As the curtain falls on another season of Baseball, with the Houston Astros crowned World Series winners, the Sports Gazette takes a look back on what was a memorable season in the MLB.
The World Series
Where to start but the Fall Classic? This year Baseball’s biggest prize certainly lived up to it’s nickname. The Houston Astros won a first title in their 55-year history, and for the third time in four years the series went the distance – we were treated to another game seven.
In the end, the Astros sealed the victory with a fairly routine 5-1 win in LA against the Los Angeles Dodgers – a game that was antithetical to the rest of the series, which will be remembered for two nights in particular.
The first – a 7-6 Astros win at Dodger Stadium in game two – was an 11-inning classic that only truly came to life at the death. Going into the ninth inning the Astros trailed 3-2, only for a Marwin Gonzalez solo home run to tie the game and take it into extra innings, where things got even crazier. Houston hit back-to-back homers through Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa to take a 5-3 lead, but LA fought back to level it. The Astros finally put the game to bed with a two run homer from series MVP George Springer in the 11th, at the time tying the series at 1-1.
Whilst many, including some of the players, thought that things couldn’t get any better, game five in Houston once again proved us all wrong. A slugfest that bore closer resemblance to a heavyweight boxing match than a game of Baseball was finally won 13-12 by Houston, after seven home runs and nearly five-and-a-half hours – the second longest game in World Series history.
Last year’s Fall Classic was mooted as one of the all time greats. Surely this year’s will be remembered equally as fondly. Long may these World Series epics continue.
Undoubtedly the story of the regular season was the Cleveland Indians’ 22-game win streak that stretched from August 24th to September 14th.
Breaking the all-time record for consecutive victories in American Baseball (both the 1916 New York Giants and the 1875 Boston Red Stockings had runs of 26-games, but each featured a tie), the Indians had a combined score of 140-36 during the streak. Furthermore, the Tribe trailed in just seven of the 181 total innings over the 22-games. After falling at the final hurdle before the World Series this year, the streak may at least provide Indians fans with some salve to their wounds.
That the regular season total strikeout record was broken came as no surprise – this is the 10th straight season that the number has been surpassed. The figure – 40,105 – consigns last year’s total of 38,982 to irrelevance.
Top of the pile in terms of individual contribution was Boston Red Sox left-hander Chris Sale, who became the first American League pitcher in 18-years to notch over 300 strikeouts (he had 308 in total – just five short of Boston’s all-time franchise record). Yet, despite Sale’s best efforts, he remained 205 short of the all-time record (set by Matt Kilroy in 1886) and 75 short of Nolan Ryan’s 383 (set in 1973 – the modern-era record).
Whilst the previous Strikeout record lasted for just a year – and will likely be broken again next season – the home run mark had stood since the turn of the millennium.
There were 6,105 homers hit during the regular season, 412 more than the previous high of 5,693 in 2000, averaging out at 1.26 per game (another record). For just the 19th time in MLB history, you were more likely than not to see a home run hit in any given game.
Home run records continued to tumble going into the postseason. Jose Altuve led the way individually with seven – just one off the record, whilst George Springer tied the all-time World Series home run record, with five. To top it off, there were 25 homers hit in Baseball’s showpiece event – another record – which even led to conspiracy theories claiming that the balls themselves were juiced.
Naturally, these strikeout and home run statistics contained within them a number of smaller records. For example, the 2017 regular season saw the Chicago Cubs and the New York Yankees break the 46-year landmark for the most strikeouts in a single game, with 48, and the Minnesota Twins became the first ever MLB team to hit a home run in each of the first seven innings of a game.
Stanton and Judge
Giancarlo Stanton, the Miami Marlins’ right fielder, came within a couple of swings of re-opening Baseball’s age-old debate over the regular season individual home run record.
A controversial issue due to the doping scandals that plagued the power hitting heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there will never be unanimous agreement over whether it is Barry Bonds (who hit 73 home runs in 2001) or Roger Maris (who hit 61 home runs in 1961) that holds the record.
Stanton this season hit 59 – the joint-ninth highest total of all-time (or joint-third, depending on your view). Stanton himself stated, before the season’s end, that he believed the record to be Maris’.
Now that the season is over, however, a line can be drawn under Stanton’s 59 homers and his performance appreciated in isolation. This was the 27-year-old’s first injury-free season in six years. If he can stay fit and continue hitting next year, we may have to start the debate all over again.
It wasn’t just Stanton, however, to make headlines with superhuman home run hitting this year. Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees’ big right fielder broke the record for home runs hit in a rookie season, crushing 52 – second in the Majors behind Stanton and the most in the American League. He added a further four in the postseason as the Yankees were defeated by the Astros in the American League Championship Series.
Judge is a power hitter of rare ability, hitting the ball out of the park at an alarming rate and distance. On top of his rookie home run record he had the longest blast of the season, at 495 feet, as well as the four hardest-hit long balls.
The 25-year-old looks to be the next in a long line of Yankee superstars and could, like Stanton, pose a serious threat to that home run record in seasons to come.
More pitching changes
Despite the strikeout record, things weren’t all rosy on the pitching mound this year. We saw the most pitching changes in a regular season and, consequently, the fewest complete games thrown by pitchers – just 59 (in over 2,400 games).
This is best illustrated by comparing the number of innings pitched by Kilroy, Ryan and Sale in their top-strikeout seasons. Kilroy threw 513 strikeouts in 583 innings in 1886, Ryan had 383 strikeouts in 326 innings in 1973, whilst Sale got his 308 strikeouts in 214.1 innings this year.
Whilst pitchers are becoming more effective at throwing Ks, they are pitching fewer and fewer innings. Although this should give pitchers more protection and career longevity, it provides Baseball with a different problem altogether…
Games are getting longer
Yet another record was broken during the regular season this year: the average length of a nine-inning game. At just over three hours, the growth is the result of the continuing increase in pitching changes and the time taken to complete at-bats. The average gap between balls being hit into play this year clocked in at nearly four minutes – an all-time high.
These statistics, worryingly, have coincided with another drop in attendance figures – the third in as many seasons. Whilst this year represented the 15th-highest attendance in MLB history, the cumulative total dropped below 73 million for the first time since 2002.
Most of the records outlined here are huge positives for Major League Baseball, and therefore it is important – now more than ever – to harness the great pitching and hitting that the game currently enjoys, and use them to turn this trend around. Baseball is, granted, a game steeped in tradition, but perhaps requires some subtle tweaking in order to appeal to the next generation and preserve its status as America’s Game.
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