This Great Game Comebacker

The Month That Was in Baseball: December 2021

Lockout: Players and Owners Agree to Disagree    The Hall of Fame Fattens Up
Juiced Ball, Dead Ball: Theories Behind MLB’s Use of the 2021 Ball

November 2021    Comebacker Index  •  January 2022

Wednesday, December 1

It’s official: Baseball has entered its first work stoppage since the crippling 1994-95 players’ strike. As the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires at midnight with no agreement on a new pact, owners declare a lockout that will sever all communications between management and players until there’s a new deal. Urgency seems to be lacking as the two sides meet in Los Colinas, Texas, leaving just seven minutes later after sitting down. With the first spring training games still roughly three months away and Opening Day 2022 a month after that, that lack of urgency is likely to continue for a while. 

There are two good bits of news related to the situation. One, the doom and gloom of labor Armageddon that overwhelmed baseball in 1994 is absent. Back then, owners were categorically adamant on a salary cap; they didn’t get it, but their intractable stance—coupled with the players’ equally non-negotiable stand against it—cost baseball the rest of the 1994 season including the playoffs, and nearly a month of the 1995 season. This time around, there’s no one issue that’s militantly dividing the two camps; management and players will armwrestle over changes to arbitration, service time, luxury tax thresholds, changes to the draft and an increased postseason. These various items will lead to a better chance of compromise and, thus, a quicker path to a new CBA. Two, neither side wants the work stoppage to linger into March and beyond. Baseball has become highly lucrative for both owners and players, and no one wants to have the money pot sapped on their own watch. If negotiations continue as the traditional reporting dates for pitchers and catchers at Spring Training loom, you can bet that the urgency factor will become quite a bit higher. This, especially after the pandemic reduced revenue over the past two years.

The final day before the lockout leads to one last round of transactions before everything gets put on indefinite pause. The biggest deal involves ex-New York Mets pitcher Marcus Stroman, who signs a three-year, $71 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. Out in Los Angeles, the Dodgers finally manage to keep one of the many free agents from their 2021 roster by bringing back super-utility guy Chris Taylor for four years and $60 million. In perhaps the steal of the day, veteran closer Mark Melancon—who led the majors this past season with 39 saves—inks with Arizona for two years but just $14 million. And Dylan Bundy, late of the Los Angeles Angels, signs a one-year pact worth $5 million for Minnesota. 

The Red Sox bring back two familiar faces. Pitcher Rich Hill, who turns 42 next March, signs as a free agent in Boston for the seventh time in his career, while the team retrieves all-glove, no-hit outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.—who had a terrible (.163 average) 2021 for Milwaukee—sending outfielder Hunter Renfroe to the Brewers in return. 

The Bradley/Renfroe transaction is the last one before the midnight expiration of the CBA. There won’t be another until a new pact is agreed to—unless it involves only minor leaguers. 

Top free agents headed into the lockout without a new team include Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Nick Castellanos, Kris Bryant, Trevor Story, Kyle Schwarber and Anthony Rizzo. 

Reports are confirmed that 1983 AL Cy Young Award winner LaMarr Hoyt dies at age 66. His passing took place a few days earlier on November 29, but it’s only be reported today via social media. The bushy-haired Hoyt had a brief, mostly successful—and ultimately troubled—career in the majors. He first featured for the Chicago White Sox as a hybrid starter/reliever, but in 1982—his first full year with the rotation—he led the American League with 19 wins. A year later, as part of the famed “Winning Ugly” edition of the White Sox, he led the majors with 24 victories, earning him Cy honors. Hoyt followed that up with an MLB-high 18 losses in 1984, leading to an offseason trade to San Diego for, among others, shortstop Ozzie Guillen. The change did Hoyt good, but for only one year; after finishing 16-8 for the Padres in 1985, he dropped to 8-11 in 1986 and was arrested three times on drug charges. The Padres gave Hoyt a new lease on life a year later, but he was arrested again. He was sentenced to a year in jail early in 1988

Thursday, December 2

The relative public congeniality of labor negotiations between MLB owners and players vanishes on the first full day of the lockout, as commissioner Rob Manfred wastes no time taking the lead on the public relations front—bashing union proposals as anti-competitive while players are practicing “confrontation over compromise.” Publicly knocked on their heels, the union responds: “It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple, specifically calculated to pressure Players into relinquishing rights and benefits, and abandoning good faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just Players, but the game and industry as a whole.” 

