It is the last Hardball before the regular season, thus a final chance to unload what has been on my mind this spring:
1. Let’s stop the complaining about the possibility of a game ending due to a violation of the pitch clock: “What is going to happen then?”
My guess: The sun will rise the next day and a full slate of MLB games will be played.
Imagine if in a game-deciding NBA situation, a player did not get a shot off before the 24-second clock expired and there were cries that a game shouldn’t end that way. How about a player saying he should have been allowed 26 seconds because it was such a key moment?
The NBA went to a shot clock for the same reason MLB has implemented a pitch clock: those not playing had devised strategies that killed pace and entertainment and fans were rejecting the product.
Namely, in the NBA’s case, teams were stalling against the Minneapolis Lakers to keep star big-man George Mikan from getting more possessions. At the worst, the Fort Wayne Pistons stalled to a 19-18 win over the Lakers in November 1950. In 1954, the NBA went to a 24-second shot clock.
The players initially worried there would not be enough time to get a shot off, then played and realized it was a better brand of the sport. It quickly became a non-subject. So if a game ends due to a 24-second violation, there are not calls for a constitutional amendment to ban the clock nor calls to sports radio that the nerds have taken over.
A combination of analytics from MLB front offices leading to overthinking on the field and players becoming habituated to slowing down the proceedings created an increasingly unappetizing product. Those parties refused to police themselves. So, the adult in the room is MLB. There will be tough moments, especially early. There will be a game decided by a clock violation.
Here is what should follow: no whining. Those are the rules. Get a pitch off in 15 (no runners on) or 20 seconds (runners on), and be ready to hit with no fewer than eight seconds left. If not, it is like the 24-second NBA violation. Tough luck.
2. My first reaction to the WBC: Shohei Ohtani is the most talented baseball player ever. Before you fire off an angry missive, please note that I did not say the “greatest,” which to me would also entail longevity. I did not say a Hall of Famer (yet). But when it comes to playing the sport, no one — not even Babe Ruth, who did not pitch and hit simultaneously to this level — has ever done what Ohtani is doing for what is now an extended period. He is among the best pitchers and hitters in the world.
3. My second reaction to the WBC: How could a team with Ohtani and Mike Trout still never sniff the playoffs? OK, there have been injuries. But if you start with just those two and you are average everywhere else, shouldn’t that at least be a winning team, which the Angels have not been since 2015 — when Ohtani was 20 and went 15-5 with a 2.24 ERA for the Nippon Ham Fighters, but also hit just .202?
Patrick Sandoval, as he showed for Team Mexico, is a very good starting pitcher. The Angels had a good offseason in creating depth. Anthony Rendon seems healthy. Will this finally be their year to be at least 82-80, if not contenders?
4. My third reaction to the WBC: Seeing the filled seats and the passion during the semifinals and finals at loanDepot Park in Miami, it reinforced just how lousy a job the Marlins have done for three decades trying to create a fan base. Yep, there was obviously a lot of national pride that went into the size and fervor of the crowds. But not capturing what obviously is a baseball-loving community at all in 30 years, that is negligence. That includes Derek Jeter’s five seasons in charge.
5. Wasn’t this the year — with rule changes expected to promote steals — for a second-division team like Miami or Colorado or Cincinnati or Oakland to load up on speed and try to play a different way? Wouldn’t it have been fun (maybe enjoyable enough to get people to the park) to have a club try to steal 200-plus bases and drive opponents crazy? If the Rockies, for example, are just going to play conventionally, how in the world will they compete in the NL West against teams with so much more talent, such as the Dodgers and Padres and even the Diamondbacks and Giants?
6. A common storyline during spring training has been that a new team will fix a player in a way that his previous team failed to do. The Dodgers were in the middle of two flip-flops that define the genre. They were tired of trying to fix the swing of former NL MVP Cody Bellinger, who was non-tendered and signed with the Cubs, who now believe they can fix his swing after they failed to do so with Jason Heyward, who was released and signed by … the Dodgers.
The Dodgers also decided they got the best mileage out of Justin Turner, 38, who signed as a free agent to be the DH with the Red Sox, who think he still has tread. Boston had lost that belief in J.D. Martinez, 35, who signed as a free agent to be the DH for … the Dodgers.
7. The Dodgers, when I was in their camp, were trying to sell the underdog narrative because they took their payroll down to “only” $250 million while the star-shopping Padres raised theirs to roughly $276 million. Los Angeles is fascinating as it works in prospects: Miguel Vargas at second base and James Outman, often, in center field. Plus, the Dodgers have several starting pitchers (Michael Grove, Bobby Miller, Ryan Pepiot, Gavin Stone) ready.
If this works out for the Dodgers and they win the NL West for the 10th time in 11 years while turning over a good chunk of their roster to young and inexpensive, when exactly will the Padres win it?