Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
Is baseball in trouble? That’s the debate that has surrounded Major League Baseball since the turn of the decade. There is sufficient evidence to support both sides of the argument, and I personally believe that baseball will continue to endure and be just fine. However, that’s not what we are here to discuss today. Today we will be championing the things, people and events that make baseball fun and the reasons that baseball will continue to be successful despite complaints about “pace of play” and other nonsense.
Position Player- Francisco Lindor
One of the hardest categories to decide on was the “position player” category. The main reason being that different people find different things about baseball exciting. Are monster bombs your thing? Then maybe Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton is the most fun player. You love to watch centerfielders make diving catches and rob homers? Maybe Kevin Kiermaier is more your cup of tea. Or, if your Tim Kurkjian, you love a guy who walks all the time, drives in runs in droves and has a name that ends with a long “o” sound. That would make Joey Votto your man.
These awards are intended to be as utilitarian as possible though. Francisco Lindor has so much to love about him that you’d have to either hate the Indians or have no soul to not want to watch him play. For starters, Lindor won the 2016 AL Gold Glove at shortstop thanks to unreal range, incredible concentration, cat-like reflexes and a laser beam arm (see video above). He has also demonstrated some pop early in his career with 39 home runs in just over 300 career major league games, including 12 already this season.
If you don’t follow minor league prospects closely, you might believe that Lindor came up as a top prospect highly regarded for being able to flash the leather and rip fastballs into the stands, but you’d only be partially correct. The fascinating thing about Lindor’s power at the MLB level is that it was not expected. Francisco was called up to be a slick fielding shortstop who could hit around .300 and swipe some bags. No one saw this power surge coming, and with him being a line drive hitter even if those home run numbers sag a little bit he should still hit for a good average, drive doubles into the gaps and steal bases. That’s not quite as sexy as dropping bombs, but still incredibly fun if you’re an Indians fan.
The final thing that sets Lindor apart from his competition in this category is the joie de vivre with which he plays and the fact that his stirrup game is on fleek.
Pitcher- Yu Darvish
As a baseball purist, I enjoy a good pitchers’ duel just as much as the next baby boomer, but the casual fan wants to see some runs. But, we aren’t here to celebrate mediocrity either. Here’s your ideal “fun” pitcher: a guy who racks up strikeouts (preferably in a GIFable fashion) but who isn’t so awesome that the other team won’t ever score. Darvish fits right in that sweet spot, thanks in part to playing into a very hitter-friendly ballpark. Yu has given up nine home runs so far this season, half as many as league leaders Mike Fiers and Bronson Arroyo. So, like I said, sweet spot.
Strikeouts have been accused of being fascist in the past, but two developments since the Bull Durham days have made the strikeout more fun. The first one is the decline in strikeout rate over the last few years. Max Scherzer became the first pitcher to have a 20 strikeout game since 1998 last year. Furthermore, of the 25 times a pitcher has reached 18+ strikeouts in a game, three have occurred this century. The second development is the aforementioned GIF. Strikeouts in real time may not be as satisfying as a diving catch or a towering home run, but a strikeout on loop? Beautiful. Few people make a strikeout look quite as good as Yu does, and the fact that he can do it with five different pitches (one of which is an eephus) makes it even better.
Manager- Joe Maddon
Managers are at a disadvantage when it comes to opportunities to present their fun side to the fans, even in comparison to their coaching counterparts in basketball and football. However, the manager does have one trick up his sleeve that others don’t: the ejection. I would argue that the golden age of the ejection is probably past us with “Sweet Lou” Piniella, Bobby Cox and Earl Weaver no longer coaching. Unfortunately, the ejection is just one of many things that seemed to be better “back in the day”. Granted, you still have the occasional gem like this guy who is either suffering a psychotic break or a Vietnam flashback. The decline in ejection entertaiment is why I opted not to go with the guy with the most ejections (that would be Bruce Bochy among active managers), but rather the guy with the most personality.
Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein have a Charlie Bucket-Willy Wonka relationship. Epstein built the factory and all the amazing machines and such, while Maddon is the only little boy with the personality worthy of running it. He continually embraces unconventional wisdom (like batting the pitcher 8th instead of 9th) and employing different tactics to motivate his players (like moving struggling batters to the leadoff spot to get them out of a funk). Both of the examples above have been so effective that they have started to trickle down to other teams. Maddon also appears to be attune to the pop culture world referencing things like Tom Clancy books and “The Office” in press conferences and has amassed a list of “Maddonisms” that would give Gregg Popovich a run for his money.