While owners try to make the point that a hot free-agent market contrasts with the union’s claim that players aren’t getting their fair share of the revenue pie, the hard facts do seem more aligned with the union. While team values and revenue continue to rise (the pandemic and its effect on the last two seasons notwithstanding), the average player salary is down 6.4% since 2017—while the median salary has dropped a stunning 30%, from $1.65 million in 2015 to $1.15 million this past year. It’s a reflection of American financial demographics in general; the rich get richer while the middle class shrinks. 

A Business Insider report says that MLB used two different baseballs this past season—the one Manfred promised would contain less juice, and the one apparently still going by the specifications of the 2019 ball, which promoted a record-shattering number of home runs. In response, MLB acknowledged that the story is true, but said both balls were used because the pandemic had reduced manufacturing capacity and forced the league to re-introduce the old, juiced-up balls. But research into that claim shows that the juiced balls were still being manufactured alongside the “new” ball, at the same time

The dark theory circulating is that MLB chose which games to use which ball. For instance, say you have a game with looming free-agent pitcher Max Scherzer on the mound. MLB could send the juiced balls to that ballpark. Or how about a game featuring shortstop Carlos Correa, another free agent-to-be? Put the deader ball in play. The idea thereby being that the choice of either ball could advantageously suppress performance and lower the potential financial package these free agents could gain. Of course, in order for that theory to be true, there likely needs to be coordination on a documented level, something akin to the smoking-gun database that cost MLB $280 million back in the 1980s when they out-and-out attempted collusion on free agent players. We’ll see if something similar exists here. 

Friday, December 3

It’s fairly well assumed that all players who agreed to 2022 contracts before the start of the MLB-imposed lockout had formally made those deals official. Well, not exactly; word out of Houston is that ace pitcher Justin Verlander, who agreed to a $25 million deal for next season with an option to be paid another $25 million in 2023, never technically signed.

In MLB, you’re only as good as your word, so Verlander technically remains a free agent. It’s not that anyone else is going to swoop in and steal Verlander—the lockout prohibits teams from interacting with players and their agents—and it’s assumed that the Astros won’t have a change of heart once we get to the other side of the work stoppage, whenever that will be. But two weeks after the deal was announced without the signature, the key word being thrown about by news sources as to why is this one: Mystery. 

Saturday, December 4

While baseball in America is on forced pause due to the lockout, there’s an assortment of news from Japan. Veteran infielder Freddy Galvis, seen in 2021 splitting his time between Philadelphia and Baltimore (batting .242 with 14 home runs), has decided to play the 2022 season with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hanks. Deciding not to go the other way is 32-year-old pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, who will remain with the Yomiuri Giants after rumors had him seeking a move to America; Sugano was 6-7 with a 3.19 ERA this past year, but over his past seven seasons owns a collective 82-45 record and very nice 2.29 ERA. 

Finally, the Seibu Lions hold a fan appreciation event at a packed ballpark in which the main event is a retirement ceremony for 41-year-old pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, who pitched in MLB from 2007-14 and peaked in 2008 with an 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA for Boston. The highlight of the ceremony is a surprise appearance from Ichiro Suzuki, looking dapper in a suit with a bouquet of yellow flowers he presents to Matsuzaka. Since returning to Japan, Matsuzaka was used sparingly with unimpressive results; after skipping out on the 2020 campaign, he faced only one batter this past season, at season’s end—resulting in a walk. 

