18 On Deck in 2018: Stories Worth Watching This Season in MLB

Now Batting in 2018…

Now THAT is a Pretty Picture…(Photo via SportingNews.com)

*This piece is part of John Collins’ ongoing article series called, “It’s All Fun and Games (‘Till Somebody Brings Up the Money…)” where he focuses on the lighter sides of sports business while tying it back into the topics driving the conversation in the industry.

Spring has sprung, the weather is (hopefully) getting nicer, and Major League Baseball’s regular season is just about here! With that, we’ll take a look at 18 of the major storylines coming out of Arizona and Florida as we head into the 2018 MLB season. 

1) March to Opening Day: For the first time in years, all 30 teams will be starting their seasons on the same Opening Day. Coincidentally, it’ll also be the earliest Opening Day in history- Thursday, March 29th- because of changes made to the schedule in the latest CBA. The pre-April opener will allow for more off-days, although it could also create issues for franchises in colder weather locales. What’s the policy on a Snow Day?

2) ShowTime: Where Japanese ballplayer Shohei Ohtani would sign was the story of the offseason. Ohtani is an incredible athlete many have taken to calling the “Japanese Babe Ruth,” because of his two-way potential. After having success as both a pitcher and a hitter in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball League, everybody is looking forward to seeing if he can do the same in Los Angeles, where he’ll be playing for the Angels.

Of course, some are speculating that after a rocky Spring Training, Ohtani should really be starting the year down in the minors, but after all the hype he’s generated, that’s incredibly unlikely to happen. He’s a driving force behind much of the Angels’ marketing, joining Mike Trout- one of the biggest talents and recognizable “faces of baseball”- to elevate Halos games back to actually being compelling.  

3) Judge, Jury, & Executioner: The only thing potentially overshadowing Ohtani’s free-agency this winter was where Marlins’ slugger Giancarlo Stanton was going to be traded. Now that he’s landed with the Yankees, Stanton will be joining Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge to fill out a lineup brimming with power.

Stanton led all of baseball in home runs last year, with Judge setting a record as a rookie while doing the same in the American League. With two of the sport’s most powerful sluggers in the same lineup, even Yankees exhibition games have become Must-Watch Television. The team’s Spring Training telecasts posted record-setting ratings, and New York recently announced they’ll be opening the stadium early on select game days so fans can take in the batting practice power spectacle. Now the duo (trio, lest we overlook the slugging catcher Gary Sanchez’s already in the lineup) just needs a nickname! Clever t-shirt’s to follow…

4) Squeaky Wheel in the Justice League: Staying in the Northeast, the Mets incredibly talented starting pitchers may finally all play together! With stars like Noah “Thor” Syndeergard and “Dark Knight” Matt Harvey joining ace Jacob DeGrom and Zach Wheeler, the Mets’ rotation has long been billed as a sight to see….except they’ve never all been able to make it onto the roster together.

The last few years it’s been health, and this year Wheeler will be starting in the minors, but hopefully this year New York will finally see their marketing-darling rotation together. (I know, I know…Marvel and DC aren’t the same comics, but you get the idea…).

5) Sticks & Stones: Speaking of injuries, funny Spring Training follies are practically a rite of passage, with plenty of players landing on the injured Disabled List for all sorts of odd reasons. We’ve heard “tripping on the dog,” “cutting an onion,” and “ordering a sandwich” in the past, but this year we may have the winner for “Most Outrageous Calamity” ever.

Earlier this winter, Texas pitcher Martin Perez suffered an elbow injury after an “incident with a bull.” Texas, bulls…ok I can kinda see that. Only our story doesn’t end there. When talking about his rehab with reporters, he casually slipped in that he went full-on Hannibal Lector and mentioned that “I killed him and I ate him.” Apparently, it was “good meat….”

6) Pitching Physics: In an interview discussing his work during the offseason, Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer signified the newest evolution in baseball, working in terms like “magnus force,” and “laminar flow.” He and fellow hurlers like Rockies’ Adam Ottavino are no longer satisfied with simply “tinkering with their fastball, or adding break to a changeup.”

Now they’ve turned to companies like Kyle Boddy’s DriveLine that incorporate high-def pitch tracking video and data, as well as a team of scientists and sabermetricians, to make improvements to a pitcher’s arsenal. Ottavino called the new science-backed pitch design “another step in the evolution of the game.” Now full-service companies like DriveLine and technology companies offering cameras and tracking, like Rapsodo and Edgertronic, are popping up for an eager market.

7) To the Moon!: Hitters aren’t being left out of the evolution. In an excellent column for Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci detailed the “Countdown to Liftoff: Baseball’s New Era,” where hitters are forsaking the long-established doctrine to “hit the top half of the ball,” and “focus on contact,” for a new approach to hitting. Sluggers have started focusing on things like “exit velocity” and “launch angle,” with many even going to “swing doctors” to improve their batting.

