involved. It showcases the best players in the world and allows fans a chance to see the game from all over the globe, where they can get a look at international stadiums and unique local fan traditions. It’s impossible to watch a game from South Korea or Japan and not feel the energy of the ballpark even from your couch at home. Whether it’s dancing or hyping up the crowd from atop the dugout in South Korea or the emphatic celebrations of the Dominican players, the WBC has a different level of energy from even MLB regular season games. Plus, there’s nothing quite like waking up at five in the morning and tuning in to a baseball game.

Although baseball will be returning to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020, the setup is far from ideal. The Olympics are played in conjunction with the MLB season, so there’s no reasonable way that MLB players would be able to participate. It only makes sense that one of the most widespread sports in the world has a competition where the very best players each country has to offer can go head to head. That’s what the World Baseball Classic provides.

As a baseball fan, the first week of spring training is great due to the thrill of being able to finally watch baseball again. But the middle weeks of spring baseball tend to lose some appeal, so the WBC comes at a perfect time for fans that are eager to watch some real competitive action with a lot at stake. And if you don’t think it’s competitive, then you haven’t watched it. Many of the players have explained how they take great pride in putting on the uniforms of their countries and just how much it means to them.

Bruce Chen, who pitched 17 seasons in the major leagues, is competing for Team China. Chen also competed for Panama, his home country, in two previous WBC’s, but now he’ll be playing for his country of ancestry. For Chen, putting on the Chinese uniform has a special meaning. “I can only imagine how proud my grandparents would be if they were still alive, to see me give something back to the country”, he explains.

While many top players have declined to suit up for the WBC, the same cannot be said for the Dominican Republic. The Dominican lineup is so rife with major league superstars that it’s hard to think of any stars who aren’t participating. After the team’s first round win versus Canada, Jose Bautista said, “It was great energy from our fans, from our people. When you play for your country, it cannot be compared to many things.”

Some observers have been critical of the WBC for a variety of reasons, including the risk of players suffering injuries or being overworked too early in the spring, as well as the various rule changes. However, the number of benefits can easily be forgotten. For some players, the tournament provides an opportunity to improve their standing within their own organizations. A great showing in the tournament could definitely turn some heads, especially since it is in highly competitive competition. Furthermore, the WBC could very well serve as a valuable audition for players like Justin Morneau, Jason Marquis, and Sam Fuld, all of whom are free agents looking for a place to play in 2017. Also, there’s something pretty unique about seeing former stars like Canada’s Eric Gagne make a comeback to compete against today’s brightest talent.

Players are not the only ones who are using the WBC as a showcase. The tournament can serve as a way to drum up interest in the sport for an entire nation. For global baseball powerhouses like the United States, Dominican Republic, and Japan, that might not be the case. But for countries with a much shorter track record in baseball, such as China, Italy, and Israel, the Classic can be hugely significant in growing the game nationwide.

Israel, which was one of four nations that had to play in the qualifying tournament to earn a spot, entered the tournament as heavy underdogs in Pool A. Yet, they have shocked the world by going undefeated in the first round, and have already defeated Cuba in the second round. One of the teams they beat to get there, South Korea, is considered one of the top baseball countries in the world, so many were stunned to see a much less experienced baseball nation take them down. That’s part of the beauty of the WBC. If South Korea and Israel played a seven game series, South Korea would likely win most of the time. But when you’re playing just one single game against each of your three pool opponents, anything is possible. For a short tournament like this, it’s thrilling and adds to the competitive nature. We’ve already seen a number of matchups in which teams consisting mostly of minor league and foreign talent have held their own against MLB All-Star quality rosters.

It’s understandable why some fans have been resistant to the idea of the World Baseball Classic, but it’s not too late to catch up on the action with eight teams still alive in the tournament. During a time of year when fans are typically counting down the days to the regular season, the WBC serves as baseball’s version of March Madness. It might not hold the weight of the World Series, but there’s no question that the energy and passion put forth by both the players and fans across the globe is unrivaled.

Extra Inning Rule Changes Won’t Solve Anything

Extra inning games will look a lot different in rookie ball this year. MLB announced that they will be testing out a new system in the Gulf Coast League and Arizona Fall League which will automatically place a runner on second base at the start of the tenth inning. The drastic new rule, which has the approval of Hall of Fame manager and current Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, falls in line with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s efforts to improve baseball’s pace of play.

Only, it won’t really change the pace of play at all. MLB is missing the fact that pace of play and game length are two very different things. I’m all for quickening the pace of games, so long as it doesn’t change the actual rules of the game itself. There are plenty of little adjustments that could be made, some of which Manfred has already implemented, and I commend him for that. One of those is limiting the length of the breaks in between innings. Another good thing he did was requiring batters to stay in the dirt area behind home plate for the entirety of their at bat. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though this was working initially, until umpires decided to stop enforcing it after a few months.