Sunday, December 5

Hall of Fame Era Committee voters are in a giving mood as two separate groups collectively select six new members into Cooperstown. The Golden Days Era Committee, focusing on players who thrived between 1950-69, gives its nods to Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, Gil Hodges and Minnie Minoso; the Early Baseball Era Committee, considering players before 1950, acknowledge Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler

The late Dick Allen misses the 75% margin needed for Golden Days Era induction by one vote, receiving 11 of 16. Five other former stars, including Roger Maris and Maury Wills, each receive no more than three votes. Hodges, Kaat and Oliva each get the minimum 12. 

O’Neil, a highly-admired coach/scout/exec and celebrated ambassador for the Negro Leagues, was far from its greatest player—available statistics have him hitting only .258 with little power over 10 years—but he receives 13 of 16 votes from the Early Baseball Days group. Netting 12 votes is Fowler, the relative unknown among the six selected; he reportedly was the first African-American professional baseball player, bouncing around from circuit to circuit (none of them in the majors) for the simple reason that he was black. In 1894, he hooked up with other black ballplayers and began the highly-regarded Page Fence Giants barnstorming team. 

The overall vote shows, once again, that our standards for Hall-of-Fame enshrinement remain higher than most everyone else’s. Of all the people on both ballots, we would have selected only one: O’Neil, if, for anything else, his tireless efforts in giving the Negro Leagues long-overdue credibility—something fully realized this past year when it was announced that 29 seasons of Negro Leagues play would be classified as “major league.” 

As for the four new members chosen from the Golden Days group, it’s simply a case of more “very good” players being enshrined. Oliva was Hall-of-Fame material, before injuries curtailed the second half of his career. Kaat, a 283-game winner, falls under the Bert Blyleven category of quantity over quality (over 25 years, he was named to only three All-Star teams). The tipping point for Hodges’ inclusion may come from managing the Miracle Mets of 1969, on top of his 370 home runs achieved for the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers during their “Boys of Summer” era. And it’s tough to beef against Minoso, the highly exciting and lovable member of the Indians and White Sox; voters may have embraced not only his mainstream years in the majors but also his impressive post-MLB career, which included a legitimate tenure in the Mexican League as he neared age 50—and more promotional-stunt cameos with the White Sox in 1976 and 1980. 

Again, we’re not criticizing these players; they were very good players who had very good careers. To them, our heartfelt congratulations. However, we are criticizing how much lower the stratum has been placed in terms of Cooperstown electability. The Hall of Fame is where the legends belong, not the very good players. 

Monday, December 6

While baseball’s lockout continues through its first week, news breaks that former union head Ken Moffett passes at the age of 90. Before becoming Marvin Miller‘s successor as MLBPA lead, Moffett was a Federal mediator who actually presided over the 1981 players’ strike; he grew so fond of the union that he took the head job after Miller’s retirement in 1982. But the two feuded, as Miller disapproved of Moffett’s handling of the union while Moffett told Miller to get lost and enjoy his time off. When push came to shove, Moffett was fired barely a year after taking the mantle, with Miller taking over in the interim until Donald Fehr became his hand-picked chief. 

Tuesday, December 7

A few days after bringing on six new members, the Hall of Fame isn’t resting. The honor formerly known as the J.G. Taylor Spink Award—now known as the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s Career Excellence Award—is given to longtime baseball writer Tim Kurkjian, currently working as a writer and analyst for ESPN. The 64-year-old Kurkjian has been in the business for 40 years, beginning as a Texas Rangers beat reporter for the Dallas Morning News in 1981, followed by a stop with the Baltimore Sun and then Sports Illustrated before migrating to ESPN. The award is aligned with Cooperstown, and Kurkjian will have his moment to give a speech at the Hall this coming summer. 

