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Remember when 2016 was the new Year of the Homer, featuring the second-highest home run rate in MLB history and supplanting 1987 in terms of unexpectedness? Well, 2017 laughed at that notion and bumped the homer rate by another 10 percent, setting a new record of 1.26 home runs per team per game. So now the question is whether 2018 will surpass even last year’s “Year of the Homer 2: Electric Boogaloo.”

The most maddening aspect of guessing where offense is going in baseball is the why. A 25 percent increase in homers over a two-year period is stunning. A similar change occurred from 1992 to 1994, and even a quarter of a century later, that shift is largely unexplained. League expansion isn’t enough to account for that change, and one of the pop-science explanations — performance-enhancing drugs — would necessitate everybody discovering the benefits of PEDs in an 18-month period, because the home run rate stayed flat for most of the next decade. With no expansion teams, as well as drug testing since 2004, even those hole-filled theories aren’t available to explain the latest home run boost.

One possible theory is that the baseballs are constructed differently, something commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball have denied, though without actually providing any rebuttal to what researchers have found. One thing will be different this year: MLB has announced that all baseballs will be stored in air-conditioned rooms in 2018, to help determine if they should subsequently be stored in humidors in 2019 to standardize the temperature and humidity they’re kept in across the game. In theory, this change could ultimately result in lower exit velocities for a hit baseball; harder-hit baseballs are more likely to be home runs.

So one question that brings up is what effect this would have on the results, for both players and teams. Projections are made with certain assumptions for levels of offense around the league, and organizations are aware of those assumptions as they construct their teams. But what happens if we turn back the clock and the level of offense is more like 2015 than 2016-2017? To answer this question, I went back and ran my 2018 projections at 2015’s level of offense and looked for the largest differences. I also used playing time generated from estimated playing time based on current rosters, rather than the straight-up ZiPS projections (ZiPS is agnostic on which minor leaguers will play).

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From drawing to coffee to jigsaw puzzles — What MLB players picked up with so much free time

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Baseball players, like the rest of us, have had lots of spare time during the pandemic and in quarantine.

“I’ve learned to be alone,” said Padres pitcher Blake Snell.

There has been lots of learning, trapped in a hotel room or sequestered at home. There has been time to think, to experiment, time to develop a new hobby or refine an old one. So, from juice to jigsaws, coffee to cooking, reading to writing, guitar to golf, singing to swimming, dogs to dinosaurs, drawing to dunking, here’s what the players have been doing.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw
“My creative writing and my drawing skills have gotten a little better working with the kiddos. My rainbow is second to none now. Some of my make-believe and my imagination has gotten a lot better with my son. My Star Wars knowledge has gone up quite a bit as well.” When asked if his children were better than him at drawing, Kershaw said, “Yes. I can’t outdraw my daughter; she’s 6, she’s already way better. Charlie and I, Charlie is 4, we’re on about the same level.”

Astros third baseman Alex Bregman
“When I was 5 years old, my dad would bring me home a pack of baseball cards. I had a blast opening up cards and reading the back of the cards of the players. So I started doing that again during the pandemic. I have really enjoyed it.” Has he opened a pack of cards with one of his baseball cards in it? “I haven’t yet,” he said. “To see one of my cards, that would be a little kid’s dream come true.” But that wasn’t it for Bregman. “I also started playing chess for the first time since high school. When I was in the seventh grade, I was a state champion in chess. I have a few chess trophies at my parent’s house.” And how is his chess game now? “Somehow, I still got it,” he said, smiling.

A’s infielder Tony Kemp
He worked as an activist with the +1 Effect. He helped educate people about race and equality. “With the George Floyd [killing], if I was depressed and not feeling too well myself, I knew someone else was feeling my same pain,” Kemp said. “That’s when I sent out, ‘Hey, if anyone wants to have a conversation, let’s talk about it.’ That’s how the +1 Effect got going. It was positive, it exceeded my expectations.”

Padres pitcher Blake Snell
“I started playing golf. My twin brother was talking trash about it, so I had to start playing.” That one takes up less space than his other hobby. “I added to my shoe collection. I’m up to about 500, 600 pair. I have to stop. I love all the Nike SBs. Chunky Dunks. So many others.” In his last house, Snell built a room just for his shoes. “But I moved,” he said, “and now I’m building with a new room just for my shoes in my new house. I love shoes.”

Yankees pitcher Jameson Taillon
“I have really upped my coffee game. If you want coffee, I am now the go-to guy in the clubhouse — and I just got here. I have perfected my game of pour-overs. Higgy (catcher Kyle Higashioka) is my No. 1 client. I have learned to first take care of the catchers and starting pitchers.”

Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale
“Lots of backyard sports with my three boys. Baseball, basketball, soccer, football, frisbee.” Can he still dunk? “Oh, I can dunk,” said Sale, who stands 6-foot-6. “But it’s not as fulfilling dunking on a 10-year-old. I had to show him who the man of the house is.”

Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks
“I got even better at golf,” said Hicks, who has been a scratch player for years. “No major leaguer can beat me. I heard that [Mets second baseman Jeff] McNeil is good. The last Yankee to beat me was Tyler Clippard [in 2017].”

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Watch Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks crush a golf ball over the net.

Mets first baseman Pete Alonso
“I quit video games and I am now learning how to play the guitar. I got some basic melodies and some chords down. I can play a couple pretty noticeable riffs. It doesn’t sound half bad. It doesn’t sound like nails on a chalkboard anymore. Now I’m actually playing stuff the way it’s supposed to sound. Right now, I am in guitar limbo now. I am at a plateau. But if I keep practicing, I know I’ll get good. I’m not saying I’m going to be the next Jimi Hendrix.” What’s a popular song he can play? “I can play of the melody for “Under The Bridge” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I can play the “Come As You Are” riff really well.”

Astros pitcher Jake Odorizzi
“My son and I got into fishing. Mostly bass fishing. Fishing in an ocean is above my pay grade. We had a great time. My son would ask why we don’t catch a fish on every cast. I told him, ‘That’s why it’s called fishing, not catching.”’

Angels shortstop Jose Iglesias
“Music. I am taking vocal classes. I love to write songs.” Can we hear some of it? “My [music] is coming out soon,” he said. “I can’t release it too soon. You’re going to have to wait.”

A’s first baseman Matt Olson
My fiancée and I got a dog. A puppy. Black Lab. Named Cooper. He’s my phone home screen. He sleeps like a champ. He’s terrible on a leash, but I think if we took the leash off, he would be perfectly by our side. She’s [Olson’s fiancée] is handling it now. But Dad’s coming home to be the strict parent.”

Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.
“I became a dad.” Scouting on report on his dad skills? “I am a master swaddler, a master diaper-changer,” he said.

Red Sox outfielder Alex Verdugo
“I started juicing my own oranges.” Does it taste better than the juice you buy at the grocery store? “Definitely, mine is much better,” he said. “Fresh orange juice is the best. I don’t like the pulp. I take the pulp out.”

Yankees pitcher Corey Kluber
“I really got into home schooling.” What is the scouting report on him as a home schooler? “Uh, I don’t have a lot of strengths and I have a lot of weaknesses,” he said. “My kids will give you all my weaknesses.”

Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor
“I continued to ride my bike. I got better. Around my house, I went 49 miles — 2 hours and 35 minutes. I just disappeared for two hours. It was amazing. The best thing ever. I would just start peddling, and the next thing you know, I was 1 hour and 10 minutes out. I thought, ‘I gotta get back.'”

Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto
“Salt-water fishing. We went deep-sea fishing. I fell in love with it. The best part was catching a black fin tuna. I caught one on the tail, reeled it in, and then we chopped it up right there on the boat and had some fresh sashimi. It was nice.”

Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer
“I did a lot of pour painting with my kids on YouTube. Abstract painting. It is wild.”

Cubs pitcher Trevor Williams
“I became a better dad spending so much time with my three kids. I learned that my son is a better paleontologist than I am. He knows all about dinosaurs. He knows the difference between a T-Rex and a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I’ll give him a win on that one. And I learned that my daughters are way better than I am at coloring outside the lines.”

White Sox pitcher Lance Lynn
“I read more books than I ever had in my life. Most were books with my kids. Most were on the reading level for a 5-year-old, which was good for me.”

White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal
“I tried reading books, but that didn’t go very well. I tried meditation. That didn’t work. I’m a high-strung person. I play baseball, and when I’m not playing, I’m watching baseball.”

Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer
“I built a lot of jigsaw puzzles with my fiancée, Kacie.” Isn’t that tedious? “I tried to do my part,” he said. “[Kacie] did most of the work. But you don’t just empty a thousand pieces onto a table. You color code them, you do them in sections, you simplify it. If you need any help, I’m your guy.”

A’s shortstop Elvis Andrus
“I started meditating. I’m constantly doing it now. It only takes me 20-30 minutes. I’m in a really good place.”

Red Sox manager Alex Cora
“I became a cook. Barbequing. We went overboard. Lots of red meat. It was bad. When I did my labs to come here [to spring training] … whoooo. They put me on a diet right way. I had to do exercises. Our doctor, Larry Ronan, the best of the best, told me, ‘You better do something or I’ll have to give you medicine.”’ And what was Cora’s specialty? “For breakfast, I made stuffed peppers, stuffed with chorizo, Swiss cheese, eggs,” he said. “I’d put them on the grill for two hours. I had to get up early.”

