With the start of the 2019 baseball season, it's time to look at what makes each National 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 National League team.
Atlanta Braves: Even against stiff competition, Ronald Acuña, Jr.’s Rookie of the Year victory seemed assured by late summer. This tends to happen when you can combine a 144 OPS+ with considerable speed on the bases and capable middle infield defense. With all that, it’s easy to forget that Acuña missed roughly a month with a knee injury, to say nothing of the three weeks he spent in the minor leagues at the beginning of the season, which seemed to have much more with qualms over his service time rather than over his playing ability. As for what to expect from a full season of a healthy Acuña, then? With 26 home runs and 16 stolen bases in 111 games last year, he easily seems like an eventual threat to join the 30-30 Club—the question is not if but when, and how many times.
Washington Nationals: The age-related fun facts for Washington tend to revolve around Juan Soto, who is this crazy good and still not old enough to legally drink. But Max Scherzer, down at the other end of the aging curve, has almost just as much to offer in this department. The first four seasons of his thirties have been among the best of any pitcher ever, and, terrifyingly, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down. No one has ever had so many strikeouts from ages 30 to 33. (Scherzer’s 1,128 blow past former record holder Bob Gibson’s 909 … even though Gibson pitched 200 more innings in those four seasons.) By ERA (2.71), he’s between Greg Maddux (2.66) and Pedro Martinez (2.83). If you prefer ERA+ (156), Scherzer’s in a Hall-of-Fame sandwich between Carl Hubbell and Walter Johnson. By any measure, he’s one of baseball’s top ten players ever in this age bracket.
Philadelphia Phillies: Even before signing baseball’s biggest free agent ever, Philadelphia had done more to improve this winter than any other team. While high expectations, in and of themselves, aren’t necessarily fun, they sure are interesting. There’s simply no way for this Phillies team to be boring. If they win the division, well, that’s going to have to be fun. If they’re close to it, ditto. And if they’re not, there will be enough scrutiny and questions and doubts to make them just as compelling as they’d be if they were winning. The Phillies could end as a disappointment, or they could end as a smashing success, but there’s no way for them to be end as something dull.
New York Mets: Brandon Nimmo’s breakthrough—150 OPS+, 17 home runs—was as strong as it was surprising. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who saw that kind of production coming from the outfielder in his first full season in the big leagues. It included a Vottonian approach to plate discipline, with baseball’s tenth-best walk rate, swinging at fewer than one in five pitches outside the zone. (There were only two players who swung at fewer, and one of them was, yep, Votto himself.) Nimmo has a lot to live up to in 2019, but he should have no problem keeping up with the most delightful feature of his game—his signature grim, because if you can smile through the 2018 New York Mets, you can smile through anything.
Miami Marlins: Here lies baseball’s most entertaining stadium feature, may it rest in peace. Yes, Miami’s front office decided to eliminate its outfield dinger machine this winter. The sculpture has apparently been replaced by fake greenery, which is a marked step back in terms of fun, particularly for a team whose roster doesn’t promise much entertainment for the foreseeable future. There is, however, something fun going on in this outfield. The Marlins are unveiling a section for fans to bring musical instruments, flags, and more, trying to create an environment like you might see in the Dominican Professional Baseball League or KBO or, you know, anywhere else where fans are actively encouraged to be express themselves through something other than purchasing overpriced concessions. Miami’s fans might not have too much to cheer for, but they’ll be able to have fun doing it.
Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers use the shift more than any other team in the National League—which might not exactly sound like everyone’s idea of fun, but their aggressive arrangements, coupled with their set of versatile infielders, means that they’re toying with the idea of a “position” more than just about anyone, and, hey, what’s more fun than creativity? This is how you get an experiment like second baseman Mike Moustakas. The 30-year-old has hardly any experience at the keystone … but he’s now the team’s starter at the keystone, because when everyone’s constantly shifting in and out of position, what’s a position, anyway?