Teams are already limited to one mound visit by a coach or manager per pitcher per inning, but I would also be in favor of limiting player mound visits to one per inning. The catcher shouldn’t be allowed to visit his pitcher for every single batter in the inning. If you can’t get on the same page, that’s just too bad. Making that a rule could shave off ten or more minutes from each game.

Implementing a pitch clock is another idea that’s been thrown around and it sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure it would work very well in practice. Again, this is something that was attempted to some degree a few years back, but it never seemed to be enforced very consistently. A better solution would be to have coaches train pitchers from a young age to get rid of the ball quickly and practice rhythm. It would actually be an advantage to the pitcher, since it would throw some batters off more by giving them less time to prepare for the next pitch. There’s no reason it can’t be done; Mark Buehrle made a career out of it, and if you look at clips from the 70s and 80s, pitchers would routinely get the ball back from the catcher and throw the next pitch within five to ten seconds. As a batter nowadays, you can take a pitch, run to the supermarket, and get back before Pedro Baez or Clay Buchholz throws the next pitch.

The rule changes that the league has been proposing this offseason badly miss the point. Earlier this month, MLB made proposals on two different rule changes, one being the raising of the strike zone and the other the elimination of the intentional walk. Raising the strike zone approximately two inches, as has been proposed, would have more of an impact on the game, presumably leading to an increase in balls in play. While I would love to see fewer strikeouts, I’m not sure if this would accomplish just that or have the adverse effect of causing a spike in walks. Jayson Stark of ESPN notes that nearly 30% of all plate appearances in today’s game result in either a walk or a strikeout, a higher percentage than any other time in MLB history. Besides, every umpire already has their own unique strike zone, so I’m skeptical that veteran umpires would change the way they’ve been calling games for decades.

Doing away with the practice of tossing four balls to the plate for an intentional walk won’t change anything significantly and for that reason, it’s a fairly curious proposal. Stark also points out that intentional walks only happen once every 2.6 games on average. That means this new rule would eliminate one whole minute every two and a half games. That’s one entire minute. Every two and a half games.

Both of these proposals will need to be approved by the player’s union, but if MLB is serious about cutting dead time out of games, this will not solve anything. Nor will tinkering with the extra inning rules. Before you panic, the extra inning modifications are not going to be implemented in the major leagues, just the lower minors. Since it will only be implemented in the minor leagues, it does not need approval from the player’s union. However, the pessimist in me knows that there’s a possibility the rule gradually works its way up the levels of the minors until MLB adopts it.

That would be a real shame. It won’t have any effect of the majority of games, but the ones that go into extra innings are usually the most interesting and most compelling to watch. Torre says that in the event of an 18-inning game, “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch.” Well, if managers are so concerned about that, maybe they should manage their bullpen better, instead of using five different relievers to get three out in the seventh inning. True baseball fans love the intensity and strategy that extra innings provide, and to mess with that would be inconsiderate of the sport’s fan base.

Bagwell, Raines, and Pudge Reach Baseball Immortality

Congratulations to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2017. The results of the always anticipated election were announced yesterday, revealing that Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez will be inducted in Cooperstown this summer, joining former general manager John Schuerholz and former baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who were elected in early December via the Today’s Game Committee.

Bagwell finally received the great honor in his seventh year on the ballot, and it’s about time. The Houston Astros’ franchise icon ranks among the greatest first basemen in the game’s history by just about any measure. With a voter pool that is becoming much better at looking at a player’s career from multiple angles rather than relying solely on raw numbers, Bagwell was this year’s top vote getter (86.2%).

Raines was inducted on his last try, joining Red Ruffing, Joe Medwick, Ralph Kiner, and Jim Rice as the only others to be make it in their final year on the ballot. Like Bagwell, he is another player whose case has been greatly aided by the changing voter pool and by strong internet campaigns. For a stretch in the 1980s, Raines was among the best players in the game, and one of the most effective leadoff hitters ever, stealing 70 or more bases for six straight years from 1981-1986 and only getting caught 69 times during that entire period. At 86.0% of the vote, he will become the third and possibly last player to enter the Hall of Fame as a member of the Montreal Expos (depending on which cap Vladimir Guerrero chooses have on his plaque). On a side note, Raines was the first former player I met in person. I got the chance to speak with him prior to a game back when he was managing the Newark Bears of the Can-Am League and he couldn’t be any friendlier.

Finally, “Pudge” Rodriguez becomes just the second catcher ever to enter Cooperstown on his first ballot, following in the footsteps of his boyhood idol, Johnny Bench. The longtime Texas Ranger won a record 13 Gold Glove Awards as a catcher throughout his career and made 14 All-Star teams. He received 76.0% of the vote from the writers.

Coming painstakingly close to induction was Trevor Hoffman, who missed by a total of five votes out of 442 ballots cast (74.0%). First-time candidate Vladimir Guerrero missed narrowly by 15 votes (71.7%), while Edgar Martinez experienced a significant increase in percentage from last year, moving from 43.4% to 58.6%. Luckily, Hoffman and Guerrero shouldn’t have to wait too long as they both appear to be near locks for induction in 2018. Martinez has two years left on the ballot, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can gain some more momentum next year and make a push for a 2019 induction.

