Royals, Mets, A-Rod, Harper among baseball's biggest 2015 moments
The 2015 MLB season came to an end back in November, when Wade Davis struck out Wilmer Flores to clinch the World Series for the Royals, and the year itself will soon be over as well. But as we look forward to all of the exciting moments that 2016 will bring for the game, let’s take one last look back at the year that was with a quick recap of the 15 biggest baseball stories of 2015, including Kansas City's championship, the Mets' surprising pennant run, Bryce Harper's extraordinary season, the summer of A-Rod, and much more.
The passing of two icons
If the year in baseball had a running theme, it was one of rebirths and new beginnings. Sadly, the same march of time that yields such new beginnings brings with it inevitable losses. This past year, the sports lost two of its greatest ambassadors in Ernie Banks and Yogi Berra, who passed away on Jan. 23 and Sept. 22, respectively. Hall of Famers for their prowess on the field and icons for their personalities off it—as famous for their turns of phrase as the whip of their bats—Banks and Berra are so central to baseball’s mythology that subsequent generations may have difficulty believing they weren’t fictional.
The new commissioner
The sense of baseball entering a new era was best signified by the arrival of the first new commissioner after Bud Selig’s 23 years on the job. Rob Manfred, a long-time member of Selig’s staff who took office on Jan. 25, didn’t represent a significant new direction for the game. He is 24 years younger than Selig, however, and as a lawyer, he brings a measured, diligent approach to the job that, at least in terms of public appearances, stands in sharp contrast to Selig’s rumpled and often bewildered public persona.
Manfred’s first season at the helm was an unqualified success. It began with the implementation of gentle but effective new rules to increase the pace of play, including the use of a clock to govern the time between innings, and ended with Manfred handing down a likely final (and surprisingly uncontroversial) decision on Pete Rose’s application for reinstatement.
Josh Hamilton’s relapse
The first major story of the 2015 season coincided with the opening of spring training, as Josh Hamilton reported not to Angels camp in Arizona but to the MLB offices in New York to confess an off-season relapse with cocaine. Because Hamilton’s prior drug offenses predated MLB's current Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program, the Treatment Board charged with determining his discipline deadlocked, sending the decision to an independent arbitrator, who ruled in early April that Hamilton would not be subject to discipline by Major League Baseball.
That decision prompted some ugly comments in the press from the Angels and from MLB, both of which may have violated the Joint Agreement in their own right. Before Hamilton could return from his off-season shoulder surgery, Los Angeles traded the leftfielder within the American League West to the Rangers for the proverbial bag of balls. Hamilton struggled to stay healthy and productive for Texas, but he still got the last laugh as Texas won the division and eliminated the Angels from playoff contention on the final day of the season, with Hamilton homering twice against his former team the day before.
Following 2013’s wave of Biogenesis suspensions, the '14 season passed without a single major league player testing positive for a non-stimulant performance-enhancing drug. In the span of two weeks from late March to early April 2015, however, MLB announced 80-game suspensions for four players who tested positive for the easily detectable old-school steroid Stanozolol. All four were pitchers, and three of them—Twins free-agent addition Ervin Santana, incumbent Mets closer Jenrry Mejia and Braves reliever Arodys Vizcaino—were from the Dominican Republic. The 2015 season also saw a rash of Stanozolol suspensions in the Dominican Summer League, with nine of that league’s players—eight of them pitchers—testing positive and receiving 72-game suspensions for the drug. Two other players in rookie ball—both American, one a pitcher—tested positive for the drug, and Mejia tested positive for the drug a second time during his first suspension, triggering a subsequent 162-game suspension.
Given the sudden uptick in suspensions, the vast majority of which were handed down to Dominican players, there was ample reason to believe at least some of the violations were the unintentional result of over-the-counter supplement use in a country were such products are not as strictly regulated as they are in the United States. As of yet, however, there has been no word as to the results of MLB’s investigation into the matter.
