With the start of baseball season, it's time to remember what makes each American League team so fun.
The offseason, to some extent, is always a grind. But this year’s has felt especially so. It’s been difficult to focus on much outside of baseball as a business, as a ruthlessly analytical exercise, as a laundry list of requested improvements (or “improvements”). It’s been difficult, essentially, to enjoy baseball as a game. It becomes easier now, with the beginning of baseball season finally here. So, in that spirit, here’s something easy to enjoy—one fun thing from every American League team.
Boston Red Sox: It can be easy to hate a reigning champion, but you’ve got to admit these guys are at least a little fun. You’ve got J.D. Martinez’s dingers, Chris Sale’s slider, Mookie Betts’ Mookie Betts-ness … but for this one, we’ll take something slightly less obvious. How long did it take Jackie Bradley, Jr. to win his first Gold Glove? One season might seem like a reasonable guess. Perhaps two. Yet! JBJ didn’t pick up his first piece of hardware for his defense until 2018, five years after he debuted. And it came alongside an ALCS MVP, which, who saw that coming?
Enjoy Bradley, Jr., as another kind of reigning champion, in his own right.
New York Yankees: 2019 Yankees Luke Voit is not going to be 2018 Yankees Luke Voit because, well, 2018 Yankees Luke Voit hit like a Hall-of-Famer. Literally—in his two months with the team, he posted a 188 OPS+, a number which had previously been achieved for a season only by Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx and Honus Wagner. Voit, of course, did this in 149 PA, rather than a full year; it’s a fun fact, not a meaningful statement of anything to come. But it’s fun nevertheless, even if this year likely won’t be last year. But then again, you never know.
Tampa Bay Rays: A reigning award winner is always exciting (hello, Blake Snell, 2018 AL Cy Young), and the opener is, if not everyone’s idea of fun, at least compelling. But there’s another pitching-related feature to single out here, even if it might not show up until midseason. Brent Honeywell, the organization’s top pitching prospect, sat out all of last year while recovering from Tommy John. But he should be ready to make his debut this summer, and he has something that hasn’t been seen in a generation—a bona fide screwball. Honeywell inherited the pitch from his father, who played in the minors after learning it from his college coach, ‘70s screwballer Mike Marshall.
Honeywell’s a well-rounded talent, but the screwball makes him something of a unicorn, too, and what’s more fun than that?
Toronto Blue Jays: Yes, this one is obvious. But it’s hard to justify picking someone or something who isn’t Vlad Guerrero, Jr. He’s been hyped to a level that should be impossible for any prospect to meet—by virtue of his name, his pedigree, his top prospect status, his youth, his media draw, everything. Before he’d even made it to Triple-A, his legend already loomed large. But Vladito seems capable of doing the seemingly impossible. He seems capable of living up to the hype. And, yes, he’ll begin the year on the IL, with a call-up date to be determined. Whenever he shows up, though, he should prove more than worth the wait.
Baltimore Orioles: Can you name 15 members of this team? Can you name 10? Can you name five? This is fun, kind of. The perfect archetype of a replacement level team doesn’t come around often. FanGraphs’ ZiPS projects zero players to have more than 2.0 WAR, and it projects four players to have more than 1.0 WAR. Add a dash of underperformance or otherwise poor luck, and you’re looking at it—the personification of replacement level, mathematically indistinguishable from a random collection of minor-league journeymen brought up from Triple-A. Last year’s team was near historically bad, at 47-115; that club still had half a season of Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman. This team could be worse. It might take a little bit of sadism to call it fun, but it’s… something.