Chicago Cubs: Amid all this fun, here is something difficult—try to choose the perfect highlight of 2018 Javier Báez. The defense might seem like the place to start, since that’s always been the calling card, but which part of his defense? You can pick from his many jaw-dropping catches, sure, but there’s no infielder who can apply a tag so smoothly; doesn’t that deserve some consideration? And there’s no single highlight that can easily capture just how impressive his positional versatility is. So, okay, on to the offense—fitting for a year in which he broke out at the plate, with a 126 OPS+. One of the 34 home runs, then? Or maybe something a little more creative with one of his rare walks, to underscore just how wild it is that a hitter who swung more often than almost anyone else in baseball (58% of his pitches!) was able to find this kind of success? Maybe it’s easiest to go with his running game; 21 stolen bases were a career high. Or maybe it’s one constituent feature of this—his ability to swim around a base, which just might be the answer here, a tiny action elevated into an art form, adding value and magic and, yes, fun.
St. Louis Cardinals: With a glance at the back-of-the-baseball-card stats, Jordan Hicks’ 2018 rookie season looks pretty ordinary: 77.2 innings in relief, 3.59 ERA, 21% strikeout rate and 13% walk rate. With a glance at a radar gun, however, his season looked otherworldly. Hicks’ fastballs—both his fourseamer and his sinker—averaged 101.7 mph and 101.1 mph, respectively. Remember the “Aroldis Chapman filter” on Statcast’s original velocity leaderboards, to allow you to look at the first page without seeing the hurler’s name in every single top spot? Well, Chapman’s lost his crown here. In 2018, 35% of his pitches were 99 mph or above. It’s a solid second place, but it’s nowhere near first. Because 66% of Hicks’ pitches were thrown that hard. And if you’re looking just at 100 mph and above, instead of 99? 52% of Hicks’ 1,274 pitches crossed the threshold. There are still areas for improvement here—Hicks’ command is still shaky, and all this heat hasn’t always necessarily translated into brilliant results—but still, a pitcher who hits triple digits more often than not is about as fun as you can get.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Fun is relative. It might not sound fun to question the birth country of a player who recorded exactly one hit in a career that started and finished back in 1933. But this team isn’t especially fun—maybe they’ll finish in third place, or maybe they’ll finish dead last—so let’s enjoy this question, which is both more mysterious and more relevant than you might think. The relevance comes from the Pirates’ Dovydas Neverauskas, a relief pitcher who has been billed as baseball’s first born-and-raised Lithuanian.
The “and-raised” is necessary, MLB.com and other outlets noted when he was called up in 2017, because there has been one other player born in Lithuania: Joe Zapustas, who grew up in Boston after immigrating as a child. He played in two games in 1933, recording one hit in five plate appearances, and that was it. But! Was Joe Zapustas actually born in Lithuania? MLB.com claimed that he was… yet MLB’s player database says he was born in Boston. Let’s check Baseball-Reference. Boston or Lithuania? Uh, Latvia, in a town about an hour from the border with Lithuania. Wikipedia? The Russian Empire, in a town that is noted as later becoming Latvia, not Lithuania. (It’s worth noting here that Latvia and Lithuania did not gain their independence until 1918, well after Zapustas was born in 1907, which makes this extra tricky.) Hmm. Thankfully, there are some more resources to check out. In addition to appearing in two career games in MLB, see, Zapustas also appeared in two career games in the NFL. So what does that league say? South Boston. Pro-Football Reference? Boston. We have no clear answer. Joe Zapustas was definitely born somewhere, Lithuania or Latvia or Boston or South Boston, on July 25, 1907—more than a century before a righty with a decent breaking ball would make his major league debut and make the question of where worth asking.
The fun fact, as it’s been tossed around, is this: Dovydas Neverauskas is baseball’s first born-and-raised Lithuanian. And now you know that it very well might be just a little more fun, or, at least, a little more confusing.
Cincinnati Reds: Do we really need to say it?
