The year that ... : What we'd bet baseball in 2018 will be remembered for forever

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Thursday, December 27, 2018

What you know about 1918: the flu pandemic, the end of World War I, and the Boston Red Sox winning their final World Series of the century.

The last one wouldn't have seemed historic to the average human in 1918. It came to mean something only with distance and subsequent events/non-events. So it is with some humility that we embark on the quest to identify that one thing from the 2018 baseball season our great-great-grandchildren will know about.

We use as our guide The Definitive Guide to What Gets Remembered, our survey of the past century's most resilient baseball, from Merkle's Boner to Mays' catch to the Mitchell report. That guide gives us the seven categories of not-forgotten things past to organize our search.

Category 1. Incredible achievement, usually captured by a single number or concept

Shohei Ohtani both hit and pitched and, welp, this article is over. "Shohei Ohtani both hit and pitched" is an obviously correct answer, made more obvious by the fact that he won the American League Rookie of the Year award, and by the fact that he easily surpassed most expectations for what he'd do as a hitter, that he was not just a novelty but a star, and not just a star but a phenomenon. And at the end of this article, you will probably still think this is the right answer, because you will be unconvinced by my efforts to talk you into what is the even more correct answer to come.

There are only two things that can happen with Ohtani In 2018's legacy now: Either nobody will do what Ohtani did again (including, perhaps, after elbow surgery, Ohtani himself), in which case he will stand as a beautiful and perfect athletic outlier, like Bo Jackson's 1990 Score trading card; or else this will be a new way some baseball players are used in a flexibility-obsessed era. In that case, Ohtani In 2018 will have basically invented a new position/role, and this would qualify as a Category 2 historic moment: when the timeline begins.

The only other real contender in this category is Jacob deGrom's ERA/win-loss record combination. But while a 1.70 ERA and 10-9 record is endlessly fun-factable, it probably needed to be a 1.70 ERA and 9-10 record to get into "The Ultimate Baseball Trivia Book" (copyright 2053) you're going to buy as a Christmas present for your robot granddaughter.

So the answer for this category is, without question, Ohtani.

How it'll be remembered, exactly, in 100 years: "A young phenom who might have become the best pitcher in the world and the best hitter in the world flashed his million-watt greatnesses for a very brief time before the strain of the role broke his body down and baseball never saw such a display again."

Category 1(b). Incredible team (often captured by a nickname)

The Red Sox were the 12th team in history to win 108 games, the first in 17 years to do it, and -- for all we know right now, in 2018 -- the last to do it. (Almost certainly not, but who knows?) They then had the most difficult postseason path ever, facing a 100-win Yankees team (with whom they have, conveniently, the most storied rivalry in baseball); then a 103-win Astros team coming off a World Series title that had what might have been the best pitching staff ever; and then the Dodgers, a powerhouse of the era. The Red Sox beat all three teams with conviction, losing only three of 14 postseason games.

Put that all together, and even before the final out of the World Series, the debate had begun about where the Red Sox rank all time. "By any measure the 2018 Red Sox, if champions at the end, will join the 1998 Yankees as the best of the expansion era," MLB historian John Thorn said. While FiveThirtyEight's analysis concluded they were merely the 18th-"best" champions ever -- the best since 1998 -- that analysis relied heavily on things that ultimately, arguably, don't matter: run differential, combined WAR. Maybe the Red Sox are only the 18th-"best" champion, in other words, but they are among a much smaller handful of teams that could be called the most successful champion.

Now add to that that they have at least two players who will still be famous at least 50 years from now, in Mookie Betts and Chris Sale. And they had a first-year manager who is young enough to yet become a historically significant skipper. And they've now won four World Series titles this century, all under the same ownership group. John Henry and his staff could easily become a historically significant front office. We might be talking about the Team of the Century's single best team here.

