What We've Learned from the 2021 MLB Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 29, 2021

What We've Learned from the 2021 MLB Season

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    Shohei Ohtani has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
    Shohei Ohtani has opened up a whole new world of possibilities.Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    After upward of 180 days and well over 2,000 games, the 2021 Major League Baseball season is nearly over. A lot has happened. So much, in fact, that making sense of it all is the antithesis of simple.

    But, darn it, we thought we'd try by compiling our nine biggest takeaways from the season that was.

    This is by no means an exhaustive, all-encompassing list. While there were many player- and team-specific storylines we wanted to touch on, we ultimately had to prioritize the really important ones for the sake of keeping this exercise from becoming tome-like in length.

    We'll start with the season's most pressing player-oriented story and make our way to those with leaguewide ramifications.

From Shohei Ohtani: 2-Way Stardom Is Possible

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Through his first three seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, the possibility of Shohei Ohtani becoming MLB's first true two-way star since Babe Ruth generally seemed too good to be true.

    Sure, the hitting and pitching bona fides that made him a superstar in Japan were there early on in his Rookie of the Year-winning 2018 campaign. But Tommy John surgery in October of that year put his pitching career on ice, and his disastrous return to the mound in 2020 might have ended it for good.

    Yet here we are at the end of 2021, where we know Ohtani's Ruth-ian potential isn't too good to be true.

    That a single guy could put up 45 home runs as a hitter and a 3.18 ERA with a 29.3 strikeout percentage as a pitcher seems, well, impossible. And yet Ohtani has done it, pretty much granting him default entry into any discussion of the greatest individual seasons in baseball history.

    To be sure, 2021 could prove to be a one-off even for Ohtani himself. It's nonetheless a compelling proof of concept that two-way stardom in the majors is actually achievable, meaning current and future two-way players are no longer chasing a dream, but rather an example.

From Various: Baseball Has All-New Faces

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    If anyone's up for a quick trip down memory lane, check out the WAR leaderboard for 2019. Highlighted by Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Cody Bellnger and Alex Bregman, it reads like a who's who of baseball's brightest stars in those days.

    Well, go figure that only Marcus Semien is still in the top 10 for WAR just two years later.

    The standouts on the 2021 list include 22-year-olds Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Juan Soto. The three have combined for a 164 wRC+ and 116 homers. Yet they've gotten plenty of help—namely from Dylan Carlson, Akil Baddoo and Wander Franco—in making this season the best ever for 22-and-under hitters.

    Will Trout, Betts and the other stars of yesteryear be heard from again? Almost certainly. Particularly if good health finds Trout, Bellinger and Bregman again after their 2021 campaigns were wrecked by calf, shoulder/fibula/hamstring/rib and hamstring injuries, respectively.

    But along with Ohtani, it's fair to say the young guys have taken over as the new faces of baseball. And considering they're just getting started, that could be the status quo for years to come.

From the Giants: Rebuilding Is Overrated

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Would every team love to have young, superstar-caliber players like Guerrero, Tatis and Soto? That's a yes pretty much without question.

    The San Francisco Giants, however, have proved young talent isn't so vital that teams can't possibly succeed without it.

    They've operated with baseball's oldest offense and one of its oldest pitching staffs, and yet the former leads the National League with 237 home runs while the latter trails only the Los Angeles Dodgers with a 3.28 ERA. Hence how the Giants have won 103 games and counting.

    What they have done is completely out of step with not only their sub-.500 performances between 2017 and 2020 but also with the conventional wisdom of how to build a contender in today's MLB. You're supposed to tear things down and build back up around a core of homegrown youngsters, and then go win games.

    Instead, the Giants opted for an approach involving many different ways of maximizing players who have already proved themselves. A novel approach indeed, but one that could serve as a blueprint for other teams uninterested in rebuilding. As a wise man once said, "Yesterday's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why."

From the Dodgers: The Current Playoff Format Needs Tweaking

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Elsewhere in the National League West, the next few days will determine whether the Dodgers will catch the Giants or ultimately settle for a wild-card berth.

    If they have a gripe that the latter is even a possibility, it would be hard to blame them.

    Granted, the Dodgers wouldn't be behind the Giants right now if they hadn't gone into a 5-15 tailspin in April and May. But they've otherwise been excellent all season, and their 101 wins would rank first in any division other than the NL West.

    And yet, as of now the Dodgers are only guaranteed a single playoff game. This is even though they've won seven more games than the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers and 17 more games than NL East-leading Atlanta, not to mention 13 more games than the second wild-card holder, the St. Louis Cardinals.

    According to Ken Rosenthal on The Athletic Baseball Show podcast, MLB has floated expanding the playoff field to 14 teams. But a fairer, simpler idea would be to keep the 10-team field and just seed by record. That would better reward superior teams like the Dodgers and rightfully leave lesser teams to truly earn their passage to October.

From the Padres: The Padres Weren't Ready

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    Derrick Tuskan/Associated Press

    Never mind the Giants or Dodgers. This was supposed to be the San Diego Padres' year. And it was for a while, as their playoff chances were hovering in the 95 percent range as recently as early July.

    So, what the [four-letter word] happened?

