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November 7, 2013

The Lineup Card

12 Items That Tell the Story of the 2013 Season

by Baseball Prospectus


1. The Beard
2013 was the year of the beard. The Red Sox took a page out of the NHL playbook, with virtually every player on the roster rocking facial fuzz for the postseason, and the power of the beard undoubtedly propelled them to the World Series trophy. The personality of their beards ranged all over the map: there was the well-groomed (David Ortiz), the gray wolf (David Ross), the sparse-and-feeble (Clay Buchholz), and even the absolutely ridiculous (Jonny Gomes). The fullest beard may have belonged to the bullpen police officer who gained 15 minutes of fame for his celebratory pose in the iconic moment of the postseason, as detailed by Matthew Kory.

Beards were well-represented in the playoffs. Clayton Kershaw sported a fuller beard in 2013 than in previous seasons, guiding him to the best season of his illustrious career. Teammate Brian Wilson continued to take his Blackbeard costume deeper into the abyss of absurdity, to the extent that he tied his facial hair in Gimli knots, fueling his comeback from Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals' Edward Mujica rode the magic of the beard to a ridiculous K:BB ratio of 43-to-3 for the first five months of the season, but he was unable to handle the beard's strength for the duration and grew tired down the stretch. Oakland's Josh Reddick was overzealous in his pursuit of the beard, sporting Sasquatch locks at the beginning of the season, and his offensive collapse was surely connected to his lack of restraint. The beard must be respected before it can be feared.

Young Bryce Harper grew the beard of a veteran, but it didn't provide enough shock absorption to spare his collision with the outfield wall at Dodger Stadium. Sergio Romo trimmed his trademark beard into a goatee, and the Giants suffered the consequences in the standings. As a bearded individual myself, I can appreciate the power that is concentrated within, but enthusiasm must be tempered in order to realize the full potential of the beard. For evidence, look no further than the most interesting man in the world. —Doug Thorburn

2. This Image
The story of the 2013 season can’t be written with just one image or just one player or just one team. But, if you were to attempt such a thing, and clearly we are attempting it, the image or player, or words or whatever that stands out is this. For those of you without clicking power (how did you get here?), I’m referring to the photo of David Ortiz’s ALCS Game Two homer. You may remember that homer more as the one that the ball and Torii Hunter flew over the right field fence into the Red Sox bullpen together. That combined with the fact that the home run wasn’t just a home run, it was a grand slam, and the fact that the grand slam wasn’t just a grand slam, it was a game-tying grand slam in the eighth inning of the ALCS.

The moment was intense, and then there was the picture itself. The similarity between Hunter’s legs, straight up in the air as he falls over the wall after failing to make the catch, and the arms of a Boston police officer raised in victory is striking. It’s hard to conceive of an image that better encapsulates the 2013 baseball season. —Matthew Kory

3. A Jolly Roger
If there is a totem that best represents the story of the 2013 season, it's the Jolly Roger. Baseball (and all team sports) are best when they have an underdog to root for, and this year, that was the Pirates. Among the baseball commentariat, snark is the unfortunate second language, and so it was nice to have at least one small, uninhibited bastion of actual joy to watch. The Jolly Roger would ascend and even though they weren't "my team", it was nice to see real emotion being spilled over a baseball team. Maybe I need to make it a point to seek more joy (and less snark) in my own life. Baseball seasons are better when they have that sort of story to go with them, so to remember 2013, I plan to raise a Jolly Roger over my house. —Russell Carleton

4. Jose Lobaton's Home Run Off of Koji Uehara
The 2013 season was full of memorable events. The Pirates ended a long playoff drought. Mariano Rivera rode off into the sunset on a rocking chair made from broken bats. The Red Sox went from worst to first and claimed another World Series title. On their way, the Red Sox eliminated one of the teams I like to root for, the Rays. Perhaps the most surprising and memorable event for the Rays was Jose Lobaton’s home run off Red Sox closer Koji Uehara in the third game of the ALDS. In the regular season, Lobaton hit seven HR and Uehara allowed five, but none of those were as significant as the one in the playoffs. So for me, the one item that describes the 2013 season was the moment that I was wearing my Longoria jersey rooting on the Rays during bar trivia in a Midwestern college town and Jose Lobaton extended the season by just one more game. —Ben Murphy