The futility of MLB's efforts to eradicate PEDs from the game was cast into relief by the contrast between those suspensions and the unexpected reemergence of Alex Rodriguez as an impact player. Despite serving a suspension for the entire 2014 season and turning 40 in July, Rodriguez nailed down the Yankees' designated hitter job in camp, then went on to have his most productive season since '10. He hit his 660th career home run on May 1, collected his 3,000th career hit on June 19, and on the season, he hit .250/.356/.486 (131 OPS+) with 33 home runs (his most since 2008) and 86 RBIs. He even picked up a single 10th-place MVP vote for helping New York return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 by leading the team in home runs and walks (84). After the Yankees lost the wild-card game to the Astros, Rodriguez capped off his comeback by earning rave reviews for his work as an analyst for Fox during the playoffs and World Series.
Astros and Cubs arrive ahead of schedule
Everyone expected the Cubs and Astros to return to contention; we just thought it would happen in 2016 or '17. Instead, both burst out of the gate in 2015 and, buoyed by the promotion of top prospects and blossoming of their respective aces, they sustained that success all the way to wild-card berths and compelling postseason runs.
Houston went 18–7 (.720) in the season’s first 25 games to jump out to a seven-game lead in the AL West, and while they were merely a .500 team the rest of the way and ultimately settled for the wild card, the emergence of AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, AL Cy Young Dallas Keuchel and righthander Lance McCullers bodes very well for their sustained success. The Cubs, meanwhile, added NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber during the season and watched NL Cy Young Jake Arrieta emerge as the best pitcher in baseball over the season’s final three months. Chicago posted the best record in baseball after July 28 (45–18, .714), won 97 games and made it all the way to the NLCS, fostering real hope that the franchise’s 70-year pennant drought could come to an end in 2016.
Bryce Harper becomes Bryce Harper
A Sports Illustrated cover boy at 16, the top pick in the draft at 17, the top prospect in baseball at 18 and the NL Rookie of the Year at 19, Harper has always been on the path to greatness, but the 2013 and '14 seasons represented something of a detour due to a variety of injuries. Harper not only got back on that path in 2015, but he also achieved greatness at the age of 22. The turning point was the six home runs he hit in three games from May 6 to 9, the centerpiece of a month in which the Nationals' rightfielder hit .360/.495/.884 with 13 home runs. At season’s end, Harper led the NL in home runs (42) and runs (118) and the majors in on-base percentage (.460), slugging (.649), OPS (1.109), OPS+ (195) and baseball-reference.com’s Wins Above Replacement (9.9)—the last two figures were the highest by a qualified hitter since Barry Bonds in 2004. For that performance, Harper became the youngest player in either league to win the MVP award unanimously.
Rookies, rookies, rookies
As compelling as the season was as a whole, 2015 may ultimately be best remembered as the Year of the Rookie. Of the top 100 prospects ranked by Baseball America prior to the season, the top six—Bryant, Byron Buxton (Twins), Russell, Correa, Corey Seager (Dodgers) and Joey Gallo (Rangers)—all made their major league debuts this season. Overall, 16 of BA’s top 21 prospects, 30 of their top 46 and 49 of the top 100 (one shy of half) appeared in the major leagues in 2015.
In addition to all of that high-end talent, 12 Rule 5 picks stuck in the major leagues, including everyday centerfielders Delino DeShields (Rangers) and Odubel Herrera (Phillies). On top of that, Pirates infielder Jung-ho Kang became the first hitter to make the leap directly from the Korean Baseball Organization to the majors, and switch-pitcher Pat Venditte finally got his first big-league opportunity with the Athletics. In total, 18 rookie hitters compiled 2.0 bWAR or more, the most in major league history.
Max Scherzer’s no-hitters
Though he would ultimately finish a distant fifth in the Cy Young voting, Scherzer proved worthy of his massive free-agent contract in his first season with the Nationals. In mid-June, Scherzer turned in the most dominant back-to-back starts in the last 100 years, and likely ever. In his final start of the season, he topped them both with one of the best pitched games in major league history.