While a class of three certainly clears up some space on next year’s ballot, there will still be plenty of backlog, judging by who is coming onto the ballot. Chipper Jones will coast in easily and could be the first unanimous inductee, although I highly doubt it. Jim Thome has a strong chance to get in as well, so that pair will essentially replace two of Bagwell, Raines, and Rodriguez on many ballots. Also appearing for the first time will be Omar Vizquel, who undoubtedly will receive strong support, Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones, who could appeal to more sabermetrically-minded voters but have far fewer credentials based on traditional measures, and Johnny Damon and Jamie Moyer, for whom the opposite is true. Finally, there’s the possibly-still-active Johan Santana, who was great for a time but was unfortunately too limited by injuries to have much of a chance.

Although many voters will still have to make some tough cuts next year, it looks almost certain that at least three more players will get voted in, with a strong possibility of four. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for players who have been lingering in the 10%-25% range due to the backlog of great candidates and the restraints of a ten-player ballot limit. After 2018, there aren’t a ton of overwhelming candidates entering the ballot. Based on my observations, there won’t be any ballots after next year’s that include more than one first-ballot inductee for the foreseeable future. That creates a window for players like Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent, Larry Walker, and Billy Wagner to make up some serious ground.

Last but not least, no matter how much we can argue about who gets in and who doesn’t, it’s awesome how much interest is garnered by the months leading up to the election results. It’s true when they say there’s no other Hall of Fame that is so captivating and drums up as much good conversation as this one does. Part of that is due to the excellent writing of people like Jay Jaffe and Graham Womack, who have done a ton of research on the Hall of Fame and provide so much valuable insight. In addition, the work Ryan Thibodaux puts into his Hall of Fame Tracker is second to none. Being able to track the votes “live” makes the whole process all the more enjoyable.

Reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame is not easy. There are 317 people in the Hall of Fame which, considering there’s 146 years of history, is pretty exclusive. Only slightly more than 1.5 MLB players reach baseball’s greatest honor for each season that the sport is played. The exclusivity of the Hall is celebrated, which is why we care so much about who goes in and why it can’t be denied that any player voted in by the BBWAA is truly among the elite. Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez deserve every bit of this incredible honor.

Ichiro’s Lasting Legacy

On this date sixteen years ago, the Mariners signed Nippon Professional Baseball superstar Ichiro Suzuki to a three-year major league contract. It was a historic move at the time, because the then 27-year old outfielder was the first position player signed by an MLB team from Japan. Ichiro’s legacy will forever be much more than that, as his quick rise to international superstardom would pave the way for an influx of talented players from Japan coming to the United States.

Although there had been some notable Japanese players in the majors before him, including Hideo Nomo and Mariners teammate Kazuhiro Sasaki, all had been pitchers. Ichiro brought a different kind of flair to the game and meteorically rose to become one of the best players in the majors, not unlike Nomo did in 1995. But Ichiro was an everyday player, which some would argue put him in the spotlight even more. It didn’t take long for his fame to spread, instantly becoming one of the game’s most beloved players in the United States, and possibly the most widely recognized in the world. He was playing for a Mariners team that would go on to tie a major league record for wins that year, with a lot of that success owed to Ichiro himself. Ichiro became just the second player to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season, matching the feat achieved by Boston’s Fred Lynn in 1975. Three years later, he would break George Sisler’s long standing record for most hits in a single season.

You might remember that Ichiro set a couple more important milestones last season. On June 15th, he collected his 2,979th MLB hit, which combined with the 1,278 hits he accumulated in Japan, placed him one ahead of Pete Rose’s MLB total. While you can debate the validity of the record, it is an impressive feat nonetheless. Regardless, Ichiro may very well be the better all-around player of the two.

Then on August 7th, he collected his 3,000th big league hit in Colorado, solidifying his place in history as one of the greatest hitters of our generation. He is the only player in major league history to record 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, which he accomplished in his first 10 MLB seasons (2001-2010). Throughout his career, Ichiro has also been an outstanding contributor on the baserunning and defensive sides of the game as well. He ranks 36th all-time with 508 stolen bases, while sustaining an 81% success rate. His .313 batting average is impressive on its own, but what’s remarkable is when you consider that half of his major league career has been past the age of 35. We can only guess how much better his MLB numbers would look had he started in his early 20s.

Ichiro’s a surefire Hall of Famer but, as mentioned earlier, his impact stretches far beyond his numbers. It’s an obvious challenge to be one of the first few players from your country to play in the major leagues. A different style of play and often a language barrier are some of the chief obstacles. Ichiro’s success has opened the door for many others from Japan and other Asian countries to give the major leagues a try, and many have since succeeded. Teams saw his talent and realized how great the talent pool was in Japan. In addition, Ichiro’s fame and popularity has as much to do with his personality as his baseball ability. While always a flashy player, there is a unique humbleness about the way he has always gone about his business and a deep respect for the game of baseball he possesses.