5. The Chase Field Pool
Goggles have become an important part of baseball celebrations. Simple swim goggles have been joined en masse by fancier ski gear. With their eyes protected from the sting of champagne and chlorine, the 2013 Dodgers found themselves taking a dip in Chase Field's well-known swimming pool. The innocent celebration angered some and led to rumors of what would be the first documented cases of rapid-onset immersion diuresis. Too bad there's now an unwritten rule against grown men in long pants and Oakley goggles splashing around an indoor pool. This won't happen again. —Harry Pavlidis

6. Dodger Dollars
The Dodgers opened the 2012 season with a roster earning about $95 million. Exit the McCourts in May 2012. Enter Mark Walter, Stan Kasten, and Magic Johnson, and the Opening Day payroll more than doubled to $216 million in 2013.

The change in ownership brought a financial sea change for the franchise, and the numbers are dizzying: $127 million for deals for Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig in June of 2012, $37.5 million to acquire Hanley Ramirez and Brandon League a month later, and $264 million in the mega-trade for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Nick Punto in August. Add an extension for League ($22.5 million), free-agent deals for Zack Greinke ($147 million) and Hyun-jin Ryu ($36 million), and about $6 million for in-season acquisitions Ricky Nolasco, Brian Wilson, Carlos Marmol, and Michael Young, and the Dodgers have committed roughly $640 million in guaranteed contracts in the last 18 months.

Armed with a local TV deal worth $6-7 billion, there’s no indication the Dodgers will stop now. After signing Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero for $28 million last month, LA already has committed $166 million to 11 players for 2014. Ramirez and Clayton Kershaw are both a year away from free agency, putting them in line for a nine-figure extensions, and Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka is on the radar. Though the season ended in disappointment on the field, 2013 was the year the Dodgers established themselves as a dominant financial power in the game. —Jeff Euston

7. Ryan Dempster's Fine
If you want to know just how much Major League Baseball really wanted to separate itself from steroids in 2013, look at the $2,500 check Ryan Dempster had to send in to Bud Selig for hitting Alex Rodriguez in the back. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, the right-hander hit Rodriguez intentionally. Chances are, Dempster was expressing some irritation that A-Rod was around to play while he appealed a giant suspension MLB gave him for his role in the Biogenesis scandal. (Dempster’s teammate John Lackey said as much.) And with its response to the affair, MLB basically made itself clear that it had no problem with Dempster’s actions.

“But,” you might say if you wanted to humor me, “Dempster’s fine and accompanying five-game suspension are standard fare for pitchers throwing at hitters.”

And then I would laugh at you, because Yankee skipper Joe Girardi—who was ejected from that game, while Dempster was allowed to stay in—was fined twice as much as Dempster was. Girardi’s offense was arguing, forcefully, to home plate umpire Brian O’Nora that Dempster should have been tossed immediately. Plus, Dempster didn’t even have to miss a start during his suspension; the Red Sox had off days the following week that didn’t require them to reshuffle their rotation. (And it’s not like there’s no precedent for taking off days into account in suspensions. Carlos Carrasco—even after shaving a game off through an appeal—got seven for hitting Kevin Youkilis back in April.)

MLB’s half-hearted response to the this episode illustrated just how much A-Rod had become persona non grata in league offices, and how much headache he caused them with Biogenesis. Selig was content to take 1/5,300th of Dempster’s 2013 salary and call it a day. —Dan Rozenson

8. The Messy Scorecard
You may remember reading about how 2013 saw more regular season extra-inning games than any other calendar year. Additionally the Diamondbacks broke the individual team record — 80 innings, nearly nine more full games, or more innings than Shawn Marcum threw by himself. There are several theories: fewer runs, which lead to more tie games. Bullpen management, closer performance, or lack thereof. Personally I think it was a viral marketing campaign orchestrated by Big Coffee, whose war chest goes deeper than we can imagine (since it's protected by guards who never seem to sleep).