Padres outfielder Wil Myers
“I dove into golf.” His handicap is now a 3. How far does he hit it? “In North Carolina, I usually go 310,” Myers said. “But here in Arizona, with the roll, I can go 360, 370. Arizona is a good place to drive a ball.” He said that golf can mess up his baseball swing, so he doesn’t play much during the season, adding that baseball takes priority because “I make a lot more money playing baseball.”

Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez
“I got into fishing. I figured if I couldn’t be around people, I might as well be on my boat to the middle of the ocean fishing by myself. I caught a bunch of sharks. My goal was to catch a big tuna. But the biggest one I caught was 25-30 pounds. I went nuts.”

Twins catcher Mitch Garver
“I started streaming video games online. The people I have met through streaming video games are very loyal Twins fans, and they are loyal to me. It gives me a chance to showcase who I am as a person, not just as a baseball player. I have a personality as well.”

Twins pitcher Jose Berrios
“I taught my kids how to swim and how to ride a bike. Now they can do it all by themselves.”

Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks
“I watched every movie and every series on Netflix. I watched every murder movie and psychological thriller. I watched every mind-bender to take my mind off what was really going on.”

Astros manager Dusty Baker
“I tried reading. Then I watched every Western movie on Starz. My wife would ask me, ‘Didn’t you just watch that one?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, I did.”’

Rays pitcher Chris Archer
“I don’t want to say I am one with nature, but I was in California, there was hiking, beaches. I watched the sunrise and the sunset. I watched the waves. It was peaceful to see how beautiful nature can be.”

Rays shortstop Willy Adames
“I learned to cook. Rice, beans, chicken. It was average. You can eat it.”

Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres
“I became video game guy. My partner is [Yankees third baseman] Gio Urshela. We have “Team G.” We were better on the left side of the infield. We figured out the same thing in Call of Duty.”

Angels outfielder Dexter Fowler
“My putting got a lot better because we were stuck in a hotel room. I was putting into a cup. We were having a competition — trick shots.”

Nationals shortstop Trea Turner
“I got into yard work and projects in the house. I put up a ceiling fan in my last house. I’m not doing that again. That was scary. In the yard, you know, I put up some lights. Won’t put up a ceiling fan, but will put up outdoor lights.”

White Sox closer Liam Hendriks
“I bought a stick-handling hockey set with a light-up board. It’s about as long as a foosball table. I showed it to all my friends in Australia who have never played hockey.” Can he skate? “Very poorly,” he said. “But my wife is a former Junior Olympic figure skater. She gets very frustrated trying to teach me anything.”

Astros pitcher Ryan Pressly
“My wife and I built a garden. I grew jalapeno peppers. My wife planted everything else. We had some great salads.”



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Los Angeles Angels star Shohei Ohtani’s two-way showing was a success and there needs to be more of it

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — There was a moment in Sunday’s Chicago White SoxLos Angeles Angels game that would’ve passed as a nondescript subtlety if not for the obvious constraints that have come to define Major League Baseball. It was the start of the third inning. Shohei Ohtani made the final out in the second, a hard line-out to center field, so he quickly retreated to the dugout, dropped off his helmet, picked up his glove and jogged back to the mound. On his way there, he noticed his back pocket was hanging out, so he scrambled to tuck it back in and shoved some of his jersey down into his pants before stepping onto the rubber to begin warming up again.

It felt like Little League.

Throughout the night, as the 26-year-old Ohtani did what hasn’t been done in 118 years, a similar buoyancy pervaded.

Ohtani was going to pitch and hit and let his talent shine without any needless restrictions. Then he threw a pitch 101 mph in the top of the first and hit a pitch 115 mph in the bottom of the first, and it felt as if nothing else mattered. Baseball, even on the fourth night of the year, was everything again, triggering the type of organic joy that can’t be duplicated by new rules or different baseballs.

The way it ended — with Ohtani limping off the field, his left ankle tender after absorbing a cleat from White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu — was a sobering reminder of how fragile this could be.

Angels manager Joe Maddon has stressed since spring training that Ohtani take charge of his career and eliminate unnecessary restrictions.

“The rules are — there aren’t going to be any rules,” Maddon said in February.

It paved the way for Sunday, the first time a pitcher batted in the No. 2 spot of the lineup since 1903. And it was evidenced by the way the top of the fifth inning played out, with Ohtani left in to face Yoan Moncada with the bases loaded, the command wavering and the pitch count approaching 90.

The decision had nothing to do with keeping Ohtani’s bat in the lineup, considering he made the final out in the prior half-inning. And it wasn’t the result of not having someone ready in the bullpen, given how long Steve Cishek had been warming up. It was much simpler than that.

“Did you see the stuff he had?” Maddon asked — rhetorically, of course — after the Angels’ eventual 7-4 win.

Ohtani, admittedly energized by the return of fans to baseball stadiums, felt “really grateful” that Maddon left him in longer than most other managers would have.