    Suffice it to say that the story of how the Padres found themselves struggling to stay about .500 at 78-79 is a long one. But the main culprits, as it were, are a disappointing offense, too many pitching injuries and team chemistry that went bad in view of the public when Tatis and Manny Machado got into it earlier this month.

    Heads have already rolled. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild got the axe in August, and then it fell on farm director Sam Geaney's head just last week. Now, the question is if embattled manager Jayce Tingler will even make it to the end of the season, much less to Opening Day 2022.

    To be sure, San Diego's future is still bright in the abstract. It is, after all, still built around the same core that produced more wins than all but two teams between the start of 2020 and May 29 this season. But if the Padres are going to take the next step, their rough edges will need smoothing.

From the Mets: The Mets Are Still the Mets

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Meanwhile in the National League East, that one bit from Family Guy about what it's like to be a New York Mets fan continues to ring true.

    It's certainly not all the Mets' fault that the NL East has gone from arguably baseball's best division to arguably its worst over the course of the season. The Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals are two of baseball's worst teams, while Atlanta and the Philadelphia Phillies have also fallen short of expectations.

    This was, however, supposed to be the year the Mets finally broke free from the "LOLMets" memes that defined their existence when the Wilpons were in charge.

    Things took a turn for the better after the Wilpons sold the franchise to Steve Cohen, as he immediately gave his front office the resources to add Francisco Lindor and other key pieces. Accordingly, the Mets upgraded themselves from also-rans in 2020 to the favorites to win the NL East in 2021.

    But as highlighted by Lindor's down year—if anything, he should have been giving himself a thumbs-down in August—as well as near-constant injuries and ill-begotten front-office turnover, what's followed is a 75-82 season that would generally be comic if it wasn't also so tragic.

    Better days should still be ahead, but perhaps we should have known they were never going to come overnight.

From MLB's Pitchers: Sticky Stuff Did Need to Be Banned

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Early in the 2021 season, it looked like this would be the "Year of the No-Hitter," as there had already been six no-nos by May 19. Meanwhile, the leaguewide batting average was hovering dangerously close to 1968 levels of futility.

    But then, spurred on by pressure from both within and without, MLB finally decided to enforce its longstanding ban on pitchers using foreign substances on the ball. The ban went into effect on June 21, and the difference in the offensive environments before and after that date is striking: 

    • Before: .239/.313/.400 with 23.9K%
    • After: .248/.320/.419 with 22.6 K%

    Granted, the latter environment also correlates with warmer weather, while the former correlates with cooler weather. Yet between these numbers and the leaguewide decrease (see here and here) in spin rate, the available evidence suggests sticky stuff was in fact artificially tilting the playing field in favor of pitchers. 

    Because MLB is experimenting with a tackier baseball at the Triple-A level, what pitchers lost with the sticky-stuff ban could eventually be restored in the near future. For now, though, what fans are seeing at the major league level represents a significant step toward a more balanced game.

From Various: It Was a Year of Extreme Streaks

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    In terms of streaks, the St. Louis Cardinals' ongoing 17-game winning streak and the Baltimore Orioles' 19-game losing skid will stand out the most when we look back on 2021 years from now.

    Yet these are also part of a larger trend of extreme streaks that's taken hold this season. To wit, St. Louis' winning stretch is but one of six streaks of at least 10 wins, while Baltimore's historic slide is one of nine streaks of at least 10 losses.

    Significant? You bet. There have been as many 10-game winning streaks this year as there were in 2018 and 2019 combined. The nine losing streaks of at least 10 games, meanwhile, are two more than there were in all of 2017, 2018 and 2019.

    This could merely be a side effect of the pandemic, as players are in uncharted physical territory after last year's 60-game season. Or, it could be indicative of a larger competitive balance problem that was painfully obvious after 2019 and which has been evident once again since the trade deadline.

    More specifically, it's no accident that the longest losing streaks of 2021 have all been suffered by teams engaged in some form of tanking. At least until that practice dies out, baseball is likely in for more seasons with stark divides between the haves and have-nots.

From the Trade Deadline: Blockbusters Are In

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    Speaking of the trade deadline, it's no surprise that this year's rendition has shifted the league's competitive balance.

    After all, this might have been the most star-studded summer trade season in history. Among those who got moved were a recent MVP (Kris Bryant) a three-time Cy Young Award winner (Max Scherzer), a future Hall of Fame closer (Craig Kimbrel) and a veritable bucketful of All-Stars.

    This is in part a byproduct of how there was more competitive balance leading up to the deadline. According to FanGraphs, about half the American League (seven teams) was in the playoff hunt at the time. There were longer odds in the National League, but the races for the NL East and the second wild-card spot were wide-open.

    But for some teams, it was also a chance to do some early offseason shopping. Among the big-name players who found themselves on new teams, Kimbrel, Joey Gallo, Trea Turner, Jose Berrios, Kyle Gibson, Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Schwarber are either under club control or under contract for 2022.

    An anomaly? Maybe. But these acquisitions might have been motivated by MLB's uncertain collective bargaining situation (the current CBA expires Dec. 1). As in, teams may have wanted to acquire known commodities now rather than wait on a free-agent market that will inevitably be beholden to a new CBA.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.