Never one to boast about his accomplishments, when Ichiro was offered the number 51 by the Mariners upon signing, he initially was reluctant to take Randy Johnson’s old number. He then made a promise to Johnson that he would not bring shame to it. It’s clear now that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Re-signing Cespedes Will Be Key to Mets’ Success

One of the biggest names on this winter’s free agent market is the star of the Mets’ lineup, Yoenis Cespedes. On Tuesday, I discussed two of the other big free agent prizes on the market, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and what the Blue Jays’ course of action should be regarding two of their most important players. Today’s focus shifts to the Mets, whose power hitting outfielder signed a three year deal prior to last season, but it came with an opt-out after 2016, which he has already exercised. That leaves the Mets with a big decision – a franchise-altering decision – to make on its most valuable offensive player.

When I say it’s their decision, I really mean that all of the cards are in the Mets’ favor. All indications are that Cespedes loves playing in New York and the Mets are the team he wants to be a part of. I believe it. Assuming that’s true, it would mean that the Mets wouldn’t have to offer more than any other team for his services, but just match anyone’s best offer. Cespedes had trouble finding the long-term deal he wanted last winter, but that shouldn’t be the case this year in a much weaker free agent class. He is arguably the biggest prize on the market and should have no problem getting a five or six year deal.

Whether the Mets are willing to offer that remains to be seen, but they would be foolish not to. The Mets have a lot of power in their lineup – they set a franchise record in round-trippers in 2016 – but Cespedes was the only legitimate middle-of-the-order bat on the team. The Mets are loaded with guys who hit a lot of home runs but hit about .250 or below, like Curtis Granderson, Jay Bruce, and Lucas Duda, not to mention all of those hitters are left-handed. Not counting switch hitters, the Mets do not have a single quality right-handed hitter projected to be a regular starter other than David Wright, whose long-term health remains a serious cause for concern.

One of the criticisms of Cespedes is that he is less of an elite player than he is made out to be. For example, he is only a .271 career hitter with an underwhelming .325 on-base percentage. However, the batting average is dragged down by a poor 2013 season he had with Oakland, which was just his second in the majors. As for his on-base skills, Cespedes had shown much improved plate discipline since the trade to Mets, and carries a .348 clip in a season and a half with the team. His OPS was a career best .884 last year.

Sure, the Mets are a team built around their starting pitching, but if they lose Cespedes and don’t replace him with a comparable middle-of-the-order presence (Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, etc.), it’s hard to believe they will be able to score enough to support their strong pitching. In 2016, the Mets gave up the third fewest amount of runs in the majors and still just squeaked into a wild card spot by one game. You can point to the fact that better health from the likes of Matt Harvey, Steven Matz, and Jacob deGrom will make their pitching even better, but really how much better will it be? Maybe with some luck, they can finish first instead of third in pitching, but that may not make much of a difference. The Mets’ offense was only tied for 25th in baseball even with Cespedes, so losing him could very well give the Mets one of the worst offenses in all of baseball. It also can’t be understated how much a hitter with Cespedes’ presence helps out the rest of a lineup. It’s something that statistics can’t quantify, but naturally pitchers will give the hitters in front of him better pitches to hit.

Lastly, there would be serious PR implications of letting Cespedes walk. While front offices shouldn’t make decisions based on how they think their fans will react to them, it’s safe to say that the New York fans will be infuriated if the Mets don’t make a serious attempt to re-sign Cespedes. After all, New York is the biggest sports market in the country, and it’s a little puzzling how frugal the Mets have been in free agency for the past half-decade. Ever since Jason Bay signed his contract prior to the 2010 season, the Mets have not been major players in free agency. Maybe they were scared off by what would become a disastrous contract, but the problem was that time period coincided with an inability to produce many good hitting prospects. Before signing Cespedes last year, the Mets were basically managing like a low-budget, small market team. Most importantly now, the Mets are relevant again. They’ve just made consecutive playoff appearances for the second time in franchise history and have a real chance to be a World Series contender again in 2017. What better time to go all in even if it means giving out a contract that is slightly past your comfort zone? Plus, there will come a time where the core of the Mets’ elite starting rotation will all hit free agency around the same time. They’ll probably have to choose which ones they want to keep, so they may as well go big now when their brilliant young pitchers are all still under contract.

Yoenis Cespedes has become a fan favorite in the Big Apple and he loves playing there. You could say he has turned the franchise’s fortunes around more than any player since Mike Piazza. General Manager Sandy Alderson can’t afford to blow this. Although some reports have led people to believe the Mets aren’t interested in a long term deal, that’s not necessarily true, and as Barry Bloom of MLB.com reports, Alderson is well aware of the slugger’s importance to the club and would love to have him back. “All things considered, we’d love to have him back”. Mets fans would likely love to see him back too, whatever the cost.