But some time ago we stopped trying to colonize Mars and instead focused on a computer network that lets the Internet hive quickly inform each other of #weirdbaseball, #shrimpalert, and position players pitching — some who weren't even Casper Wells. While the gross tonnage of extra frames is a record, the ratio didn't come close to the all-time mark. But these fanciful baseball marathons became more prominent to us social media nightcrawlers with MLB.tv who dread sleep for fear of dying in the middle of the night — or worse, work in the morning. —Matt Sussman

9. Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig
If 2013 is remembered for a single thing 20 years from now, there's a chance that one thing will be the simultaneous debuts of two of the best Cuban-born players in baseball history. And as much as they will try to be tied together both historically and culturally, Yasiel Puig and Jose Fernandez have been near polar opposites in how they received their attention thus far in their careers. Puig, as has been hammered home by almost everyone with a keyboard or microphone, was brash and reckless (read: fun and exciting), which apparently has no place in today's game. Fernandez on the other hand, was lauded for his demeanor and appreciated for being wise beyond his years. Well, except for that game that he was a little too happy about a home run and Brian McCann had to take him down a peg (I know, it's hard to keep track of all the times THAT happened this year). Wait, is it too late to change my answer to the ever-growing student population at Brian McCann's School of Baseball Etiquette? —Bret Sayre

10. Shane Victorino's Walkup Music
Walkup music from a player that’s certainly not in the league MVP discussion—and possibly not even in the team MVP discussion—may seem like an odd choice to represent an entire season. But in order to appreciate the choice, you have to understand some things about the World Series champion Red Sox: the immediate historical context of the 2012 edition of the team, the much maligned signing of Victorino himself, the tumultuous season for the city the Sox call home, and the nature of watching a baseball game at Fenway Park.

The first of these things is easy. The 2012 Red Sox managed to alienate even the most stalwart of Boston baseball fans. The sell-out streak was in jeopardy (and finally ended). The Globe declared the 2013 Red Sox to be talentless and unexciting. For a team that had built the expectations of being a title contender under Francona, the collapse into a protracted rebuild seemed inevitable. There was real fear that the short, sweet glory days of the Red Sox were gone: that the front office and ownership had lost its way, that the division had become too competitive, and that it would be a long time before we saw October baseball in Boston.

Public perception of Victorino’s signing is also somewhat simple to explain. Victorino, it was said, was a platoon hitter, had no obvious position with the Sox, and was a clear overpay. The signing was widely ridiculed as another move by a misguided front office with a sudden cash surplus.

And now we get to the challenging parts. I can’t possibly hope to convey the sadness or strangeness of the Marathon bombings in a single paragraph. Even if I could somehow put to words my emotions from that time, I’m not sure that it would be anything other than a recollection of my own personal experience rather than a complete or fair account of those events and the city’s reaction to them. But let me try: in a culture consumed with fandom and capitalism and tailgating and betting and regionalism and competitiveness, the Marathon is an entirely paradoxical event. People from all walks of life line the streets—for free—and cheer randomly for a group of people they have never seen before and will never see again and for whom there is really no extrinsic reason to cheer. The truth is that in some sense this doesn’t really even matter—if a marketplace or a café or a bar or a night club had been bombed, we’d all think it was just as terrible. But the fact that it was the Marathon, this kind of innocent, culturally antithetical, community event made the tragedy more personally resonant. And I think there was real concern as to whether some part of the event had been fundamentally changed by the attack: the Marathon takes place on miles of streets with totally open access. There’s no hope of a bag check or a security detail or a gate. Many Bostonians openly wondered if, for fear of security concerns, it would be impossible to gather hundreds of thousands or millions of people in the streets in the future.

Last, Fenway. Fenway is unique. I don’t intend to convey any sense of superiority here; every ballpark has a unique atmosphere and environment and buzz. One thing that sets Fenway apart from most other parks is the organic nature of the crowd’s involvement in the game. There are no reminders from the scoreboard that men are on base and so you should cheer. There are no sounds like “DAY OH” and “Everybody Clap Your Hands”. There is an organ, and in recent years, they have started to play upbeat dance music when the Red Sox score, but the noise during the game is almost entirely driven by the fans. One exception to this rule has been player walkup/entrance music. Sox batters get a short clip played before each time they come to the plate. Most of the choices here have been songs where you’re not going to see much fan involvement: rap, instrumental riffs, or dance music.

