With 2020 Hindsight, We Look at the 2010s

It was quite the decade for many players, including some of the game’s best pitchers. (via SD Dirk)

Ah, what a discordant decade. It began with the second iteration of “Year of the Pitcher.” It ended with batters crushing home runs at a record pace. It began with a huge umpiring controversy, moved into replay, and ended with a robo-umpire experiment. It began and ended with the same major league teams in the same cities where they started the decade, for only the second time since the 1940s. It began with scandal (BALCO, Biogenesis) and ended with Garbagecangate. Baseball added a second Wild Card to its postseason schedule and the Cubs won a World Series for the first time since the launch of the Model T. “Tanking” became part of baseball vocabulary, as did “spin rate.” Games got longer while lines at the gates got shorter. The big-spending, once-dominant New York Yankees didn’t win a World Series. The San Francisco Giants, currently a touch above major league average in payroll, won three.

Let’s go to the highlights:

By now you’ve been inundated with “best of the decade” lists: books, movies, music, apps, cranberry sauce recipes. And, yes, baseball players. Trouble is, picking the best player of the ‘teens makes for a very short article.

Mike Trout tops pretty much every leader board except scandals. To give you an idea: From 2010-2019, Trout had by far the best cumulative OPS, at exactly 1.000. From 1910-1919, Ty Cobb was the leader, at .998.

But here’s a debate for you: Who was the second-best player of the decade? There’s a lot more meat to chew on that bone. You could make the case for a dominant pitcher; Clayton Kershaw comes to mind, but so do Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. We’ll discuss them later. Or should we first consider someone who played every day?

Take Miguel Cabrera. What with his last couple of mediocre years with an awful Detroit team, you may forget he was the 20-teens’ only consecutive-year Most Valuable Player. (Trout won three times.) He led baseball in 10-year batting average and was top 10 in home runs and RBIs, the traditional triple crown stats.

Or Joey Votto, whose on-base percentage was the only one to top Trout’s. He ranked third in fWAR, behind Trout and Buster Posey, whose number is boosted greatly by his defensive points because he’s a catcher. Posey has been very good, but I don’t think he’d get many votes for decade bridesmaid. Going with advanced stats, we find Votto and Cabrera two-three in wRC+ and wOBA.

Then there’s Nelson Cruz, who hit more home runs than anyone else and was just short of Albert Pujols (remember he’s still playing?) for most RBI.

If you want to look at only the past several years, you find names like Mookie Betts, Christian Yelich, Anthony Rendon, and Alex Bregman, but we’re really talking here about careers that spanned most, if not all, of the decade.

Next behind Trout in OPS are Aaron Judge, who probably will be part of this discussion at the end of 2029, when he’ll have played 13 seasons, not three, and David Ortiz, who was terrific in the seven years of the decade he played before retiring. Steady stalwarts like Adrian Beltre and Paul Goldschmidt?

So have we narrowed the field for first runner-up? Well, not exactly. You’re probably preparing a good argument for an every-five-days guy — Kershaw, whose 20-teens have ranged from otherworldly to merely splendid. But is he the only pitching candidate?

By WAR among all pitchers over the decade: (1) Kershaw, (2) Scherzer, (3) Verlander

By ERA: Kershaw by a mile, ranking alone up there with the top relief pitchers. Jayson Stark notes: “His 164 ERA-plus is the greatest by any starter, in any decade, since Walter Johnson hung a 177 in the first quasi-decade (1913-19) after earned runs became an official stat in 1913.”

By strikeouts: (1) Scherzer, (2) Velander, (3) Kershaw.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

By innings pitched: (1) Verlander, (2) Scherzer, (3) Kershaw.

By wins: (1) Scherzer, (2) Verlander, (3) Kershaw.

By Cy Young awards: Scherzer and Kershaw have three. Verlander has two – as does latecomer Jacob deGrom. Kershaw and Verlander also have MVPs to their names.

By postseason results: Kershaw 143 innings pitched, 4.46 ERA, 9-10 record. Verlander 166 innings pitched, 3.10 ERA, 13-9 record. Scherzer 112 innings, 3.38 ERA, 7-5 record. Verlander was in three World Series in the decade, Scherzer and Kershaw two; only Kershaw doesn’t have a championship ring.

Discuss.

***

It was the decade of pace-of-play angst. Speed up the game, they said. Thus the intentional base on balls with no balls thrown (2017), and a limit on mound conferences (2018), and slightly shortened time between innings for broadcast commercials (2019). Coincidentally, it was the decade of the longest World Series game in history, by both innings and time: Game Three, 2018, Dodgers and Red Sox, ran 18 innings over seven hours and 20 minutes. (In case you didn’t stay up: Los Angeles won 3-2 on a Max Muncy walkoff homer.)