On June 14, Scherzer was perfect for six innings against the Brewers before allowing a single in the seventh and a walk in the eighth, the only base runners he would allow in a 16-strikeout shutout . In his next turn, he was perfect through 8 2/3 innings against the Pirates before hitting Jose Tabata on the elbow with a pitch, settling for a 10-strikeout no-hitter. Scherzer’s game scores for those two starts were 100 and 97, making him the first pitcher since at least 1914 to have consecutive starts with game scores of 96 or higher. On the penultimate day of the season, he bested them both, striking out 17 in a no-hitter that was only a Yunel Escobar error away from being perfect; his 104 game score is the second-highest mark ever in a nine-inning game.
The Nationals’ collapse and subsequent implosion
As great as Harper and Scherzer were, they couldn’t keep the Nationals from folding like a cheap suit down the stretch under pressure from the Mets and the disastrous leadership of manager Matt Williams. World Series favorites coming into the season, Washington got off to a poor start in April due in part to several key injuries in their lineup, but with Harper leading the way, the team surged to first place in May and arrived in New York on July 31 for a three-game weekend set holding a three-game lead in the NL East. But with Williams finding a different way to bungle each game, the Nationals saw their lead evaporate with a sweep at the hands of the Mets, fell into second place with a loss to the Diamondbacks the day after, and never recovered.
By the time the Mets came to Washington in early September, the Nats were four games out. They sank to seven games out with another sweep by New York. That’s where they would finish, but not before deadline addition Jonathan Papelbon choked Harper in the dugout for his apparent lack of hustle in the season’s penultimate weekend, and not before a three-part exposé by The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga revealed how Williams, who was fired after the season, had completely lost control of his team.
David Ortiz’s 500th home run and retirement announcement
Big Papi played possum on us again in 2015. Hitting just .219/.297/.372 with six home runs through June 9, the 39-year-old Ortiz looked like he might finally have reached the end of the line. Then he hit three home runs in four games from June 11 to 14 and .304/.395/.660 with 31 home runs and 87 RBIs from June 11 through the end of the season, with his 37 home runs as his best mark since he hit 54 in 2006. Along the way, he hit the 500th home run of his career, a leadoff shot in a Red Sox rout of the Rays at Tropicana Field on Sept. 12. Ortiz finished the season with 503 career homers, then announced on his 40th birthday in November that the upcoming 2016 season would be his last.
The NL Cy Young race
This past season was a particularly strong one for awards races, but the fight for NL Cy Young honors will long be remembered as one of the best competitions in major league history. Dodgers righthander Zack Greinke turned in a season that looked like something out of Greg Maddux’s prime (19–3, 200 strikeouts, 1.66 ERA), posting the best ERA+ by a qualified pitcher since 2005 and the eighth-best raw ERA by a qualified pitcher in the Live Ball era (since 1920) and the lowest since Maddux’s 1.63 in '95. But not only did Greinke not win the Cy Young award, he also arguably didn’t deserve to. His rotation-mate, Clayton Kershaw—who won the last two NL Cy Young awards—led the majors in fielding independent pitching (1.99) and became the first pitcher since 2002 to strike out 300 men in a season; he finished third.
All of that tells you how good Arrieta was this year. The Cubs' righty received 17 of the 30 first-place votes for the award, one he earned with his otherworldly second-half stretch: Over his final 20 starts, Arrieta went 16–1 with a 0.86 ERA and three shutouts, including a no-hitter.
The Blue Jays snap baseball’s longest playoff drought
Trapped in the American League East with the Yankees and Red Sox, the Blue Jays found themselves holders of the longest playoff drought in baseball going into the season. General manager Alex Anthopoulos’s aggressive off-season and trade deadline, however, changed that. Eventual AL MVP Josh Donaldson and catcher Russell Martin played central roles in Toronto’s early success alongside unexpected star turns from centerfielder Kevin Pillar and righthander Marco Estrada, while lineup stalwarts Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion remained healthy and productive in the heart of what proved to be the best lineup in baseball this past season. Emboldened by those performances and the 13 games his team had remaining against the first-place Yankees, Anthopoulos went big at the trade deadline, adding ace David Price, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, leftfielder Ben Revere and relievers Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins.
