The first week of the 2022 Major League Baseball season is over. There are many more weeks still to go, so let's not get too excited about anything that's happened so f...
Nah. The heck with that. Let's go for broke and break it all down.
And by "all," we mean the really interesting stuff. That one perfect game that was not to be, naturally. Also, the latest mindnumbingly silly kerfuffle over baseball's unwritten rules, a couple of early surprises, the dawn of a new high-tech era and what all those moments that went viral might mean.
The Problem with Being Outraged About the Clayton Kershaw Decision
On Wednesday against the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw was on one as he set down the first 21 men he faced. And he did so with panache, punching out 13 batters while throwing just 80 pitches.
So, the 24th perfect game in major league history? Yeah, it was very much in sight.
Until, that is, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts did the same thing to Kershaw that he did to Rich Hill in September 2016. He jumped between Kershaw and the record books, removing the three-time Cy Young Award winner in favor of Alex Vesia, who promptly surrendered a hit to the second batter he faced in the eighth inning. So long, perfecto.
There was simply no avoiding the tidal wave of outage that ensued. Roberts' decision was blasted from all corners, including the one occupied by living legend Reggie Jackson:
Reggie Jackson @mroctober
Clayton Kershaw Perfect game 80 pitches, take him OUT !!!!! WHAT THE! what’s the game coming to?1 of the era’s best, and you take him out with a perfect game in the 7th, 7-0 Dodgers winning. Take him OUT! THIS IS BASEBALL PLEASE PEOPLE THAT HAVE NEVER PLAYED GET OUT OF ITS WAY
Setting aside the fact that Roberts did, in fact, play in the major leagues—Mariano Rivera will back us up on this one—the outrage over Kershaw's hook is built upon a solid foundation.
It's true, teams just don't let starters go deep anymore. When baseball's 30-team era began in 1998, they averaged 6.1 innings and combined for 302 complete games. But in 2021? Just 5.0 innings with only 50 complete games.
Even if there is value in trying to protect starters from injuries and the times-through-the-order penalties, we can grant that such short leashes on starters are simply No Fun At All. And if baseball is now at a point where even pursuits of perfect games can be called off for pitch count purposes, then "What are we even doing here?" is a fair question.
Then again, maybe baseball isn't actually at this point just yet.
Context matters, after all, particularly in the case of Kershaw's aborted perfecto bid. He's a 34-year-old pitcher with thousands of innings and tens of thousands of pitches on his arm, plus an injury history that was extensive even before his left forearm betrayed him in 2021. To boot, he was testing that elbow amid freezing temperatures at Target Field on Wednesday.
Roberts' decision to pull Kershaw was arguably defensible on these merits alone, but Kershaw cited yet another in voicing his support for it to reporters after the game: "Blame it on the lockout, blame it on me not picking up a baseball until January."
Such is the case for all starting pitchers. After the lockout ended on March 10, they had less than a month to get built up for Opening Day on April 7. The early returns make it quite clear that they still have work to do. The average start is lasting just 4.5 innings and 74 pitches.
So under the same circumstances, any other manager might also have lifted any other pitcher. The reality is that if ever there were an appropriate time for the record books to take a backseat to risk management, it's now.
The Unwritten Rules Still Exist, Remain Dumb
One day before Kershaw and Roberts took control of the news cycle, the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants had it to themselves by way of a racism allegation that stemmed from a confrontation over baseball's unwritten rules.
All together now: [long, beleaguered sigh].
In a game the Giants eventually won 13-2, things initially got ugly after Steven Duggar stole second base with the Giants up 10-1 in the second inning. That irked Padres third base coach Mike Schildt so much that he barked at the San Francisco dugout in a manner that Giants first base coach Antoan Richardson thought had "undertones of racism."
Thankfully, the two coaches hashed things out the next day in a press conference that they held together. Richardson explained his position:
"I just want to make it very clear that in no way do I believe that Shildty is a racist. What I was trying to do is just bring awareness to how words impact certain communities even though they might not have ill intent. This was just helping us to be more aware of what those things mean."
The drama over the unwritten rules, meanwhile, continued in Tuesday's game. With the Giants still up by nine in the sixth, Mauricio Dubon committed what the Padres saw as yet another violation when he bunted for a base hit:
As for whether the Padres deserve any sympathy, the record shows that this is the same team that rallied behind Fernando Tatis Jr. in 2020 when he ran afoul of unwritten rules concerning what players shouldn't do when their team has a big lead. So...no, not really.
Giants manager Gabe Kapler, meanwhile, explained that his team's goal is not just to win games but also to win series. "Sometimes," he told reporters, "that means trying to get a little deeper into the opposition’s [bullpen]."
It's a sound strategy, and potentially a very valuable one in relation to the new playoff format. There are first-round byes at stake for the two best division winners in each league. Game 163 tiebreakers have also been scrapped, so all contenders would be wise to do all they can to pad their head-to-head records against potential competitors for the three wild-card slots.