Cleveland Indians: It’s not fun that this team spent the winter getting less expensive, rather than getting better. It’s not fun that this division is so weak that this approach will probably work out just fine for Cleveland, with a postseason berth seeming likely even though it has no real outfield and no real bullpen. It’s not fun that Francisco Lindor is recovering from a strained calf and now has a sprained ankle and will miss the start of the season. But it is fun that Francisco Lindor is here in the first place. With three full seasons under his belt, he’s a three-time All-Star and a three-time top-ten finisher for MVP. You can marvel at his slick defense, or his 119 OPS+, or his steady record of improvement. Or you can go to MLB’s highlight database, where you’ll see that, from last year alone, there are 34 clips of the shortstop smiling. “Lindor Is Joyful” was deemed worthy to be catalogued as its own highlight, and rightfully so. The title of baseball’s best shortstop is debatable. The title of its most delightful? That’s easy.
Minnesota Twins: At this point, it might feel naïve to place serious hope in Byron Buxton. The former top prospect’s career path has repeatedly been hampered by poor health, poor play and plain old poor luck. And yet! You can still make out the contours of the player he was expected to be. You can see the speed and the capable centerfield defense and the guy who got a few votes for MVP in 2017. This spring training, you could see even more: 1.249 OPS in 44 PA, with four home runs and four stolen bases. Hope in Buxton doesn’t feel foolish. Maybe it will be, again, in the end. But isn’t it fun to believe right now, when the reward feels higher than the risk?
Detroit Tigers: May I interest you in one Tyson Ross comeback attempt, not-so-gently used? (If that doesn’t sound particularly fun, just go look at the rest of this roster.) To refresh, after his breakout 2013, All-Star 2014 and similarly impressive 2015, he was sidelined by surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in 2016, and he struggled to return in 2017. For his first full season back in 2018, he… well, he pitched, which is more than he could say for either of the prior two years. He still threw the slider that had once been his signature pitch, just not as hard or as effectively. He still induced groundballs, just not as much. (He all but ditched his sinker.) After a midseason trade from San Diego to St. Louis, he finished the year with a 4.39 ERA, or 93 ERA+. Now, after a rough start to the spring, he’s secured the fifth spot in the rotation for Detroit. If all this seems more like a depressing reminder of the difficulty of stable healthy pitching than fun, think of how exciting it would be to watch if it worked out. And if it doesn’t work out, well, Ross will fit right in on the Tigers.
Chicago White Sox: All hail the power of the early contract extension, Eloy Jimenez will not have to spend the first month of the season mysteriously “working on his defense” in Triple-A. The 22-year-old prospect signed a $43-million six-year extension in March, which means that he’ll have a spot on the big-league roster for Opening Day. The powerfully built outfielder has serious slugging potential, after raking his way through the minor leagues, and with any luck, he’ll be hitting major league dingers before you can say “Large Young Adult Son Season.”
Kansas City Royals: Terrance Gore—.063-lifetime-hitter-in-63-PA Terrance Gore—would not make just about any other major league roster, and there’s a good case to be made that he shouldn’t even have made this team’s roster. But he did, which means everyone gets to enjoy baseball’s speediest man. In 2018, Gore had more stolen bases than plate appearances for the third time in five years, which might say just as much about how much of a liability he is at the plate as it does about how much of a threat he is on the bases… but it still says something about the latter!
Now, he’ll have a chance to be in the same outfield as the similarly lightning-quick Billy Hamilton, on the same roster as last year’s stolen base champion Whit Merrifield. The only one of these who even resembles a three-dimensional player is Merrifield, of course, but… if you’re only going to have one dimension, speed just might be the most exciting one to pick.
Houston Astros: Infield fun-off! Alex Bregman is trying to kick off a movement to bring more personality into baseball and draw young fans into the game. José Altuve is never afraid to laugh at himself, whether it’s tripping up on the bases, an unsuccessful hidden ball trick or a joke about his small stature. Carlos Correa runs a delightful Instagram for his dogs, Groot and Rocket. (Yes, Groot has chewed up one of his dad’s certified home run balls.) And you don’t have to pick one, because they’re all in the same infield, and, oh, yes, they’re All-Star-caliber all-around.