Wednesday, December 8

There’s one more Cooperstown cheer as the late Jack Graney is honored with the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting. Graney, who died in 1978 at the age of 91, was a deadball-era outfielder for Cleveland who, 10 years after stepping down as a player, took over as the team’s play-by-play radio voice in 1932—making him the first ex-ballplayer to move to the broadcast booth. Graney remained there until 1953, taking one year off in 1945

San Diego fans receive a bit of a scare when they hear the news that star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. is involved in a motorcycle accident in his native Dominican Republic. He’s said to be transported to a medical center but suffers minor injuries described as “scrapes.” The Padres do not make a statement or check in with Tatis directly; because of the ongoing lockout, they’re not allowed to have contact with any players under union domain. 

Thursday, December 9

Remember Jon Singleton? The Houston Astros were so high (or just high) on one of the organization’s top prospects in 2014 that they gave him a $10 million contract before he ever played his first major league game. Speaking of “high,” that’s eventually what got Singleton in trouble, becoming addicted to weed and forcing a detour from organized ball in 2017. This past season, Singleton did mark a return to baseball with an appearance in the unaffiliated Mexican League—hitting .321 with 15 home runs in just 46 games. Numbers like those are too good for the Milwaukee Brewers to ignore, as they sign the 30-year-old first baseman to a minor league contract for 2022. 

Remember Yasiel Puig? The turbulent outfielder was last seen bouncing around Ohio in 2019, batting a combined .267 with 24 homers and 84 RBIs split between Cleveland and Cincinnati. He has since been all but blackballed from MLB, mostly due to problems of his own making. But Puig is given a second lease on baseball life from Korea’s Kiwoom Heroes, who give him a one-year deal worth $1 million—the maximum payout allowed to a foreign-born player. Along with Singleton, Puig spent time in 2021 performing in Mexico, batting .312 with 10 home runs over 62 games. 

Friday, December 10

ESPN posts a story yesterday imagining what kind of career numbers Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens would have achieved had they never taken steroids. This assumes, of course, that we are to believe that the two superstars were on PEDs in the final years of their careers. In both cases, those are sound assumptions. Bonds admitted that he took steroids but claims he didn’t know it because his trainer, Greg Anderson, failed to tell him; Anderson sacrificed a year of his life in jail rather than testify against Bonds. Clemens’ trainer, Brian McNamee, confessed that he helped get the seven-time Cy Young Award winner on steroids in 1998. Clemens filed a defamation of character suit against McNamee, but it was rejected by a Federal judge; he was eventually found not guilty of lying to a grand jury. 

Dan Szymborski, one of the game’s better analytics experts, pores through the stats of Bonds and Clemens after both were assumed to start taking PEDs (Clemens in 1998, Bonds in 1999). He washes it all through a computer, and this is what he finds: Bonds would have hit 23 home runs, not 73, in 2001, and that he would have finished his career with 551 homers, not an all-time-record 762. Clemens, meanwhile would have won 298 games, not 354. 

This is, of course, all theory and impossible to verify. But Szymborski’s conclusion clearly says this: Both players were greatly aided by the use of steroids. That logic falls in line with most Hall-of-Fame voters, who continue in whole to deny voting Bonds and Clemens in. But if Szymborski’s recalibrated, clean numbers are to be believed—and that these two players would have accumulated them without the help of steroids—then it’s more than likely that would have been welcomed into Cooperstown long ago. It’s thus the shame of steroids that’s keeping them out. And that’s on them. 

Monday, December 13

Nine days earlier, it had been reported that Justin Verlander agreed to a two-year, $50 million contract with the incumbent Houston Astros—but the prevailing chatter said that the contract had not been fully and formally sealed before the lockout began, suggesting that Verlander could have second thoughts on the other side of the work stoppage. Turns out, it was taken care of. In the wee hours before the lockout, MLB did receive the contract from the Astros to formally bless, and did so before the expiration of the Basic Agreement. So relax, Houston fans—Verlander is still officially an Astro. It’s just a matter now of whether the lockout will give him a chance to pitch in 2022. 