Yes, this has created a much larger emphasis on home-runs and power, but perhaps more importantly, it’s revived careers and created new avenues for those aspiring to work in the game. Blue Jay Josh Donaldson and the Reds’ Joey Votto remade their swings to prolong their careers, and “as another sign of the revolution, Major League organizations are putting people in uniform who never played affiliated baseball.” They are employing people with titles like “hitting strategist,” and “biomechanics specialist.” As Seattle General Manager Jerry Dipoto said, “technology and data are the great equalizers.” Now you don’t necessarily need to be a star athlete to have a successful career in the game.

8) New Faces, New Places: Some fans may be in for a startling surprise this Opening Day, as many longtime “faces of the franchise,” are no longer with their respective teams. The Tampa Bay Rays, Miami Marlins, Detroit Tigers, and even Kansas City Royals have traded away or failed to re-sign many of the homegrown players fans came to know as the core of their team.

That’s left the rebuilding teams and displaced players with quite a challenge: remaking their role and identity in the game. After trading away players expected to be “a lifetime Ray” like Evan Longoria, or “lifelong Pirate Andrew McCutchen,” franchises are having to undergo what equates to almost a “rebranding.” New faces on the magnetic calendars, players in the promos, and fixtures for any promotional campaign. This applies to the players as well, who are no longer “franchise faces” and core players. They have to remake their identity and find their role on a new team; engaging with an entirely new fanbase.

9) Knock, Knock, Knocking on Major League’s Door: While the rebuilding franchises are having to say goodbye to some of their star players, in many cases, the next wave of talent in baseball may already be here. Young players like Ronald Acuna, a prospect with the Braves, have been performing so well they’re on the verge of becoming household names. As teams get rid of the old, many fans have started focusing on the new; forecasting a franchise’s farm system and keeping an eye on the more talented prospects ripe for a call-up to the Big Leagues.

This has generated some angst though, as teams may be reluctant to include otherwise qualified prospects on their Major League roster as a way to manipulate service time. By stashing prospects in the minors, they’re able to prolong their control over the player at a reduced salary. As USA Today noted, “it’s a move solely motivated by economics, and not necessarily big-league readiness,” keeping the next wave of talent out of the game for financial reasons.  

10) Playing for Peanuts: As for those financial reasons, prospects toiling in the Minor Leagues suffered a major blow on Friday, as they lost their rights to minimum wage as part of the spending bill passed by the President. As part of “Save America’s Pasttime Act,” executives in the league lobbied Congress to pass legislation that enables them to avoid paying higher salaries to players in the minor league.

While MLB is more profitable than ever, and Major League salaries have skyrocketed by up to 10,000% since the mid-‘70s, minor leaguers are stuck earning less than minimum wage. In fact, in the exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act, MLB does not even have to pay the young players for Spring Training, offseason workouts, or potential overtime during the games- all of which seems incredibly rapacious. Ted Berg does an excellent job elucidating why this is so unfair, and Sporting News lays out the unsustainable situation created by the business model in the Minor Leagues.

11) Free-agents Angry: Veteran players in the Major League aren’t exactly happy campers with the state of the game’s economy either. As was widely reported this offseason, many free-agents suffered from a dearth of contract offers and were forced to sign for largely depressed salaries.

While the sport is quite profitable, Major Leaguers don’t believe they are “receiving their cut,” as teams and owners are pocketing larger and larger portions of the money. This could create a hostile labor situation between MLB and the Players’ Association for the first time in years, with the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2020 sure to be contentious. Could all the animosity lead to a potential lockout or work stoppage? Fans of the sport are certainly hoping against that.

12) Marlin Makeover: Derek Jeter and the new ownership group running the Marlins have radically altered the franchise since taking over at the end of last season. There’ve been large-scale firings, trades, and an almost “gutting” of the entire organization. This has obviously caused quite an uproar and drawn a good deal of criticism, but perhaps there is a silver lining.

The Marlins recently launched what they’re calling the “Dimelo” Listening Campaign. Dimelo, Spanish for “talk to me,” is an initiative aimed at soliciting feedback from the team’s fans and local community on how they can most improve the franchise and gameday experience. If successful, this could create an excellent framework for all the teams in the league to better engage with their fan-base and community to ensure a stronger, more sustainable- and essentially more profitable- relationship.

13) Growing the Game: Major League Baseball isn’t just concerned with the state of the game in their own backyard. The league is actively pursuing ways to grow the game internationally, creating a much larger market for the sport. Previous exhibitions have been played in Cuba and Japan, this year two regular season games are scheduled in Puerto Rico and Mexico, and there’s even talk of bringing the Yankees vs Red Sox to London for a series in the future.