They don't have a nickname. That's a problem. The memorable-decades-later teams usually have nicknames, and they usually had those nicknames not just after the fact but during the fact. They're also not exactly a dynasty, with just one World Series appearance for this group of players. That's not prohibitive -- the Miracle Mets and the Gashouse Gang each won only one World Series (though they had nicknames!) -- but it's an obstacle. There are at least five major league teams at the moment that could, depending on the next five to seven years, go down as the team of this era. If it breaks right for any one of them, these Red Sox might still be mostly forgotten.

How it'll be remembered, exactly, in 100 years (trolling version): As the last year before the Yankees' 21st-century dynasty began.

How it'll be remembered, exactly, in 100 years (non-trolling version): Probably as a line midway down a table of the best teams ever.

Category 1(c). Incredible single play or sequence of plays, often aided by iconic photo or video images

Fan-interference calls are reliably memorable. The Bartman play is infinitely more memorable than the walk, single, error, double, intentional walk, sacrifice fly, intentional walk, double and single that followed it. Jeffrey Maier, who was involved in one Major League Baseball play in his entire life, is more famous than Tony Tarasco, who was involved in the very same play and a couple thousand more on top of it.

Here's why I think that is: The fans wildly outnumber the players on the field. They surround them and could at any moment break into a stampede and ruin the whole game. It's terrifying, if you really dwell on it. Strangers are dangerous, and 50,000 strangers surrounding a person is not what the person's brain stuff was built to handle. We successfully suppress that tension, but the brain can't totally resolve it. Like with the massive Argentine ants colony living under my garden sprinklers, I never fully suppress that at some point they could come inside and ruin my life. Fan interference is one ant reaching through the perilously weak barrier and reminding the players (and the rest of us) how many ants are out there, all the time.

(Or maybe it's just because they don't happen very often.)

Here's why this particular fan interference could survive for decades:

1. It was ambiguous and it was anachronistic. We're not supposed to have calls that are too hard for modern umpires to get right anymore. We have cameras for this sort of thing! We had a camera specifically for this thing, but because of that fluke of timing -- the security guard who leaned out to see the action -- the truth of this play will never be resolved. We can debate this one for 100 years. It's like something out of the 1920s.

2. The players involved are both likely to be remembered for at least 30 or 40 years, and quite possibly 100. Two Hall of Famers of immense character and pizazz, neither one likely to be lumped into the generic old-timey ballplayer bucket. For that matter, the Red Sox actually won the World Series, so this extremely high-stakes play definitely mattered to a bigger story.

3. The genre-art qualities of the photograph:

Crucially, this photo guarantees this play will make for a good oral history in 20 or 50 years. Some writer can hunt down all those happy, scared, hesitant, greedy faces and find out what it was like and whether that danged ball was over that danged wall.

4. The fact that the very next day Alex Bregman hit basically the same ball to basically the same spot and Mookie Betts took basically the same leap and all the fans leaned way back and watched Betts make the catch he was probably -- probably? -- supposed to make in the first place, though we'll never know.

Others in this category: The 18-inning, 7-hour World Series game. Yet this somehow felt more like just modern baseball, not all that significant.

So: Jose Altuve+ Betts.

How it'll be remembered, exactly, in 100 years: "The Red Sox won the World Series in part because a security guard stood up and blocked the only camera that could have definitely told umpires where a ball had been touched by fans."

Category 2. The moment the timeline begins/the moment modern baseball begins

The most important thing baseball owns is a reason to watch, and the main one is other people are watching. You turn on a baseball season largely because you know a lot of other people care about it. This critical mass produces all sorts of secondary benefits -- you know there will be people to talk about baseball with, your baseball merchandise will be recognizable and denote predictable signifiers about you, when you go to a game it will be crowded and loud enough to get you excited, and the game you watch today is part of a larger story that will go on for the rest of the year, and for years in the future, all of it on TV or in nice new stadiums, all very healthy, all backed by the full faith and credit of millions of other people caring. This is why you don't follow Ultimate Frisbee, which I'm sure is objectively rad.

