Five things MLB learned in 2012
Five things we learnt from the 2012 MLB season
The 2012 World Series is over. The next live, official MLB game will be on the 31st of March next year when the San Francisco Giants play their season opener in the now traditional Champions' curtain raiser. For now then it is time to look back on the completed 2012 season. The past seven months have seen no shortage of story lines, remarkable feats, amazing comebacks and sadly a few scandals as well.
Although there is little wrong in simply remembering the ups and downs of the summer (be it pleasant or otherwise) as the cold and dark of winter draws in, it is perhaps more useful to try to glean the major lessons of this season. Both for the league as a whole and for the individual teams ahead of next season this is a worthwhile exercise. There are certainly many things of note. Some of them absolutely must be taken to heart by the powers-that-be and with as little delay as possible and some are closer to curiosities. They are interesting aspects and trends that we have seen that enhance one's enjoyment of the game.
This list is hardly exhaustive; there are certainly more than five things that we have learnt. Nor is this necessarily the most important things that we have learnt, though I think that some of them are very important indeed. Rather it is the five things which most stood out to me about this year. Five things that whilst not quite defining the year were the most clear and interesting take-away messages.
Baseball must revise its drugs policy
Baseball narrowly dodged a major scandal this year after Melky Cabrera was caught using performance enhancing drugs and banned for fifty games. His Giants were at the time tied for first in the NL West with the Los Angeles Dodgers and there was a risk that the Giants would not only win the title because of a drugs cheat, but that Cabrera himself could win the batting title after cheating. (Though to be fair there are already more than a few of those and no one seems to mind nearly enough.)
Fortunately, neither situation eventuated; the first was averted when the Giants went 30-15 without Cabrera and the Dodgers collapsed, going 22-23 in that same stretch. Baseball and the players union also reached an agreement to disqualify Cabrera from the batting race to prevent a tainted winner. But then an absurd situation arose: after being exposed as a drugs cheat, Cabrera was eligible to return after the NLDS because that was the end of the fifty game suspension. There are cheats in every sport, but this was a perfect example of baseball being far too lenient with them. In no reputable sport would a drugs cheat be eligible to return before an entire year had elapsed and in some he would have a life ban. Baseball must wake up to this problem as they might not be as lucky next time as they were this.
More safety measures are needed for both players and fans
Helmets have been mandatory for batters for decades now in baseball and for good reason. There is a legitimate threat to the batter's safety and indeed life from an errant pitch and helmets cost little, do not hinder the play and are incredibly effective at protecting a batter from serious injury. But it took a fatality before helmets were made mandatory (though there was a considerable amount of time between the two events). More recently helmets were made mandatory for base coaches, but again only after one was killed by a line drive. This season we saw pitcher Brandon McCarthy suffer a skull fracture and a brain contusion after taking a line drive off the head. He lived, but the incident underlined the danger to pitchers who do not have enough time to protect themselves. Baseball needs to act now to require helmets for pitchers as well; waiting until someone is killed again is not an option.
There is also another, less discussed bit of safety and that is the fans down the lines. Every year we see instances of foul balls screaming into the seats and there has been at least one nasty injury that I've seen this year. As slow as baseball is there is always a danger of a line drive going toward someone who was momentarily occupied with his or her scorecard or mobile or some such and there is a risk of serious injury. Unlike with pitchers, requiring fans to wear helmets (or gloves) is not feasible. But there is already netting behind home plate; this can and should be extended down the line to the end of the dugouts. They needn't be as high as the one behind the plate; fans want foul balls after all and most are fairly harmless. The nets need only be high enough to protect the fans with no reaction time. There are other drawbacks, but once again it is something that needs to be addressed before a tragedy instead of afterward.
It's becoming harder to buy a title
Four teams this year had payrolls over $150 million. Of those four only the New York Yankees even went to the playoffs and the four teams had a combined winning per cent of just .515 (334-314). To be fair, both of the league Champions had payrolls over $100 million, but the overall winning per cent of all teams with nonuple digit salaries was still only .525 (766-692). The team with the best record in either league was the Washington Nationals with an $81.3 million payroll. The Baltimore Orioles pushed the Yankees to the last game of the regular season and the last game of the ALDS with a payroll of $81.4 million, less than half of the Yankees' $198.0 million payroll, and in between they knocked off the Texas Rangers and their $120.5 million payroll. And speaking of the Rangers, they lost to the Orioles after the Oakland A's topped them on the last day of the regular season with a payroll of only $55.4 million, the lowest in the American League.
The balance of power has shifted away from the east coast
Of the 15 World Series from 1995-2009, ten of them featured at least one team from the northeast part of the country and every time it has been one of the Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Philadelphia Phillies. In that time we have also had two Yankees v Red Sox Championship Series and one Yankees v Phillies World Series and one Subway Series. If one wants to look further south as well, the Florida Marlins also contested two, one of which was against the Yankees.
This is not to say that each of those teams have been a consistent force for that entire time, but at least one of them (usually the Yankees) was always relevant. Only once in those fifteen years were back-to-back World Series not contested by any east coast teams. But this year represented the third in a row without any of those three teams in the World Series and those teams seem to actually be getting worse. The Yankees scraped into both the playoffs and the ALCS against the Orioles and then were made to look second-rate by the Tigers. After going out on the last day of the season last year, the Red Sox finished in last place this year. And after going out in the NLDS last year the Phillies only managed a .500 finish in 2012. That is not say that these teams will not come back next year; baseball is an unpredictable game. But none of them gave off the impression that this season was a fluke. It looked much more like a changing of the guard.
Good pitching still beats good hitting
I'll admit, this is not something we learnt as much as it is something of which we were reminded yet again. But it was a good reminder because the lesson does not seem to always sink in, at least with some people.
This year the Angels signed Albert Pujols who had an excellent season. But the pitching they got under performed for most of the year and they finished in third place. The Rangers continued their efforts to find pitching that would be effective in their thimble-sized stadium and it would be harsh to say that they failed completely. But the focus of the Rangers was still on their powerful bats and their starting pitching was distinctly average most of the year and then below average for the last two months of the season. They finished in second place. The A's meanwhile had one of the worst offences in the American League. And their pitching staff had the second best ERA in the American League. They won the division.