Five Questions for 2011

There were several reasons why 2010 was a memorable baseball season. Fans of the San Francisco Giants saw their team win the World Series for the first time ever in San Francisco, while Texas Ranger fans saw their team play in the World Series for the first time ever. There were two perfect games and one almost perfect game thrown. Pitching dominated the game to an extent not seen for years. New stars such as Joey Votto emerged while proven stars like Roy Halladay switched leagues but otherwise maintained their dominant level of play. The trends and events raise some interesting questions to look at as the 2011 season approaches with bearing both on and off the field.

Pitching-2010 was something of the year of the pitcher with fewer runs per game in either league than in any season since 1992, the aforementioned perfect games, and a World Series championship won by a team with a pedestrian offense and extraordinary pitching, particularly starting pitching. This brought an end to a period of more than a decade of the game being dominated by offense and power with new records being set in numerous offensive categories and of feats such as hitting 30 home runs in a season or even 400 home runs in a career taking on less significant meanings. If this trend towards stronger pitching and less dominant offense continues in 2011, baseball may be entering a new era with greater equilibrium between pitching and hitting.

Statistics-The increased understanding of more sophisticated statistical measures of performance continued in 2011. For the second straight year, the AL Cy Young award was one by the league’s best pitcher despite not having a gaudy win-loss record. It is no longer so unusual for newer measurements such as OPS or strikeout and walks per nine innings to be presented in a television graphic or cited by sportswriters in major newspapers; and teams routinely employ advanced SABRmetrics when evaluating talent. While awards voting seems to reflect more advanced understandings of baseball statistics, Hall of Fame voting does not. One indicator of whether or not newer measurements are continuing to make an impact will be whether or not this is the year Bert Blyleven, a longtime favorite of many SABRmetricians gets elected to the Hall of Fame.

Steroids-The great pitching in 2011 was broadly viewed as evidence that steroids are no longer a problem in baseball. However, minor league players were found using steroids in 2010 and there is still no real proof that big leaguers are no longer using steroids. Moreover, even if we assume that all players at the big league level today are not using steroids, baseball still has to sort out the relationship between steroid use and its history. The records, accomplishments and current or eventual Hall of Fame candidacies of stars like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire are only part of this legacy. The possibility of guilt still hangs over all players of the steroid era which was at its peak from around 1998-2005; and how baseball views and evaluates all players from that era will need to be addressed before the steroid era can really be viewed as over.

Market Size-In 2010, the Texas Rangers and San Francisco Giants beat teams from bigger markets with higher payrolls in the LCS to set the stage for a World Series without teams from New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago or Boston for the first time since 2006 and only the second time since 1997. When the Yankees won the World Series in 2009, the accusations that the Yankees had bought the World Series and discussions of market size inequality were widespread. Things are different this off-season. One of the most prominent free agents landed in Washington; the Brewers, of all teams, gave up prospects for a chance to win now; and the Yankees came up almost empty handed in the free agent market after resigning two of their stars. It is very unlikely the Yankees will be able to spend their way to a championship in 2011, but big market teams like the Red Sox and Phillies might. 2010 might have been an aberration where two middle market sized teams snuck into the World Series, but it might also be an indication that something is changing in baseball. 2011 will help determine which is more likely to have been the case.

Playoff Expansion

-Since the end of the season there has been some discussion and speculation about the possibility of expanding the playoffs. Currently eight out of 30 teams go to the post-season, if the playoffs are expanded there would likely be two wild card teams per league with 10 of 30, or fully one third, of the teams going to the playoffs. If this happens, the regular season will be viewed very differently as many of the better teams will be able to more or less assume a spot in the post-season and tailor their strategies and rosters accordingly. Similarly, great pennant races which now exist, but are often not noticed much, will more firmly become a thing of the past.