Blue Jays Facing Big Decisions Heading Into Offseason

The Toronto Blue Jays are facing one of the more interesting winters of any team in baseball, as two faces of their franchise for the past decade, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, are set to test free agency. They also happen to be the two best offensive players on the market, except for maybe Yoenis Cespedes. This leaves the Blue Jays with some tough decisions to make, since both players are going to command large annual salaries and the team should face plenty of competition for their services.

The Blue Jays need do everything they can to extend both Bautista and Encarnacion, which is easier said than done. The likelihood is that they will be forced to choose one or the other, with many of the opinion that both will leave Toronto. General Manager Ross Atkins and President of Baseball Operations Mark Shapiro cannot let that happen.

As good as the Blue Jays’ lineup is, losing two guys who have been right in the heart of the lineup for the better part of the past decade would be tough to overcome, not to mention the possibility of losing Michael Saunders as well, who is also a free agent. There aren’t any other free agents for Toronto to realistically go after that would be able to replace that production. Their window to win is right now, and letting both sluggers walk would create a gaping hole in the lineup.

Handing big contracts out to Encarnacion and Bautista is not without risk. Both players will be in their mid-thirties at the start of next season (Bautista will be 36 and Encarnacion, 34), and the Jays will need to pay other key players on their roster in the coming seasons. Josh Donaldson is set to hit free agency after the 2018 season, and Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman are the team’s only two starting pitchers who will still be under team control by that time. That could create a necessity to spend more on starting pitching, either by resigning some of their current starters whose contracts are set to expire or acquiring other arms on the open market. Additionally, both Bautista or Encarnacion would likely require some time at DH given their respective ages. Despite the risks, Toronto still needs to take a chance on one of their franchise icons. The question then becomes, which would be better to sign?

It’s safe to say Jose Bautista is and has been the face of the Blue Jays. He is their most outspoken player and the leader of the team. Bautista has probably been a slightly better hitter than Edwin Encarnacion over his tenure in Toronto. However, he had a down year last season and was hampered by injuries. Encarnacion, in addition to being two years younger, has been able to stay on the field more and produce more consistently over the last five years.

For these reasons, it is likely that teams will be willing to give Encarnacion more years and maybe a higher annual salary. That makes it harder for Toronto to match other teams’ offers. By signing Bautista instead, they probably wouldn’t have to commit to as much money down the road.

Ideally, the Blue Jays and their fans would love to have both players back. That could be unrealistic, but since were given a qualifying offer yesterday, Toronto will net a draft pick in case either leaves. The team has a very difficult choice to make, but it’s imperative that they don’t let both of these players leave.

Whatever happens, it could be the end of an era in Toronto. Bautista and Encarnacion are second and third on the Blue Jays’ all-time home run list, respectively, and are both among the greatest players ever to wear a Blue Jays uniform. No matter what, both players will always be remembered fondly by fans as part of the core that brought Toronto back to relevance and ending a 22-year playoff drought.

Top Athletes Excelling Past Their Prime

The remarkable story of David Ortiz’s incredible final season has gotten me thinking about other athletes who are excelling at an age far past what is normally considered an athlete’s prime. Ortiz deserved the attention he got this year in every way, because what he was able to accomplish in his final season was nothing short of historic. You are probably well aware of Big Papi’s accomplishments by now, and I will be writing another piece dedicated to Ortiz in the near future. For now, here are some other athletes who have been able to sustain a high level of performance in the latter stages of their careers.

Bartolo Colon

“Big Sexy” is the oldest active player in the major leagues, but that didn’t stop him from being named to his fourth all-star team in 2016. Despite winning the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, it can be argued that the last five seasons have constituted the best stretch of Colon’s career. The former power pitcher has reinvented himself by relying almost solely on his sub-90 MPH fastball, but with as good of command as any pitcher in baseball. And despite the Mets enviable collection of young starting pitchers, it was Colon who ended up being their most durable arm last year.

Ichiro Suzuki

He’s not close to the player he once was, but at age 42, it’s remarkable that Ichiro was able to hit .291 and provide solid value to the Marlins in a part-time role. Only Pete Rose had more hits in baseball history from age 27 onward.

Frank Gore

It may be lost because the Colts do not emphasize running the football much, or maybe because he has been so good for so long, but Frank Gore is still one of the more reliable ball carriers in the NFL. He is currently on pace to become just the fifth running back in NFL history to run for 1,00 yards at age 33 or older, and the first since 1984, when John Riggins ran for 1,239 yards with the Redskins. In fact, there have only been 47 instances where a 30 year-old player has rushed for 1,000 yards (Gore has already done it twice).