Oakland A’s: There’s Blake Treinen’s slider, which generates one whiff in every two swings. There’s Matt Chapman’s everything (2018’s 136 OPS+, plus, well, just watch his defense, but if you want a number, his 28 Defensive Runs Saved made for one of the ten best third base performances of the last half-century). But there might not be anything quite as fun as Ramón Laureano’s arm:
The 24-year-old exhausted his rookie eligibility last year, and opponents should know by now not to run on him. If they don’t, they’d better learn quickly.
Seattle Mariners: Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto has not been quiet about the club’s plan to take it easy this year. He’ll say that it’s not a rebuild, it’s a “step back,” but a losing season by any other name does not smell any sweeter. What’s there to enjoy here, then? There’s some fun in Mitch Haniger, trying to follow up a stellar breakout season, and in Yusei Kikuchi, debuting in MLB after eight sharp seasons in NPB. There is nothing fun about the current situation with Felix Hernandez, please avert your eyes and do your best to avoid remembering that the bodies of you and everyone you love will one day break down and give out, too. There’s, uh, Shawn Armstrong—something very reassuring about a pitcher whose name is literally “arm strong,” baseball’s first since the retirement of Mike Armstrong in 1995. Elsewhere in the department of “Good Names From This Bullpen,” there’s Nick Rumbelow, whose last name has frankly overwhelming pun potential. (Do not feel compelled to look up the careers of either Armstrong or Rumbelow; those statistics will not help create any fun; it’s better just to enjoy the names, trust me.) And in terms of fun, that’s… it? That’s about it. Your 2019 Seattle Mariners, everyone.
Los Angeles Angels: There’s plenty of overlap between “good baseball,” and “fun baseball,” but they’re not one and the same. It’s generally more pleasant to watch baseball played well than it is to watch baseball played poorly, of course, but bad baseball can be enjoyable in its own way; bad baseball can have special potential for silly moments and position players pitching and weird glimpses of insight into the human condition. Meanwhile, good baseball—technically sound and strategically efficient baseball—does not always have to be fundamentally interesting, and it certainly does not have to be aesthetically pleasing. Which brings us to the Angels, and how they might be the most fun. Duh, you might think. The Angels have Mike Trout. Yes. The Angels have Mike Trout, the best player in baseball—right now, certainly, and with an increasingly good potential case for “ever.” How fun is Trout, though? This is not a question about his personality, which has already been debated ad nauseum. It’s a question of how it feels to watch him play.
Is it fun to watch Mike Trout? It certainly can be, sure. But fun is not the dominant feature here, not for me, at least. Instead, it’s something like watching the sun set while you’re stuck in traffic and being struck dumb by the realization that you are able to see something this impressive every single day, which can leave you overwhelmingly grateful to be alive in this world at this moment and, at the same time, paralyzingly scared that you will never be able to appreciate it properly. You’re watching a game started by Tyler Skaggs, between two middle-of-the-pack teams in August, not so far out of contention that they’re out, but certainly not in, and there’s Mike Trout. You’re stuck in traffic, and, oh, man, what a ridiculous sunset.
Andrelton Simmons’ defense is fun, too. And, you know, a healthy Shohei Ohtani, in whatever capacity possible.
Texas Rangers: Joey Gallo’s key stats were nearly indistinguishable from his first year in the big leagues to his second: 41 home runs, 40 home runs; 37% strikeout rate, 36% strikeout rate; 82% of plate appearances against the shift, 84% of plate appearances against the shift. In other words, he is who he is, and, you know, there’s something fun in that, particularly with a profile like this: swing big, hit dingers; strike out, never single. (For another remarkably consistent stat: 66% of his hits were for extra bases in 2017, 63% in 2018.) There is one notable difference here, though—he got worse against the shift, hitting .246 in 2018, versus .256 in 2017. In spring training, however, he did something radical (for him, at least). On March 3, Gallo bunted for a single. Sign of things to come for 2019? Stay tuned.