On the plus side, if Tuesday's game between the Padres and Giants is going to be remembered for anything, it's probably the moment when assistant coach Alyssa Nakken took over for Richardson's post at first base after he was ejected:
.<a href="https://twitter.com/SFGiants?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SFGiants</a>' Alyssa Nakken becomes the first woman to coach on the field in an MLB game, taking over as first-base coach tonight. <a href="https://t.co/BSeKcJk3bQ">https://t.co/BSeKcJk3bQ</a> <a href="https://t.co/UkG33bbDqk">pic.twitter.com/UkG33bbDqk</a>
Thus did Nakken become the first woman to ever coach on the field in a Major League Baseball game. It's a way overdue first, but it can only mean that the wait for the second such instance will be a lot shorter.
An Amazing Rookie Class Features Baseball's Best Hitter
On top of the early season's mountain of surprises, meanwhile, is a fifth-round pick who's become baseball's best hitter as a rookie.
This is true of Cleveland Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan in multiple ways. Through six games, he's been prolific at generating both base hits (10) and walks (8), with a hit-by-pitch on the side. With 19 times on base, he's grabbed the league lead and also made history:
Further, the 24-year-old has been an excellent hitter in quite a literal sense. He didn't swing and miss on any of the first 116 hacks he took. Even when he finally did, he actually kinda-sorta made contact by foul-tipping a breaking ball from fellow rookie Nick Lodolo. He also collected his first major league strikeout in that at-bat.
In any case, Kwan's breakout hasn't gone unnoticed. The historical nature of his efforts surely has much to do with that, but it could also hint at a broader hunger for a hitter like him. In times when swings and misses and strikeouts have long since exploded in frequency, he just may be the hero baseball needs right now.
As for which other rookies are worth keeping an eye on, well, take your pick.
For reasons that seem related to the anti-service-time-manipulation measures in the new collective bargaining agreement, there are a ton of rookies on major league rosters out of the gate. And while Kwan is certainly the standout, the hitters thus far have a collective 98 wRC+.
Small sample size and all, but that stands to demolish the record-setting 90 wRC+ that Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Co. posted in 2015.
Welcome to Baseball's High-Tech Future
It's the same ol' game of baseball they're playing out there, only now it comes with radical new technologies. Like buttons. And microphones.
To the former, many teams have been quick to adopt the new PitchCom system, which does away with catchers calling pitches with their hands in favor of a keypad that transmits audio cues directly to a receiver in the pitcher's hat.
The initial reviews haven't all been of the rave variety, yet PitchCom seems to have more proponents than detractors. Count Giants catcher Curt Casali among them, as he told reporters that it's "one of the first things in a long time that has made baseball simpler."
It's also apparent that it doesn't just benefit the pitcher and catcher, as Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Senzel credited PitchCom for helping his defense by keeping him "locked in and focused on the game."
As for whether PitchCom is achieving its purported goals of preventing sign-stealing and speeding up games, only one of those things is quantifiable. Fortunately, the average nine-inning game is down two minutes from 2021 even as the number of pitchers per game has soared. If the latter wanes as starters get up to speed, the pace of games should quicken even further.
In addition to catchers using technology to communicate with pitchers, umpires are now able to do the same with attending fans. At last, the days of umpires confirming or overturning calls via hand signals with no audible explanation are over:
Still more innovations meant to boost baseball's pace and watchability are on the way. As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated covered, a pitch clock, a ban on defensive shifts and bigger bases could be adopted by 2023. By 2024, the league might even get the "robo-umps" that have long been demanded and are now being fully beta-tested in the minors.
For now, one supposes it's good enough that Major League Baseball has finally caught up in areas the National Football League figured out years ago.
About All These Viral Moments
And now for a thinkpiece on the viral moments from baseball's first week, which we simply have to begin with Sean Murphy's butt:
To Oakland Athletics fans and others in the know, Murphy is a darn good backstop. He was one of the better offensive catchers of 2019 and 2020, and he was good enough defensively in 2021 to win his first Gold Glove.
This is not, however, how most people know him now. Per the likes on that tweet, hundreds of thousands of people know him for his rump, whether it be partially, primarily or entirely. A weird way to blow up on the national radar, to be sure, but even the man himself can't complain.
"It's a great shot, it is," Murphy told reporters. "It's a great shot. I'm not mad at it. ... If it's going to happen, you might as well enjoy it."
Murphy's backside beaning was hardly the only viral moment of the first week of the MLB season. There was, for instance, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Brett Phillips combining the goofy with the incredible with his performance on the mound Monday:
Or, how about Atlanta's Travis d'Arnaud's display of acting skills upon taking a 52.1 mph pitch to his arm from Dee Strange-Gordon?
There was also Joey Votto mic'd up. And Enrique Hernandez mic'd up. Plus the Philly Phanatic's crash landing and that rando grilling in his kayak out in McCovey Cove. Those who prefer the heartwarming to the comedic, meanwhile, might have gotten choked up over the exchange that Texas Rangers hurler Taylor Hearn had with his sister in a press conference.
The list really does go on and on. Or at least, it feels that way. And one supposes it feels that way precisely because of the feelings these moments invoked. Maybe more so than ever before, they all just made it feel good to have baseball back.
There was a palpable "I don't know about this..." feeling when the sport returned amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. And when it then entered a lockout in December, there was so much rancor between the owners and players that the possibility of the sport not returning at all for the 2022 season seemed all too real.
Perhaps these moments and the broader reaction to them point to a general understanding that the fact that this didn't happen is not to be taken for granted. An understanding that, at professional baseball's core, it's a game that's meant to be enjoyed. Might as well do so to the max.
So far, so good.