Adam Vinatieri

Yes, it’s much more common for kickers and punters to stick around a long time, but Vinatieri is truly in a class of his own. Not only is he the oldest and longest tenured player in the NFL, he is the best kicker in football, and maybe the greatest of all-time. This season, Vinatieri broke Mike Vanderjagt’s NFL record by connecting on his 43rd consecutive field goal attempt. Hopefully, being a kicker won’t stop the Hall of Fame voters from giving him the honor he is due. That might be a long ways away, since Vinatieri could probably play another 10 years if he wanted to.

Tom Brady

You wouldn’t know it from watching him play, but Brady is 39. Since coming back from his suspension, he has been as good as ever, already eclipsing 1,300 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions through four games. His passer rating is an otherworldly 133.9. He is showing no signs of slowing down, and should still be among the NFL’s best quarterbacks for years to come.

Terrence Newman

At age 38, Newman is still a starting cornerback in the NFL, which is extremely rare considering corners need to be among the fastest players on the field. Not only that, but he starts for the NFL’s top-ranked defense, the Minnesota Vikings.

Dirk Nowitzki

The future Basketball Hall of Famer really has nothing left to prove, but he’s still going strong. Although he was not selected for the All-Star Game last year for just the second time since 2001, Dirk still dropped 18.3 points per game while grabbing 6.5 rebounds per game. With Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett all retired, Nowitzki is one of the last remaining players from the group of greats who debuted in the late 90s.

Jaromir Jagr

No list like this would be complete without Jagr, who will turn 45 this NHL season. When Jagr debuted in the NHL in 1990, many of the current active players weren’t born yet. Last season, he scored 66 points for the Panthers, and two weeks ago, joined Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky as the third NHL player to score 750 career goals in a career.

Kerri Walsh Jennings

As one of the greatest volleyball players of all-time, Walsh Jennings was able to capture another Olympic medal in Rio, this time with April Ross as her partner. Although it wasn’t the gold she is accustomed to, Walsh Jennings is still as good a player as any in beach volleyball, and she remains a dominant blocker and hitter nobody wants to go up against.

Michael Phelps

We’ve become used to Phelps winning nearly every swimming gold medal at the Olympics, so a lot of people may not have realized that before Phelps won five gold medals and one silver in Rio this summer, no swimmer as old as 31 had ever won an individual swimming gold. Phelps won two individual gold medals (although fellow American Anthony Ervin also won gold at age 35, making him now the oldest). While most simmers are done competing in their 30s, nobody really doubts that Phelps could return to the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 and win some more if he wanted to.

Oksana Chusovitina

You may not know her name, but if you watched gymnastics in the Olympics, you’ll remember her as the 41 year-old gymnast from Uzbekistan competing against athletes less than half her age. Chusovitina has won two Olympic medals – including a silver in 2008 at age 33. In a sport where most athletes begin to decline in their early 20s, what Chusovitina is doing is truly incredible.

World Series Game 7 Set for Historic Finish

Tonight, it all comes down to one more game. There’s nothing in sports quite like a win-or-go-home game, but there’s something extra special about the seventh game of the World Series. We don’t get to see them too often – tonight will mark just the seventh Game 7 in the last 29 World Series matchups – and there’s something to be said about the uniquely long length of the baseball season coming down to one single game.

Throw in the historic significance of the Cubs and Indians currently having the longest championship droughts in baseball, and tonight’s game is truly one for the ages. We can only hope that whoever wins, it is a thrilling, well played game that can become engrained as an integral piece of baseball history. The World Series has produced many of the sport’s most iconic images – Babe Ruth’s called shot, Don Larsen’s perfect game, series-ending home runs by Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter, the incredible comeback by the 1986 Mets – that maybe we can witness one of these kinds of moments tonight.

So whether you’re a lifelong baseball fan, just a casual fan, or even any kind of sports fan in general, take a moment to acknowledge how special tonight will be. It’s the type of moment sports were created for. And for one fan base, the result will be something they’ve waited their whole lives to see.

Postseason Redefining the Use of Relief Pitchers

One trend that’s become clear this postseason is that managers will not hesitate to use their bullpens in unconventional ways. Managers, specifically Terry Francona and Dave Roberts, have not been afraid to push their bullpen aces past their comfort zones, utilizing them for multiple inning or putting them in the game much earlier than usual.

No disrespect to Cody Allen, who is a fantastic relief pitcher, but Andrew Miller is the unquestioned best reliever the Cleveland Indians have. Traditional baseball theory says that you’re supposed to save your best reliever for the end of the game to close it out. But Francona has realized that some of the highest leverage moments his team has faced in the postseason have come earlier, such as in the sixth or seventh with men on base. The formula has been to go to Miller in those situations, let him pitch as long as he can, and have Allen, or maybe Dan Otero or Bryan Shaw, ready to back him up. The strategy has worked wonders for the Indians to this point, and Francona’s bullpen management is arguably the biggest factor as to why they won six consecutive playoff games before losing in Toronto last night.