Bottom line: The average game in 2010 took two hours, 54 minutes. In 2019, it was 3:10.

It’s all about the ball, isn’t it? In 2010, pitchers dominated. Major leaguers hit the fewest home runs since MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998, the rate dropping from 2.07 per game to 1.90. In 2010, just 18 batters hit 30 home runs or more. By this past season, decade’s end, the homers were at 2.79 per game, and 58 big leaguers (hello, Renato Nunez!) hit the 30 mark. In 2013, Pedro Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt led the National League with 36. In 2019, Pete Alonso, who’d never played a game in the big leagues before, set a rookie record with 53.

The record for total major league home runs fell with more than to weeks to go in the 2019 season. It’s now 6,776.

Analysts said there was less “drag” on the 2019 ball. Pitchers said the seams were different. Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “The only thing I’m prepared to say at this point and time is I do think that we need to see if we can make some changes that gives us a more predictable, consistent performance from the baseball.” An official committee studied and pondered and analyzed, then issued a report I sum up here:

We dunno.

Or it’s not about the ball. This was the decade of swing plane and launch angle. Swing hard and up, that was the cry. There were lots more home runs, but also lots, lots more strikeouts. In 2010 – year of the pitcher, remember – batters set a record with 34,306 strikeouts. The number this year was 41,207. In 2018, for the first time, there were more strikeouts than hits. This season, too.

What else? Attendance was down at major league parks. Home runs aren’t a draw? Strikeouts are a turnoff? Or, maybe, lousy teams (they say rebuilding, you say tanking) are an answer. A third of the 30 teams lost 90 games or more this past season. The four worst were at 103, 105, 108, and 114. Among them, the four were responsible for close to half of this year’s collective drop of 1.17 million attendance, and those declines were from numbers of 2018, when all were also lousy.

The World Champion Nationals’ attendance was down 269,000. Maybe because they were awful at the start of the season? Maybe because they lost Bryce Harper? Maybe because Americans want nothing to do with Washington?

***

By the year:

2010: Chill the umpire

On June 2 at Comerica Park, an obscure Tigers pitcher, Armando Galarraga, retired the first 26 batters he faced. The 27th, Jason Donald, hit a ground ball to Miguel Cabrera, who threw to Galarraga covering first base. The throw clearly beat the runner, but umpire Jim Joyce blew the call, as he later admitted. (Baseball several years later declared Galarraga had pitched a perfect game.)

There was no such controversy when the Phillies’ Roy Halladay threw the first postseason no-hitter since Don Larsen’s perfect game in the fifth game of the 1956 World Series.

The Galarraga game was an apt beginning to what would be the decade of the replay, with MLB expanding its use over the years.

World Series winner: San Francisco Giants

2011: Unwelcome headlines

Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens went on trial on charges stemming from scandals of the previous decade involving performance-enhancing drugs. Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice, a decision eventually overturned. Clemens’ perjury charge resulted in a mistrial; he eventually was found not guilty. Both all-time greats are still outside the Hall of Fame as PED suspects.

In on-field drama, the Red Sox blew a nine-game lead by going 7-20 in September. The Cardinals came from 10 ½ games behind Atlanta on August 25 and won the World Series, riding a classic Game Six. More about that later.

World Series winner: St. Louis Cardinals

2012: Stars dimmed

Mike Trout, a .220 hitter in limited play the previous year, opened the season with 20 games in the minors before he was deemed good enough to be a major leaguer — and become American League Rookie of Year and MVP runner-up. The Washington Nationals, after compiling the best regular season record in the NL, lost in the division series after shutting down pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg to protect his arm for the future.

Baseball had a great last-day finish, involving four games, to determine the Wild Card teams. Ironically, the next year would go to four Wild Cards, and a much less dramatic ending.

World Series winner: San Francisco Giants

2013: Bad press

Baseball greeted the new year with the Biogenesis scandal, involving a Miami rejuvenation clinic, PEDs, and such stars as Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez. Braun wound up being suspended for much of the 2013 season, Rodriguez for all of 2014. Separately, Orioles star Miguel Tejeda was suspended for more than 100 games after testing positive for amphetamines.

After moving to the AL to balance the leagues at 15 games each, the Houston Astros lost a franchise-record 111 games. The Red Sox won the World Series behind the otherworldly performance of David Ortiz (.688/.760/1.188).

World Series winner: Boston Red Sox

2014: Yankees doodle

While one New York tabloid presence, A-Rod, sat out the season, another took his farewell tour. Derek Jeter, wrapping up his Hall of Fame career, was being celebrated in ballparks across the land.