“I wanted to get out of the jam and prove to everyone that Joe’s decision was correct,” Ohtani said through his interpreter, “but I couldn’t.”

Had Angels catcher Max Stassi corralled that splitter that Moncada swung through for the third strike, there wouldn’t have been that late throw to first base, which wouldn’t have prompted Abreu to come around and score the tying run, which wouldn’t have left Ohtani in a vulnerable position while covering home plate.

Ohtani said he felt “fine” after the game and added that the impact “wasn’t as bad as it actually looked.”

The Angels won’t place him in the lineup on Monday, but the incident seemingly won’t make them any more hesitant to keep using him aggressively.

“Everything we thought he could be” was how Maddon described Ohtani pitching and hitting in the same game for the first time in his major league career. “That’s the complete baseball player — throws 100, hits it well over 100, hits it well over 400 feet. I mean that’s what we’ve been talking about. He just needed the opportunity to do it. … I think he felt liberated, he felt free. He was out there playing baseball.”

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Shohei Ohtani strikes out Yoan Moncada, but the ball gets by the catcher and two runs score after Ohtani is shaken up by a collision at the plate.

Ohtani’s rare talent was best captured by this astonishing first-inning stat: His fastball to Adam Eaton (officially 100.6 mph) was the fastest-thrown pitch of any starting pitcher this season, and his 451-foot home run off Dylan Cease (with an exit velocity of 115.2 mph) was the hardest-hit homer of the season by any player, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

There isn’t much question about Ohtani offensively. He batted .286/.351/.532 in 792 plate appearances from 2018 to 2019, then mashed five home runs in 13 spring training games in 2021. The concerns center around Ohtani’s pitching. He had accumulated only 79 2/3 innings since his astonishing 2016 season in Japan, and many of his recent outings showed an inability to consistently throw strikes. Then came Sunday, which included …

  • Eight pitches thrown at least 100 mph, more than he had accumulated in 12 prior major league starts.

  • Two strikeouts of Yermin Mercedes, who recorded a record eight hits in his first eight at-bats of the season (one of them came on three consecutive sliders, Ohtani’s third-best pitch).

  • Four baserunners through the first four innings against a lineup that stands among the best in the American League.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody who’s that skilled at both things,” White Sox manager Tony La Russa said before the game.

“Oh, he nasty,” White Sox utility man Leury Garcia added afterwards.

Ohtani came from Japan with the promise of becoming the sport’s first two-way player since Babe Ruth stopped pitching, then teased us with two exhilarating months in 2018. What followed was Tommy John surgery, a rare knee procedure, and a nightmare 2020 season that included a 37.80 ERA and a .154 batting average. Ohtani attacked the ensuing offseason with purpose. He trained at Driveline, revamped his diet, altered his weight-training regimen and got into more game-like situations in an effort to fix a delivery that had become inconsistent and a swing that had grown erratic.

When he took the field for his pitching debut on Sunday, the excitement had reached a fever pitch. Maddon’s aggressive approach promoted it, Ohtani’s dynamic spring fueled it and MLB could benefit from it. The industry has become obsessed with a desire to create more excitement, and Ohtani can create that potentially more than any other player. It’s why the answer to whether the Angels should try to use Ohtani as a two-way player was always “of course” — so long as he can remain healthy.

A talent like this should not be restrained.

The Angels clearly agree.



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Shohei Ohtani throws fastest pitch by starting pitcher this season, crushes hardest-hit home run

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Shohei Ohtani threw a baseball 101 mph in the top of the first, then hit a baseball 115 mph a half-inning later, a stirring start to a historic Sunday night for the Los Angeles Angels‘ two-way sensation.

Ohtani, pitching and hitting in the same game for the first time in his career, retired three of the first four Chicago White Sox batters he faced in the top half of the first inning, throwing three pitches in the triple digits — including a 101 mph fastball to Adam Eaton, which was followed by a nasty splitter in the dirt to record a strikeout.

In the bottom half, Ohtani turned on the first pitch he saw from White Sox right-hander Dylan Cease — a chest-high, 97 mph fastball — and launched it 451 feet to right field, giving himself some early run support.

Ohtani’s pitch to Eaton (officially 100.6 mph) was the fastest-thrown pitch of any starting pitcher this season, and his home run (with an exit velocity of 115.2 mph) was the hardest-hit homer of the season by any player.

Ohtani, who underwent Tommy John surgery following his rookie season, had accumulated only 53⅓ innings as a pitcher since his major league debut in 2018. But Angels manager Joe Maddon has committed to him as a two-way player in 2021 and has lifted a lot of the restrictions that were previously put in place, which kept him from being in the lineup the day before, the day after and the day of his starts.

On Sunday, he became the first starting pitcher to bat second in a game since Jack Dunleavy in 1903.

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