Dave Roberts has also decided to throw traditional bullpen roles out the window. The Dodgers may not have the same depth of bullpen arms as Cleveland does, but they do have Kenley Jansen. Roberts made a statement in the epic fifth game of their NLDS series against the Nationals by pushing Jansen to his limit and having him throw 51 pitches. Jansen was effective as usual, but was put into the game so early that he didn’t even finish, instead handing the reigns over to Clayton Kershaw, who had pitched two days prior.

The must-win factor of playoff baseball obviously affects the way the games are managed, as you are both forced to, but due to the frequent off days, also able to do things you normally wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be feasible to use your best relief pitcher for two innings every single game in the middle of June. But it’s fair to wonder if going forward, we will see managers take a much different approach to their bullpen usage. The save is an overvalued stat, and whereas at one time, relievers would only land big contracts if they were closers with high save totals, teams have begun to place an increasing value on middle relievers. Nearly every team still has a single closer that’s rarely used before the ninth inning, but will we start to see managers break away from that strategy? Say you are holding on to a one run lead in the seventh, when the starter puts two men on base to start the inning. It might not be a bad idea to go with your best reliever in that spot rather than your typical “seventh-inning guy”. It’s unlikely that there will be a spot in the game of even more pressure or importance later on.

What we are also seeing more and more in the playoffs is that teams are willing to pull their starters earlier to get to their bullpens. It happened the last few years with the Royals and again this year with the Indians. Time will only tell if these trends will continue, but it will certainly make for a fascinating offseason in regards to the pitching market. The pool of top level starters is scarce, but relievers such as Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, and Mark Melancon should be lined up for huge paydays, not to mention the usual selection of quality middle relievers.

2017 Today’s Game Ballot Unveiled

On Monday, the Baseball Hall of Fame released the names of ten veteran Hall of Fame candidates that will appear on the 2017 Today’s Game ballot. It will be the inaugural vote for the Today’s Game Committee, one of the four newly created era committees that will vote in cycles, replacing the old system that had been in place since 2010. This ballot includes players, managers, and executives who worked the bulk of their careers in the period from 1988 to 2001. Here’s a look at the ten members on the ballot, followed by my analysis of the candidates.

Harold Baines

Baines is best known for his time with the White Sox, where he developed into a consistent 20 home run, 90 RBI hitter. That translated into a 22-year career during which he hit .289 with 384 home runs and 1,628 RBI. His 2,866 hits are actually the most of any eligible player not in the Hall of Fame, besides Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds, who would be locks if it weren’t for their connections to PEDs. Baines also hit an impressive .324 across six different postseasons in his career, which only enhances his resume. The thing working against Baines is that he served as a DH more than he played the field and he wasn’t a very good outfielder when he was out there.

Albert Belle

Belle was a phenomenal hitter in the 1990s, and one could only guess what his total numbers would have looked like had he not been forced into an early retirement due to a form of arthritis in his hip. He slugged .564 in his 12-year career, belting 381 home runs and 389 doubles. He is still the only player to reach 50 home runs and 50 doubles in one season. What many fans tend to forget is that prior to his career ending condition, Belle rarely missed a game; he was actually baseball’s active leader in consecutive games played after Cal Ripken’s streak came to an end. The two factors that will present the largest roadblocks to Belle entering Cooperstown will be his brief career by Hall of Fame standards and his often controversial behavior throughout his career, both with the media and other players.

Will Clark

Will Clark was a steady performer for a decade and a half, mostly with the Giants and Rangers. The 1st baseman finished his career in 2000 with a highly impressive slash line of .303/.384/.497, although he was slightly overshadowed during his time by other 1st basemen who hit a lot more home runs than he did. Nonetheless, Clark was a consistent producer at the plate who probably never got the recognition he deserved.

Orel Hershiser

Hershiser certainly had flashes of brilliance throughout his career. His historic 1988 season was one for the ages, as he set an MLB record with 59 consecutive scoreless innings and was named NLCS and World Series MVP for the Dodgers. Hershiser was phenomenal in the postseason throughout his career, compiling an 8-3 record and a 2.59 ERA across 22 appearances (18 starts).

Mark McGwire

He only fell off of the writer’s ballot last year, but McGwire will hope to get in through the Veteran’s Committee on his first try. The 12-time all-star ranks 11th in career home runs, highlighted by his record setting 1998 season, when he bashed 70 long balls. His candidacy in the eyes of the writers was undoubtedly hurt over the years due to his admission of taking performance enhancing drugs during his career, but it will be interesting to see if Big Mac fares better in front of the Today’s Game Committee. If he can garner at least 50% of the vote, that will be great news for the future prospects of guys like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Davey Johnson

Johnson managed in parts of four different decades, most memorably as the leader of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets. His career winning percentage sits an impressive .562, which ranks ninth among all manages who managed over 2,000 games. The other eight are all in the Hall of Fame. Notably, Johnson only managed one full season in which his team had a losing record. Although he was fired four times during his career, one can certainly argue that a few of them were unjust.