Also celebrated: the Kansas City bullpen trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland, which set down opponents in innings seven, eight and nine with amazing frequency (totaling a 20-9 record, 52 saves, 6.7 WAR) and brought the Royals to Game Seven of the World Series. There, they were confronted by by the decade’s best World Series pitching story: Madison Bumgarner won Games One and Five, giving up a total of seven hits and one run in 16 innings. Then, on two days’ rest, he pitched five shutout innings to close out the Giants’ championship.

World Series winner: San Francisco Giants

2015: Bud flight

MLB opened the year with a new commissioner, Rob Manfred, its former chief operating officer. He replaced Bud Selig, who’d held the job through thick and a lot of thin for 22 years.

Baseball fell victim to real-world news. With the city of Baltimore in a state of emergency after protests following the death of a man (Freddie Gray) in police custody, the Orioles postponed two games, moved three more out of town and played one with no spectators in the stands.

Max Scherzer pitched two no-hitters.

World Series winner: Kansas City Royals

2016: Curse burst

The Cubs broke the sport’s longest drought, coming from a three-one deficit to win the World Series, in extra innings and on the road. The defeated Indians inherited the title of longest wait since a championship.

Baseball broke new ground with an exhibition game in Cuba and negotiated a five-year labor agreement with the players’ union. A celebrated young pitcher, Jose Fernandez of the Marlins, died in a boating accident.

World Series winner: Chicago Cubs

2017: Ill winds blew

Hurricane Harvey moved an intra-Texas series between the Astros and Rangers from Houston to Tampa Bay, where almost no one showed up to watch. Then, Hurricane Irma moved the Rays’ Tampa Bay series hosting the Yankees to the Mets’ Citi Field and a Marlins series from Miami to Milwaukee.

This was the year the no-pitch intentional walk began. The Marlins were sold to a group including Jeter, who would run the operation.

The Indians broke a major league record by winning 22 games in a row, but lost to the Wild Card Yankees in the division series. In December, after being wooed by many teams, Japanese star Shohei Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angeles, with promise of becoming baseball’s first two-way star, at least since Babe Ruth.

World Series winner: Houston Astros

2018: Special Ks

The majors limited the number of sermons on the mound to six per nine-inning game. Pitchers didn’t seem to suffer for lack of counsel: For the first time, they struck out more batters than they allowed hits. But the home runs kept coming: The Yankees eclipsed the 1997 Mariners for the most home runs in a single season, finishing with 267.

Mets ace Jacob deGrom posted a 1.70 ERA, took the NL Cy Young award…and won just 10 games. The Orioles lost 115 games, finishing 61 games out of first place in the AL East.

Major league attendance hit a 14-year low, dropping by three million.

World Series winner: Boston Red Sox

2019: Round trippers, round numbers

Record homers: The Twins, Yankees, Dodgers, and Astros all beat the Yanks’ season record from 2018. And record money: Spring training was eclipsed by speculation about where baseball’s mostly highly regarded free agents would play, and for how much. The answers, as February turned into March: Manny Machado to San Diego for 10 years and $300 million, Bryce Harper to Philadelphia for $330 million. Then, the Angels signed Mike Trout to a 10-year extension worth $360 million, locking him up for a total of a dozen seasons for $426.5 million.

End-of-the-year free agent signings took less time but brought nearly equal riches to a talented few, notably Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Anthony Rendon. And the new July 31 trade deadline brought excitement as planned, with impact players such as Nicholas Castellanos and Zack Greinke moving to contenders.

Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs was found dead in his hotel room. The Houston Astros were accused of high-tech sign-stealing (from a video feed) and low-tech communication of the pilfered information (including banging on trash cans).

World Series winner: Washington Nationals

***

Eleven more things to know about these 10 years:

In the era of pitch counts, complete-game no-hitters are tougher to come by. But there were 35 such gems, including Roy Halladay’s in the 2010 Division Series. Six pitchers threw two-no-hitters in the decade – Scherzer, Verlander, Halladay, Homer Bailey, Mike Fiers and Jake Arrieta. And there were five perfect games (if you don’t count Galarraga’s) – by Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Halladay, and two little-known-nor-remembered guys, Dallas Braden and Philip Humber. Ervin Santana’s no-hitter for the Angels in 2011 wasn’t a no-runner; he won 3-1.

During the decade, of all the human beings on Earth, Nick Markakis came to the plate in a major league baseball game the most times: 6,520.