Minor League Prospect- Michael Kopech
As a golden-locked flamethrower, the comparisons between Michael Kopech and Noah Syndergaard are inevitable. The video above shows Kopech hurling a nine-pitch, three-strikeout inning that is enjoyable to watch despite potentially the worst play-by-play/color commentary combo ever. For those of you that don’t know, Michael Kopech was one of the prospects traded from Boston to Chicago in the Chris Sale trade along with fellow top prospect Yoan Moncada. Kopech is currently the #11 prospect on mlb.com and #32 on Baseball America’s list. (Note: Baseball America’s list still includes some players who are already in the majors like Andrew Benintendi and Tyler Glasnow). What makes him interesting is that he throws even harder than Thor with a fastball that allegedly tops out at around 105 M.P.H. There is also a video on YouTube of him throwing it 110 M.P.H., although that is with a crow hop so it can’t really be counted as a pitch. Oh, and for all you workout warriors out there his high velocity fastball is apparently the result of something called “scap loading“, whatever that means.
Ballpark- Chase Field
Here’s where we get to the more subjective part of the awards. Ok fine…they are all subjective. Chase Field has a few things going for it that set it apart from it’s competition. The main one is a swimming pool in right center field, actually scratch that a “Ramtrucks.com Party Pool”. The pool in the outfield is definitely the coolest feature of any MLB stadium, so cool in fact that when the Marlins built their new ballpark in 2012 they also added a swimming pool. However, they weren’t the first to do it and the pool in Miami is significantly further from the action so the original in Arizona still takes the cake. The other great thing about Chase Field is the natural grass/retractable roof combo. The potential for an open-air, natural grass game appeals to the purists and millennial-haters, while the roof can still close to allow fans a respite from the Phoenix heat or to prevent a rain delay. Best of both worlds!
Uniforms- Seattle Mariners
There are plenty of really strong uniforms in Major League Baseball, but the Mariners boast the most fun uniform set thanks to a unique color scheme and a great set of alternates. Navy blue is the least unique color in all of sports besides white and black, but the secondary and accent colors (Northwest green and silver) are what give this color scheme a clean, unique, and culturally fitting look. They also added a great Sunday alternate in 2015 bringing back the Royal blue, gold and cream home unis which give a nod to the past while keeping the present style.
Minor League Mascot- Archie the Big Red … (Reno Aces)
Time for a story. In the spring of 2012, my fraternity was trying to decide how to allocate the budget for our annual spring party/philanthropy weekend. Somehow, the idea of hiring Archie to come provide entertainment (he is available for hire apparently) for our fraternity gained traction and it went so far as to go to a vote. Unfortunately, it was voted down in the end because the more “Dazed and Confused” faction of my fraternity wanted to throw that money at another college jam band. Alas, I never got to meet Archie who is easily the best, albeit most terrifying, of all minor league mascots. I mean look at that thing! Let’s call a spade a spade, it’s a big, fuzzy, red sack with a tongue in the middle of it!
Promotional Night- Bacon vs. Tacos
This “promotional feud” has gone mainstream enough to make it to Sportscenter, so I desperately tried to find something better in the deep recesses of minor league baseball internet. It turns out that this has become popular for a reason, because it’s an unbeatable minor league promotion and a great feud. My ranking of top 5 feuds of all-time: Jay-Z and Nas, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, Kobe and Shaq, Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell and Bacon vs. Tacos.
For those of you that don’t know the backstory, here’s a brief history. The Fresno Grizzlies (AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros) developed a set of “Taco Tuesday” alternate uniforms to honor the fact that Fresno is the “Taco Capital of the World”. On the other side of the country, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (AAA affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies) developed a Saturday alternate celebrating the fact that Lehigh Valley, PA is “Bacon, USA“. This led to a social media squabble between the two teams over which is better: Bacon or Tacos? The argument culminated with Lehigh Valley GM Kurt Landes throwing out dreaded buzzwords “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts”.
Later this month, the loser of the online poll at baconvstacos.com will have to wear the winner’s alternate cap during an actual game. For what it’s worth, consider me #TeamBacon.
Update: #TeamBacon has been declared the winner so the Fresno Grizzlies will wear the Bacon hat with their Taco alternate jerseys on June 22nd. Donations for tickets appreciated.
All stats current as of June 1, 2017
Cover Photo Courtesy of ESPN