From Tulowitzki’s first day in the lineup on July 28 through the end of the season, the Jays posted the best record in the AL (43–18, .705), including a 9–4 record against New York, to win the East by six games. Toronto didn't just make the playoffs, however: The Jays took part in one of the craziest postseason games ever with their series-clinching ALDS Game 5 win over the Rangers—punctuated by Bautista's emphatic bat flip on his game-winning home run—and ultimately pushed the eventual World Series champion Royals to Game 6 in the ALCS. In the process, the Jays reignited Canada’s love for baseball, which had been largely dormant since the 1994 strike.
The Mets’ about-face, pennant run and young pitching
It was a roller-coaster year for the Mets in 2015. Buoyed by an 11-game winning streak in April, New York found itself in perfect position to take advantage of the Nationals’ season-long swoon. But to that point in the season, the Mets were last in the majors in runs scored, making it clear to everyone that they needed to acquire a big bat at the trade deadline to take a serious run at the playoffs. On July 29, it appeared the Mets had made that acquisition, sending infielder Wilmer Flores and injured pitcher Zack Wheeler to the Brewers for centerfielder Carlos Gomez. But after that night's game, it was revealed that the trade had fallen through. It looked like a classic Mets botch job: Flores, who started at shortstop that night and found out about the trade from fans during the game but was not removed by manager Terry Collins (who had not been informed of the deal), started crying on the field during the game and only found out afterward that he had not been traded after all.
What happened next was even more unexpected. The Mets got their man after all, acquiring Yoenis Cespedes from the Tigers literally at the last minute of the deadline on July 31. That night, Flores—suddenly a folk hero in New York—hit a 12th-inning–walk-off home run to beat the Nationals, keying a weekend sweep that moved New York into a first-place tie. Cespedes exceeded every Mets fan’s wildest dreams by hitting .297/.337/.604 (157 OPS+) with 17 home runs over the final two months of the season and happily playing a competent centerfield, to boot. The Mets won the division by seven games over Washington, then beat the Dodgers in a best-of-five NLDS despite four starts by Kershaw and Greinke. New York did that in part due to its own elite pitching: Jacob deGrom (who beat Kershaw in Game 1 and Greinke in Game 5), Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz.
The Mets also got an unexpected power surge from veteran second baseman Daniel Murphy, who homered in seven of the Mets’ first nine postseason games, including six in a row and every game of New York’s four-game sweep of the powerful Cubs in the NLCS—to that point, one of the greatest postseason hitter performances of all time. Murphy’s bat went cold in the World Series, and the Mets lost in five games, but their World Series appearance was the team’s first in 15 years, and the aggressiveness of the front office and resultant success of the team did much to change the pessimistic mentality of New York's fans.
We will always be Royals
The Royals were arguably the biggest story in baseball in 2014, but they were an even better team in 2015: Kansas City improved from 89 to 95 wins, from a wild-card berth to winning the AL Central by 12 games, and from losing the World Series in seven games to winning it in five. Nearly every best-case scenario came through for the Royals in 2015. Lorenzo Cain (third in the AL MVP voting), Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer built on their 2014 playoff performances to have career-best seasons. Off-season additions Kendrys Morales, Edinson Volquez and Ryan Madson exceeded expectations. The Tigers collapsed, and the Indians and White Sox failed to fulfill pre-season expectations. Kansas City made big additions at the trade deadline, adding Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto, and the team's postseason magic returned once more in October.
The turning point came in the top of the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALDS against the Astros. Trailing 6–2 and six outs from elimination, the Royals rallied for five runs to shock the Astros and send the series back to Kansas City, where Cueto dominated in Game 5. Kansas City pulled a similar trick in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 2 of the ALCS against Price and the Blue Jays, delivering Toronto a blow from which they never fully recovered.
That relentlessness carried over into the World Series, where a game-tying home run by Alex Gordon in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 helped turn an apparent Mets win into a 14-inning Royals victory. Kansas City later put the Fall Classic away with late-game comebacks in Games 4 and 5. The latter was the most shocking: With a dominant Harvey three outs away from a 2–0 shutout victory, the Royals both forced and took advantage of Mets blunders in the dugout and on the field to score two in the ninth and five in the 12th to clinch just the second World Series title in franchise history and the first in 30 years. Other than the Series being two games too short, only Mets fans could have asked for a more thrilling end to another tremendous baseball season.