Lou Piniella

He managed 23 seasons in the big leagues, compiling a total of 1,835 wins. Piniella’s highlights include a World Championship with the 1990 Reds, taking the Mariners to their first postseason in 1995, and later leading Seattle to a major record 116 wins in 2001.

John Schuerholz

Schuerholz spent 26 years as a general manager in the big leagues, first with the Royals and later with the Braves. He is noted for putting together the dominant Royals teams of the 1980s, including the 1985 championship squad, and the Braves dynasty of the 1990s. A full list of his most significant transactions is far too extensive to write here, but a few of the most memorable were the acquisitions of players like Greg Maddux, Fred McGriff, and Gary Sheffield, and the drafting and amateur signings of countless future all-stars.

George Steinbrenner

The longtime Yankees owner presided over 11 American League pennants and 7 World Championships. His behavior was often viewed as controversial, but Steinbrenner knew how to build a winning ballclub.

Bud Selig

The ninth commissioner of baseball held the position for longer than anyone other than Kennesaw Mountain Landis. During his tenure, he implemented wild card teams (and later the wild card playoff game), interleague play, and instant replay. He also presided over the 1994 strike and the steroid era, leaving somewhat of a black mark over his legacy. However, the game became much more profitable than ever before during Selig’s tenure. Selig will be a very interesting candidate on this year’s ballot, as it’s anyone’s guess on how the committee will view his contributions to the game.

The Today’s Game Committee consists of 16 members, each of whom may select anywhere between zero and five candidates for enshrinement. As with the regular BBWAA ballot, a candidate must receive 75% of the vote to be inducted.

Now for my analysis of the ballot, starting with the players. Harold Baines was a great hitter, but his career totals are more a factor of being very good throughout a very long career than ever being a Hall-of-Fame caliber performer. It also doesn’t help that he didn’t contribute anything defensively. Will Clark, while also very good, just wasn’t outstanding for a long enough time for me to say he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He was never as good as he was the first six years of his career, when he often garnered MVP consideration, and that simply isn’t a long enough peak to justify voting for him. Orel Hershiser falls into that same category for me. From 1984-1989, he finished in the top three in the National League in ERA five times. However, for the rest of his career, an 11 year stretch, his ERA+ was only 100, meaning he was merely a league-average pitcher, and he never finished in the top 10 in ERA again.

The two players who I believe have the best cases are Albert Belle and Mark McGwire. Belle had a short career, but he was a historically dominant hitter during the time he played. I generally prefer players who were Hall-of-Fame worthy for close to a decade rather than players who were very good, but never great over a longer career. McGwire didn’t do a whole lot other than hit home runs, but he hit for power better than mostly anyone else, and was among the most feared hitters in baseball for over a decade. He also walked a lot, resulting in a .394 career on-base percentage that makes up for his mediocre batting average. Belle and McGwire would both probably have my vote, although each of them does carry their baggage.

Both managers, Lou Piniella and Davey Johnson, present strong resumes. Non-players’ careers are much more difficult to evaluate. I’m on the fence in regards to both of them, so if I had a ballot, I’d probably leave them off. Still, if either was inducted this year, I wouldn’t have an issue with it.

John Schuerholz could be the strongest candidate on the ballot. His long-standing success for two different teams make it easy for me to say yes to him.

George Steinbrenner is another candidate I would probably say yes to, given his major role in rebuilding the Yankees dynasty and helping to make the franchise arguably the most successful and recognizable in pro sports.

I would not feel comfortable at this time with Bud Selig getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. It doesn’t feel right to me that historically great players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have found such a difficult time gaining any kind of momentum, while the man who presided over the steroid era would be a first-ballot inductee. My opinion will may very well change on this matter, but for now, I’m not ready to induct Selig into Cooperstown.

Usually, it’s unlikely, though not unprecedented, for more than one or two candidates to get in on the veterans ballots. I think Selig will get in, as well as Schuerholz. Every commissioner who served at least seven years is in the Hall of Fame, although some did have to wait. Despite my opinion of him, he did do a lot of good for the game. Pure general managers have found it very difficult to get in, but Schuerholz had such a great deal of success, that it would be hard to find a more qualified GM.

I don’t see either manager getting in this year. Johnson and Piniella could be inducted at some point, but they’re not in the same class as Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre, who were all inducted three years ago.

Steinbrenner has been on a veterans ballot before, but received less than half of the votes, so it would take a big jump for him to get in this time.

It may be more likely than not that no player from this ballot gets in. For Baines, Clark, and Hershiser, the reasons I listed above in my analysis will probably be the reasons most of the voters will feel a reluctance to write their names down. Belle and McGwire, on the other hand have too many obstacles in their way. Belle was never the most well-liked guy in the game, and it’s very hard for me to believe that at least 12 of 16 voters will be able to look past McGwire’s PED use, and even if they do, he’s still a very borderline candidate.

The results of this vote will be revealed on December 5th, when a few of these names could join baseball immortality, and in January, the results from the annual BBWAA election will be announced.