“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
— Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”
I missed you. I am glad you will be back. I truly appreciate you more now.
Going to a ballpark last year was strange, of course. Nothing made it stranger than the absence of fans.
Gone was the soundtrack. The ambience. We suddenly were at a silent movie, albeit with a few curses or hurrahs from the field made more audible. I didn’t realize just how much the crowd added to the moment, until there was no swelling anticipation with two strikes or with a ball heading toward the fences or with a runner rounding third for a bang-bang play at home.
The artificial stuff didn’t fill the void. Like a reminder of someone gone, it made the absence worse. You cannot be faked no matter how inspired a cardboard cutout or how timely the ersatz fan noise is piped in.
And here is what is nice about feeling this way: I am not alone. Over the past few weeks — as I asked personnel, executives, scouts what stands out this spring — so many mentioned you, the fans, being back at the park; even socially distanced, scaled down and masked. They talked about how it felt like baseball again. How it brought another level of enthusiasm and motivation to the day of work.
One scout, who didn’t want me to name him because he didn’t want his team to know we talked, said: “I went back into the yard and it was a theater of all that I was missing.”
I hope we (most definitely including myself) remember that this season — and all seasons. The scale of major league baseball is made large by your interest, which most undoubtedly includes your presence. I can’t wait this year for you to come roaring back — literally. Even in smaller numbers at first, it will be great to see you and, especially, to hear you.
May you stay safe and enjoy the games and bring energy, passion and that soundtrack back.
And now some other observations — theirs and mine — from those conversations with folks at spring training:
- Most underrated unit in the game: The White Sox’s bullpen. Chicago signed the best free agent reliever, Liam Hendriks. But what he is joining is pretty special. Garrett Crochet and Aaron Bummer might be the best lefty relief duo in the sport. Crochet was picked 11th last June and was promoted to the majors in time to throw six shutout innings of relief. He throws triple-digit filth. Bummer is Zack Britton 2.0 with huge reliance on a dominant sinker. Matt Foster, Codi Heuer and Evan Marshall combined to pitch in 67 games last year with a 2.04 ERA, 46 percent groundball rate and better than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. And the White Sox have a wild card, Michael Kopech, who hasn’t pitched in two years, but whose stuff is electric.
- Most transformed unit: The Brewers’ defense. Lorenzo Cain is back after opting out of most of last season, and Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kolten Wong were signed as free agents — Wong taking over at second moves the defensively challenged Keston Hiura to first. And like that, Milwaukee became a lock-down defense.
- Unit with an interesting upside: The Angels’ offense. The Angels were ninth in runs per game last year behind the brilliance of Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon, and a breakout from first baseman Jared Walsh. They did not get much from Shohei Ohtani or Justin Upton. But both have looked great in spring. Ohtani, back to trying to be a two-way player, has been the best hitter in the Cactus League. Upton looks physically better and, despite a poor 2020, he did have a .967 OPS over his final 20 games, so potentially he would have had a familiar season if it had been a regular 162-game season.
- I am picking Jacob deGrom for NL Cy Young, but if I weren’t … DeGrom is the best starter in the sport. He is having Roy Halladay’s career, perhaps on the way to even better. But if he were to stumble, keep an eye on the Brewers’ Corbin Burnes and the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara. Yep, Burnes gets the benefit of that upgraded Brewers defense, but he also is throwing 96 mph cutters, and good luck with that. Alcantara is just a rising stock, in part because of his falling walk percentages. He is 25 and harnessing elite stuff.
- Trend that has my attention: The hybrid pitcher. I have long thought there should be an award after each season for the best versatile position player — maybe name it for Ben Zobrist and honor the versatile asset who best helps his team survive and thrive by playing regularly all over the place.
In 2020, we should have such an award for the multipurpose pitcher. There is no more overarching concern in the sport than how each team will pitch 1,400-plus innings this year. How much work can pitchers handle following a 60-game regular season and no minor league season in 2020? Expect to see six-man rotations, piggy-back starters, openers, 14-pitcher staffs and more.
Thus, a pitcher who can provide innings in a variety of ways — starting, short relief, long relief — will have great value. Think someone like the Dodgers’ Dustin May.
The Rays’ Ryan Yarbrough served often as the bulk-inning pitcher following a reliever in 2018 and represents the only pitcher to exceed 100 relief innings over the past 17 seasons. It is possible we will see a few reach the century mark this year.