From young, superstar talent making an impact to new pitching and hitting tactics shaking the game up, here are five trends that will influence MLB in a big way in 2019.
The longball is king
When the ball started flying out of the yard in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, steroids were the primary culprit. While the occasional player is still caught using performance enhancing drugs (Robinson Canó was arguably the biggest star to be suspended since Manny Ramirez in 2009), right now it’s all about launch angle: conventional wisdom of hitting line drives and hitting the ball up the middle is being eschewed in favor of longer swings and bigger uppercuts with the goal of driving the ball out of the yard. The Yankees set a MLB record with 265 home runs in 2018, but they were still bounced by the rival Boston Red Sox in the ALDS. Is the trend good for baseball or will it self-correct? The 5,585 home runs in the 2018 were actually the lowest total since 2015, but MLB failed to reach even 5,000 home runs from 2010–15. The game is about the long ball now, no matter how much purists bristle at the trend.
The Kids Are Alright
Baseball needs to learn to market itself a bit better, because it might have the finest infusion of young talent of any of the major four American sports. Ronald Acuña, the Braves’ 20-year-old wunderkind, could have won MVP had Atlanta added him to the Opening Day roster. He settled for National League Rookie of the Year. The player who finished in second place, Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals, became the youngest player to hit a regular-season home run in Yankee Stadium at age 19. Bryce Harper, who will likely sign the richest contract in MLB history by the end of the offseason, is entering his age-26 season. Mike Trout, currently on pace to be the best player in baseball history, still isn’t 30 years old.
The young talent is there to promote the game. It’s on MLB to do their jobs well.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto admitted one of the least savory realities of today’s game: there are fewer teams competing for a World Series title than they are competing for the No. 1 overall pick. After the success of the Cubs and Astros rebuilding their rosters into World Series champions in 2016 and 2017, too many MLB teams are shedding their superstars, their assets and slashing payroll in hopes that they can become the next Astros or Cubs. There’s one major problem: when the Astros and Cubs were tanking, few other teams were. In 2018, 14 out of 30 teams finished below .500: now, two more teams with winning records last year (the Mariners and Diamondbacks) have spent their winters jettisoning their best players. It’s a horrible trend that should be addressed, but one that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred eagerly defends whenever he’s asked.
Do you like relief pitchers? Then the most recent trend in the game is for you! The Tampa Bay Rays all but invented the concept of “openers”: the practice of starting a relief pitcher for an inning and stringing relievers together so that the opposition remains unfamiliar with whomever is on the mound. Several teams adopted it over the course of the season, and then the Milwaukee Brewers relied mostly on their bullpen to get to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. Perhaps it’s just a one-year trend, maybe it’s here to stay, but the once-unthinkable prospect of cobbling relief pitchers together to complete a game is no longer a foreign concept.
Shohei Ohtani is a wonder
Sometimes, the truth is in the numbers: The two-way player, signed by the Angels last offseason, was worth 3.9 WAR despite playing just 104 games. He had the same number of home runs as established power bats Jose Abreu and George Springer despite having over 175 fewer at-bats than both players. He had the same strikeout per nine innings rate as AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell as a starting pitcher. An injured ulnar collateral limit will keep him away from pitching throughout 2019, but he’ll remain the game’s most tantalizing talent.