Ideally, this enables the league to reach a much larger population and potentially paves the way for an even further globalization of the game. This attracts new talent, creates new opportunities, and could generate a significant amount of revenue.  

14) Pace of Play: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has made it no secret that he wants to improve the sport’s pace-of-play. He sees long games filled with idle action as a major detriment to the sport’s popularity and instituted a new policy this winter designed to speed up the game.

For a full review of the new rules, see our previous coverage, and keep an eye on the situation for a few reasons. If the measures do work, will the league see a rise in popularity? If the changes are insufficient, what’s Manfred’s next move, and how else might the structure of the sport be changing? One thing that would be incredible to see in baseball is something like the partnership between the USGA, PGA, and Fox that will bring golf fans uninterrupted coverage of select tournaments.  

15) Hyping Next Year: Fans and reporters have already started envisioning some of this year’s upcoming free agents in new uniforms, creating equal parts optimism and animosity. Those hoping for the talented players to join their team are obviously enthused by the coverage, while the franchises and fanbases losing them- as well as the players themselves- are already sick of the conversation.

Nationals star outfielder Bryce Harper has already made it known that he will not address any sort of future contract speculation, and the league actually chastised Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge for mentioning that he would love to see Manny Machado with wearing Pinstripes next year. Testy interviews, accusations of tampering, and the free agency in question isn’t even here yet!

16) Technology Takeover: MLB Advanced Media is already a burgeoning success, with MLB.TV and the AtBat App two of the more popular “applications” available on phones, tablets, and other streaming devices today. Last year saw Twitter join the scene, and Facebook recently announced that they’ve secured the rights to broadcast a slate of 25 games exclusively over their social network.

What had once been a game gleaned from the boxscore and best heard on the radio is seeing a fundamental shift in the sports’ coverage. What will the ramifications be? Streaming over social obviously enables more engagement and interaction, but could it also dissuade already established viewers? What will the quality of the broadcasts be? We won’t know until MLB 2018!  

17) Take Me Out to the Ballpark: With high-def TV, comfortable seating, concessions that don’t rob you blind, and no need to worry about parking home has become an increasingly competitive threat to actual game attendance. Why deal with the expense and hassle when you can have a similar, perhaps more comfortable experience at home?

View From the Trees- A’s New TreeHouse Pass (Credit: Mlb.com)

That’s precisely what teams like the Oakland Athletics are addressing with new initiatives aimed to amplify and extend the gameday experience at the stadium. They and others are creating party decks and other social spaces that make attendance to a game much more of an open, interactive experience. By offering the “Treehouse Pass,” the Athletics are drawing fans out to the game by creating an experience much more akin to going to your local bar to watch the game with your friends than being crammed into plastic seating between complete strangers with little opportunity to interact and extend the “fan experience.”

Oakland A’s president Dave Kaval announced the new initiative as an indication that “we are committed to enhancing the fan experience at the Coliseum and delivering dynamic and new ways to enjoy A’s baseball. They and other teams are recognizing that simply attending the game is no longer enough to bring today’s fans out to the stadium. Look for more of these interactive, social experiences designed to enhance and extend the game-day experience, creating new and novel incentives to get today’s more casual fans out on gameday.  

18) Feed Me at the Game: As any fisherman, hunter, or event organizer worth their salt knows, one of the most effective ways to lure an audience anywhere is by appealing to their palettes with a delicious menu. As the saying goes, “the key to a {fans} heart is through his/her stomach…” Franchises have known this for years, usually offering inventive food options at the game; yet unless you’re already going to the stadium, you may not know about the excellent snacking potential. When casual fans think baseball, they think peanuts, crackerjacks, hotdogs and soda/beer…not “Chicken-filled Waffle Cones” or “Churro Dogs” offering the eponymous pastries smothered in ice cream.  

Astros Chicken Waffle Cone (Credit: Mlb.com)

Now, Major League Baseball is capitalizing on these novel, team-themed menus by announcing the first-ever “MLB FoodFest Experience,” in New York City, designed to raise awareness of all the incredible culinary concoctions offered at the stadium to even the most casual of potential fans or viewers.

On April 21st and 22nd, MLB will show that you don’t necessarily need to be a die-hard baseball fan to enjoy going to the game- foodies have just as much incentive to go to the stadium as well! Come hungry (and perhaps adventurous) leave happy, and hey- you get to a baseball game in the background. 

18 stories to follow and we haven’t even gotten to pennant races, MVP Awards, and the World Series…baseball is certainly in for an exciting- potentially groundbreaking- season. Play Ball! (As long as it’s not snowing…).