Tuesday, December 14

As MLB players and owners go into hibernation on negotiations—and likely won’t emerge from the proverbial cave until after New Year’s Day at the earliest—they at least have one thing going for them: They don’t have to worry about COVID-19 shutting down the sport. The Omicron variant, said to be much more transmissible but less harmful than previous strains of the virus, is dealing numerous blows to the three other major sports leagues currently in progress. The NFL is beginning to suffer through a league-wide outbreak among its players. In the NHL, the Calgary Flames have been forced to postpone their next three games due to an outbreak. The NBA’s Chicago Bulls have had to call off their next two games due to an outbreak of their own. And in Europe, top soccer teams are back to playing in front of empty stadiums again, with some postponements. 

Lockout or no lockout, there will be no baseball for the first two months of 2022 before spring training action allegedly gets underway. In the interim, the assumption is that Omicron will spread with a potential record wave of new cases (but not as many deaths) and begin to dissipate in mid-winter. Should MLB and its players reach an agreement on a new Basic Agreement beforehand and no exhibition games are interrupted, the hope then is that Omicron—or the next variant that may or may not come on its heels—won’t threaten the games as well. 

Wednesday, December 15

There’s good news and bad news to report on the lockout. The good news is that the players and owners meet today. The bad news is that they don’t discuss the more contentious issues that could lead to a resolution. Instead, they discuss “areas outside of core economics,” according to The Athletic’s Evan Drellich

The bottom line is this: Enjoy the holidays, and don’t start sweating until we’re on the other side of the First when the clock starts ticking more loudly as Spring Training nears. If it’s February 1 and the two sides are still far apart of the many “core economics,” then it’s time to start preparing the panic room. 

Thursday, December 16

There’s a new general manager in Tampa Bay as Peter Bendix is promoted to the position, replacing Erik Neander—but in name only. Neander, who earlier this Fall was promoted to president of baseball operations, will continue to have the final say on player movements while Bendix—who began with the Rays as an intern in 2009—will be more hands-on in overseeing the Rays’ baseball ops department. It’s part of a trend in baseball where general managers don’t have the clout they once used to. 

Friday, December 17

Oakland’s proposed new waterfront ballpark takes a modest but nevertheless critical step toward reality as the project passes the city’s Environmental Impact Report. The various local political stakeholders are all quick to embrace the news, but the A’s—the folks that would benefit the most from the ballpark—remain curiously silent, as they continue to play the leverage game using Las Vegas as a possible out should continued negotiations fall apart. 

Cleveland minor leaguer catcher Andres Melendez, ranked 66th on the team’s list of prospects at the start of this past season, dies “suddenly” in Miami at the age of 20; no further details are released about the cause of death. Melendez had finished his third season in the Guardians’ organization, batting .247 with eight home runs for Class-A Lynchburg. 

Saturday, December 18

The Mets have hired veteran manager Buck Showalter as the team’s new skipper, a move made public via a tweet from Mets owner Steve Cohen. This is Showalter’s fifth team; his first two were the Yankees (1992-95) and Diamondbacks (1998-2000). Each of those teams won the World Series in the first year after his departure. He also managed the Rangers from 2003-06, and the Orioles from 2010-18—giving the latter team its lone streak of respectability over the last 25 years. Three active managers have more wins than Showalter; only 23 in total have won more than his 1,551. 

Monday, December 20

Mark Kotsay, a former outfielder for Oakland and the team’s third-base coach this past season, is given the job as the A’s new manager, replacing the recently departed Bob Melvin. As a player, Kotsay was at his career peak with the A’s from 2004-07, and played 17 total seasons for seven different teams, batting .276 with mild-at-best power. The 46-year old will take on an Oakland roster that’s expected to be depleted in 2022 as numerous reports suggest that the A’s are in strip-down mood. 