Los Angeles Dodgers: All hail the return of Corey Seager. The shortstop homered during the Dodgers' 12-5 opening day win over the Diamondbacks after missing most of last year with Tommy John. If you’ve somehow forgotten just how brilliant he is when healthy, it’s time to familiarize yourself. There are only three shortstops whose first three seasons in the big leagues have gone better than Seager’s, with 13.3 WAR and 133 OPS+. Hall-of-Famer Arky Vaughn, Carlos Correa, and Nomar Garciaparra. Not bad company. And with a home run on Opening Day, he’s picked up right where he left off.
Colorado Rockies: The Rockies’ quarter-century-long history includes just seven seasons by a pitcher with a sub-3.80 ERA in 170 innings or more. Two of those were in 2018: Kyle Freeland and German Márquez. It’s the first and only time Colorado has seen such strong pitching performances in the same year, and both guys have a chance to repeat in 2019. Freeland, especially, is looking at something potentially special here. His 2018 has a decent case to be the best season ever by a starter in Colorado, with a team record 164 ERA+. Add this combo to everything else fun here—Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, Charlie Blackmon—and you’re looking at a solid contender for the Wild Card.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Let’s look at some numbers from Ketel Marte, year by year.
2015: 112 OPS+, 2 HRs, 9.7% walk rate in 57 games
2016: 68 OPS+, 1 HR, 3.9% walk rate in 119 games
2017: 86 OPS+, 5 HR, 11.4% walk rate in 73 games
2018: 100 OPS+, 14 HR, 9.3% walk rate in 153 games
2019: Either 125 OPS+ in 162 games, with two dozen dingers and walks galore, or 55 OPS+ in 60 games with zero of either.
San Francisco Giants: Puzzles are fun. Here’s one: What is San Francisco doing in the outfield, and how is it going to last an entire season like this? The Giants have been the worst outfield in baseball over the last two years—a .678 OPS, so they’ve collectively hit a bit worse than the average catcher, and defense hasn’t exactly been a saving grace—and they have not done anything to get better. Their Opening Day trio of Steven Duggar, Michael Reed and Connor Joe had appeared in 41, 22, and 0 games, respectively, before this season.
FanGraphs’ Steamer 600 projection estimates that they’d collectively be worth 1.8 WAR in 2019, if they each received 600 PA. (Standard Steamer projections, with estimates for individual playing time, had them down for 0.8 WAR, because it didn’t project them as earning nearly so many plate appearances.) As for their other options? Until this week, their most solid choice was Mac Williamson, but he’s now been designated for assignment. This leaves 31-year-old Gerardo Parra, who’s been in a steep decline for the last three years. And that’s… it. Duggar, Reed, and Joe each have room to develop; maybe they will, and the outfield will be, if not fine, at least not embarrassing. Emphasis on “maybe,” though. A .678 OPS just might be aiming high here.
San Diego Padres: As far as individual players go, you have a slew of choices here. There’s the superstar free agent in Manny Machado, there’s the top prospect in Fernando Tatis, Jr., there are more top prospects in Francisco Mejia and Chris Paddack… but perhaps more fun than anything is the team’s overarching philosophy right now. This franchise has been stagnant for most of the last decade, bouncing between fourth and fifth place, with little in the way of meaningful progress or hope. Finally, though, they’ve built baseball’s best farm system—and rather than sitting and waiting for the resulting competitive window to crack, they’re trying to wrench it open as quickly as possible.
There’s the addition of Machado, obviously, but perhaps even more telling is the promotion of Tatis. It’s become more or less standard practice for a club to keep this type of prospect in the minor leagues at the beginning of the season; an extra year of service time, particularly for a team without a serious chance to win now, is considered more valuable than just about anything. But San Diego has eschewed this kind of thinking here. They don’t have a great shot at winning in 2019, no. But they likely will in 2020 and 2021, and so they might as well do whatever that they can right now to try their best. On the surface, there’s nothing special about a strategy that reads like “actively trying to win”; it’s about as straightforward as you can get. Right now, though, it feels almost refreshing. There are several other teams who have decided that being just on the brink of contention is a reason to sit back and wait another year. The Padres have decided that it’s a reason to lean all the way in—and what’s more fun than that?