The first two No. 1 draft picks of the decade are doing very well lately, thank you – Bryce Harper and Gerrit Cole. (And Stephen Strasburg was 2009’s first choice.) Houston’s Carlos Correa, No. 1 in 2012, has been very good. The seven after him have yet to develop into stars befitting that honor or never will. (In order, Mark Appel, Brady Aiken, Dansby Swanson, Mickey Moniak, Royce Lewis, Casey Mize, Adley Rutschman.)

The Yankees had the best record over the decade, winning 921 games, an average of 92.1 per season. The Dodgers were two games behind. The rest of the top five, in order: Cardinals, Nationals, Red Sox. The Marlins effortlessly won the award for worst.

Joey Votto led the majors in walks during the decade with (1,046). Miguel Cabrera had the most intentional walks (144).

James Shields gave up more home runs (262) than anyone else, even though he allowed none this past season. (He didn’t pitch.)

Chris Davis topped 500 plate appearances in just seven of the 10 years but still struck out more than any other player (1,597).

Craig Kimbrel was by far the saves leader with 346. Tyler Clippard had the most blown saves (52), but also the most appearances on the mound (702). Fernando Rodney was second in both categories.

Traditional stats leaders included Miguel Cabrera (.317 batting average), Albert Pujols (963 RBI), Nelson Cruz (346 homers), Robinson Cano (1,695 hits).

The oldest man to play in a major league game from 2010 through 2019 was Jamie Moyer, with Colorado in 2012. He turned 50 in November of that year. The youngest: Elvis Luciano, was 18 at the start of spring training this past season. He debuted in the majors with Toronto on March 31 at age 19 years, one month, 16 days.

The biggest comeback of the 10 years? On April 21, 2012, at Fenway Park, the Yankees trailed the Red Sox and Felix Doubront, 9-0. They scored one in the sixth, seven more in each of the seventh and eighth innings, winning 15-9. Mark Teixeira hit a home run from each side of the plate, and Nick Swisher hit a grand slam.

***

Game of the decade: Choose one – Cubs-Indians in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series, David Ross as goat and hero, Rajai Davis homering to tie off Aroldis Chapman, rain delay before extra innings, Cubs winning 8-7 with their first baseball championship since 1908.

Or: Cardinals-Rangers, World Series Game Six, 2011. The David Freese game. St. Louis tied it in the ninth on Freese’s two-strike triple. Tied it again in the 10th after Josh Hamilton’s two-run homer for Texas. Freese’s homer in the 11th won it for the Cardinals, 10-9.

I’ll take 2016 for impact. In a nice look back at a top 20, Tim Britton of The Athletic also picks this as the best. Shane Tourtellotte of The Hardball Times would tell you it’s 2011 by WPS.

Manager of the decade: Bruce Bochy, who retired after this past season as the 11th manager in major league history to lead his team to 2,000 wins. He managed the Giants all 10 years and won three World Series.

***

And, circling back to the top, what would a decade wrap-up be without:

Best baseball movie: Moneyball. Billy Beane beats the system.

Best baseball non-fiction: The Last Boy. Jane Leavy’s warts-and-all Mickey Mantle biography.

Best baseball fiction: The Art of Fielding. Chad Harbach’s rhapsodic novel that makes that case for:

Best team game: Baseball.


Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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jamesdakrn
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jamesdakrn

Lol at not including the Astros cheating #robbed

Pwn Shop
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Pwn Shop

“The Houston Astros were accused of high-tech sign-stealing (from a video feed) and low-tech communication of the pilfered information (including banging on trash cans).”

jclinansmith
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jclinansmith

I would think that this needs to play out before we all know the extent.

manormachine
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manormachine

It is misleading to characterize the Giants as a low payroll team based on current payroll as they only began their salary dump and rebuild this year. In 2016, the last year they made the playoffs, the Giants had the 5th highest payroll in MLB. During their championship years of ’10, ’12, and ’14, they were 10th, 7th, and 7th.

aweb
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aweb

Rodriguez did not sign a 10 year contract with Texas in 2011.

fordhamflash
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fordhamflash

Lots of inaccuracies in this article

Bip
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Bip

By Cy Young awards: Scherzer has three, Verlander and Kershaw have two

Kershaw has three: 2011, 2013, 2014.

Shirtless George Brett
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Shirtless George Brett

Call me biased if you must but the Royals/A’s wildcard game in 2014 is the craziest game of the decade.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

The night of the Wild Cards (including the eventual champion Cardinals) was in 2011, not 2012! It was 2012 when the play-offs expanded.

Also, the decade isn’t over yet!!!!! The current decade technically lasts from 2011-2020 (just as the 21st Century is from 2001-2100), so everyone please stop posting these articles a year early!