Baseball has some "reason to watch" problems right now. It's not really a young person's viewing experience. It's largely a TV sport now -- the league's finances depend on this -- and the people who can watch 3 hours of baseball games a day tend to be older. It's competing with infinite options on other channels and other browser tabs. And, crucially, if young people aren't watching, then other young people aren't going to watch, because most of us watch because other people are watching.

In May, the Supreme Court ruled all 50 states could legalize sports betting if they wanted, striking down a 1992 law that had limited most wagering to Nevada. Ten states (including New York) now have "full-scale legalized sports betting" or have recently passed bills to legalize it, and more than a dozen more (including California) have seen bills introduced, according to ESPN's state-by-state tracker. Major League Baseball, which once made Thou Shalt Not Bet its first commandment, has notably softened on its relationship with sports books. In late November, the league partnered with MGM Resorts International to designate MGM the "first official gaming and entertainment partner," while sharing proprietary Statcast data with MGM's books. As Grant Brisbee wrote this month, "In 2013, [then-MLB commissioner Bud] Selig gave sworn testimony about the Lovecraftian horrors that would emerge from gambling's depths to consume baseball. In 2018, his replacement waxed poetic about just how snugly the sport and gambling fit together."

None of this changed the game immediately. But in the same way the most memorable baseball event of 1922 was the Supreme Court's antitrust exemption, this court's ruling could easily end up the most lasting, most significant baseball moment of 2018.

Why do people watch in 2068? Will the answer be "because baseball embraced gambling and gambling is fun?" Is the sport extremely healthy the same way March Madness -- with its office pools and side bets -- is healthy? Or is it cordoned off from most of the culture, sort of like horse racing is, a sport that's profitable but diminished from its heyday? I don't know. We don't know. But it's not hard to see, in 50 years, this court decision being the most consequential ramp in the recent history of the sport.

How it'll be remembered, exactly, in 100 years: "A court case that made baseball significantly more profitable until 2084, when the Supreme Court upheld a federal bill making sports wagering illegal in all 54 states."

Category 3. Bloopers and/or extraordinary failures

The Astros probably should have built Alex Bregman's MVP campaign around this play:

I mean look at this:

Has there ever been a batter who was more likely to be out, midplay, than this? Maybe Jason Donald, as the 27th batter in the Armando Galarraga "perfect game," but this gives it a run: Jonathan Lucroy is between Bregman and first base; he is holding the ball, he is inches away from Bregman, Bregman is almost as physically far away from a safe base as a runner can get, Bregman is still holding his bat because he's not even really trying to run, and there is no direction Bregman could even legally run except even farther away from any safe base. Also, Lucroy could turn and throw to first base for the force, but that's a million times harder than what he actually gets to do.

Somehow, from that, Bregman not only makes it safely to first base, but the Astros get the runner at second base home for an 11th-inning walk-off in a game between the first- and second-place teams, and Bregman ended up at the bottom of a dogpile.

It's so stupid. It's the best play ever. This guy got safe:

The only other contender here is the Orioles, whose 115 losses put them 61 games behind Boston's 108 wins, which is a record for the expansion era, and which was commemorated beautifully by the framing of one of the year's most-reprinted photographs:

Bregman, though.

How it'll be remembered, exactly, in 100 years: Sadly, it probably won't be, unless baseball bloopers are a much bigger part of the new media business model than I'm assuming.

Category 4. Pathos

There are no candidates in this category this year.

Category 5. Disruption of baseball's equilibrium

Few concepts have been as sturdy in baseball as The Starting Pitcher Is Different. It's central to the sport's strategy, psychology, marketing, scouting, development and medicine. We've pretty much always known, or at least intuited, that there might be another way to do it, and I guarantee you there are at least three guys in every front office who fantasized about a scheme where the whole staff is filled with relievers, everybody going one, two or three innings. (Pretty much all pitchers pitch better in short bursts rather than long outings.) But even as the starting pitcher's role shrunk, and the relief pitcher population expanded, the "The Starting Pitcher Is Different" concept fended off all challengers.