Anti-vaxxers may have their ‘freedoms’ here in the states, but Canada begs to differ. It’s announced that starting January 15, all professional athletes entering the Great White North from America will need to be fully vaccinated—or they’ll have to stay back home. This policy will immediately impact the NBA and NHL, two North American sports circuits currently in season—but it may change if the current omicron surge abates (with no disruptive new variant on its heels) in time for the start of the 2022 MLB season, whenever that might be. Thus it could handicap MLB teams, who continue to avoid mandating the vaccine to their players. 

Four of the 40 minor league teams who had their major league affiliations stripped last year as a result of MLB’s hostile takeover of the lower circuits have filed an antitrust lawsuit against MLB. Those four teams are the Staten Island Yankees, Tri-City Valley Cats, Norwich Sea Unicorns and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. The suit claims that MLB, in reducing membership by 25%, favored keeping minor league teams owned by MLB teams or that had political connections among ownership. Several antitrust challenges have landed in the Supreme Court over time, with each being punted over to the Senate to decide the fate of MLB’s antitrust exemption. The Senate avoided the hot potato then, and they certainly would now with its current makeup. 

Tuesday, December 21

Final payroll figures are released for the 2021 MLB season, and the results should explain why the players’ union is seeking a bigger share of the revenue pie as negotiations on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement remain stuck in stall mode. The total payout to MLB players this past season was $4.05 billion—the lowest figure since 2015 (last year’s pandemic-shortened season excused). This, while team revenues continue to have largely flourished. Union leadership will be sure to use this as chalkboard fodder to its constituents. 

On the team payroll front, the Dodgers ($262 million) and Padres ($233 million) are the only two ballclubs to pay luxury taxes on top of their wage totals. The Dodgers came within two games of the World Series; the Padres didn’t make the playoffs. On the other end, the Pittsburgh Pirates had MLB’s lowest payroll with $50 million. Not surprisingly, Tampa Bay, at #26 with $77 million, was the postseason team with the lowest. 

Player-wise, the Dodgers’ Trevor Bauer earned the most money in 2021 at $38 million—though he collected for half the season while on the sidelines, placed on paid administrative leave while fighting sexual assault accusations. The Angels’ Mike Trout was second at $37 million, followed by Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole at $36 million. 

Thursday, December 23

It’s not earthshaking, but it’s news—and with the lockout in effect, any news is, well, news. Here it is: Dodgers outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger avoided arbitration by signing a $17 million contract for 2022, a deal completed before the lockout began but not made public until now. Bellinger’s value may seem steep considering just how awful he was this past year; he batted .169 with 10 home runs over 95 games, but so long as he avoids the injury bug that contributed to that misery, the 2019 NL MVP expects to improve considerably next season. 

Tuesday, December 28

Shohei Ohtani has been named the top male athlete of 2021 by the Associated Press, after his dynamic dual-role effort as slugger and pitcher for the Angels. He’s the first baseball player to win since Houston’s Jose Altuve grabbed it in 2017; one wonders if the AP had thoughts of taking it back after revelations of the Astros’ cheating tactics emerged two years ago. Ohtani also is the first Japanese athlete to gain male honors; tennis star Naomi Osaka won the female award last year. 

Wednesday, December 29

Kyle Seager, a steady presence at third base for the Seattle Mariners over the last 11 seasons, retires at age 34. A current free agent, Seager did not expect to re-sign with the Mariners and didn’t want to test the market, stating through a tweet on his wife’s account that he’s “unbelievably excited for the next chapter of my life.” This past season was a mixed bag of highs and lows for Seager. He hit a career-worst .212 with 161 strikeouts (previous high: 138), but he also set lifetime bests with 35 home runs and 101 RBIs. In fact, only David Ortiz has hit more home runs (38) in his final major league season. The Mariners could always count on Seager to be ready to play; in eight of his nine full seasons, he logged at least 154 games—and in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, he played all 60 games for the Mariners. Seager finishes his career fourth on the Seattle franchise lists for hits (1,395), home runs (242) and RBIs (807), and is third with 309 doubles.

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