Then, this year, the Rays just blew it up, and it was fine. About half their games were normal -- a traditional starter used in a traditional way -- but in the rest, the Rays led off with somebody from the bullpen, with no expectation he would work any longer than if he'd been called into the seventh inning. Their best right-handed reliever started 29 games and finished 10; Ryan Yarbrough, designated a "bulk guy" instead of a starter, won 16 games but started only six. The Rays were a game under .500 when Sergio Romo started May 19, and from that point on, they went 69-50, with the third-best ERA in baseball. Not all of that because of their bullpenning, of course; traditional starting pitcher/Cy Young Blake Snell gets more than a passing mention in their story. But the thing didn't blow up. It even worked. And the team thrived in accordance.

By the end of the year some were copying the Rays in moderation, or with variations. The Brewers bullpenned their way through a one-game playoff, parts of the division series, and to the seventh game of the league championship series. (It was their traditional "ace," Jhoulys Chacin, who started the game; it backfired.) Players began, with good reason, to worry about how this would affect their earnings. There's no single definition of what "bullpenning" means, but with the Rays' success, teams now have unofficial permission to experiment without getting hammered as weirdos, and if a time-traveler from 50 years hence told you that in 2068 there are no rotations and only a half-dozen pitchers go more than 100 innings a year, you'd probably believe him enough to buy the stocks he recommends. This is the year the weirdo fantasy became a roadmap.

How it'll be remembered, exactly, in 100 years: "Before 2018, teams intentionally used their pitchers in a way that made them significantly worse, because they were so worried about running out of those pitchers. But in 2018, they realized there are a lot of pitchers."

Category 6. When the larger world intersects with baseball, or vice versa

Of the president's 40,000 tweets and counting, this one falls below many of them for historical significance.

But I can only tell you two things about William Taft: something about a bathtub, and that he was the first president to throw out the first pitch of a game, because there are a lot of baseball writers. It's very unlikely this tweet is what we remember from this political era. But there is zero chance, in 100 years, a baseball historian hasn't written a book about this tweet.

Category 7. By being weird, by being almost literally unbelievable or inexplicable

There are no candidates in this category this year (though almost all of these nominees fit in some way or another).

My pick is the Supreme Court ruling. Ohtani won't be forgotten. But baseball's history is one of eras -- the dead ball era, the integration era, the free-agency era, the steroids era, the analytics era -- and there's a better chance we're entering the gambling era than the Ohtani era.

But things change. A year ago, we concluded the most durable memory of the 2017 season would be that picture of Jose Altuve standing next to Aaron Judge, the American League's two leading MVP contenders representing the two furthest boundaries of baseball physiques.

But, we allowed,

whether we remember 2017 as the juiced-ball year depends on whether things go back to normal in 2018. If they don't, then 2015 -- as the start of the home run timeline -- will probably be remembered as the change year, and some future season in which even more home runs get hit will be remembered as the peak Year Of The Dinger. However, if the seams rise slightly and home runs dip by 20 percent next season, 2017 will be remembered as the year it reached absurdity, and decades of future fun facts will end with "... since 2017." As in: "Scooter Cloddywomp homered three times against the Giants on Tuesday night. That's the most home runs by a Scooter in a single game since 2017."

As it turned out, home runs really had crested in 2017 and became a bit scarcer in 2018. Judge and Altuve will stay remembered, but probably more in the context of that lively baseball: Judge's rookie record for home runs, Altuve's .547 slugging percentage as a little guy, all just part of the Peak Dinger season. Things change, and our memories filter more stuff out.

For that matter, 1918 -- one century ago -- is less and less the Year the Red Sox Won Their Last World Series of the 20th Century. To a kid raised in this century, when Red Sox titles are nothing unusual, the franchise's drought is a distant -- well, not even a memory. A generation from now, what the Red Sox did in 2004 will be remembered as the start of something, not the end. But we'll know.

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