Victorino’s walkup music became adopted as a sort of Fenway anthem this year. It starts with two full measures—10 seconds—of instrumentals, as if to get everyone on the same page. And then the whole crowd sings along to the music: “Don’t worry… about a thing.” Suddenly, the music stops. But the crowd takes over: “CAUSE EVERY LITTLE THING, IS GONNA BE ALRIGHT.”

For a world series winner that fans feared was lost following a dismal 2012. For a player that key cog in a championship team despite the common perception that his best days were behind him. And for a city that lined miles of streets with millions of people after a tragic event that could have ended such simple freedoms. It’s hard to describe a more simple, potent, and poignant message.

Don’t worry… about a thing. ‘Cause every little thing, is gonna be alright. —Dan Brooks

11. The Rangers' International Spending Spree
The most recent iteration of the MLB/MLBPA collective bargaining agreement, signed into action prior to the 2012 season, ushered in new rules for international free agent signings, including the addition of a soft cap on spending in the form of “allocation pools” identifying a set amount that each team can spend on acquiring amateur international talent. These acquisition pools are accompanied by a tiered penalty system utilized for any team spending more than their allocated amount.

Any overage up to 10 percent of a team’s allocation pool results in a tax on said overage; an overage beyond 10 percent of a team’s allocation pool results in a tax penalty and the loss of right to sign any international amateur during the next signing period to a bonus exceeding $500,000; and an overage beyond 15 percent of a team’s allocation pool results in a tax penalty and the loss of right to sign any international amateur during the next signing period to a bonus exceeding $250,000.

The thought behind this soft cap approach is that while big spending teams may be willing to swallow a tax on their spending, they would be unlikely to forfeit the opportunity to acquire top shelf talent in following years by having hard caps place on their future bonuses. For the 2012-2013 international signing period, that proved to be the case, with teams absorbing tax penalties, but staying below the higher-level penalties that might limit actions in following years.

The Rangers shook up the paradigm this July, blowing through their approximate $1.9 million allocation, as well as the 15% overage threshold, on the first day of the signing period. As of today, just one-third of the way through the signing period, the Rangers have exceeded their allocation pool by over 150 percent, loading up on some of the best available talent with no regard for the financial consequences, or subsequent limitations that will levied upon their actions during the 2014 signing period.

It is a bold approach, and one that has allowed the Rangers a remarkable first move advantage in the competition for top international talent. Front offices are now on notice that there is at least one organization willing to take on the high-level penalties associated with binge spending on the international front, and the Rangers can drill down on “bargains” in 2014 while the rest of baseball figures out if unabashed international spending is going to be a fixture in the market. To the extent one or more teams follow suit next year, the Rangers will have fewer competitors for the top talents in 2015, when the spending cuffs come off.

What’s more, any team hoping to follow suit will do so on more expensive terms than Texas’ 2013-2014 signing period spending spree. With the start of next year’s international signing period, the tiered penalty system increases in severity. Any overage between 5-10 percent of a team’s allocation pool results in a tax penalty and the loss of right to sign any international talent during the next period to a bonus exceeding $500,000; an overage between 10 and 15 percent of a team’s allocation pool results in a tax penalty and the loss of right to sign any international talent during the next period to a bonus exceeding $300,000; and an overage beyond 15% of a team’s allocation pool results in a tax penalty and the loss of right to sign any international amateur during the next two signing periods to a bonus exceeding $300,000.

That’s right. While the Rangers are forfeiting the right to spend big next year, any team hoping to follow suit in gobbling up a bunch of top talent in a single signing period will have to forfeit big spending for a two year period. By acting first in this manner, the Rangers have effectively claimed an advantage on the international amateur scene that no team can match. Strategically, it’s a home run; scouting and development will ultimately determine whether that impressive first move results in an on-field advantage for the big club.

In many ways, Rangers fans might consider 2013 a disappointment. To me, it was another example of a an impressive organization operating at the forefront of the talent acquisition game. It’s moves like this that should keep Rangers fans confident their org is going to do what it takes to keep the talent pipeline stocked for the foreseeable future. —Nick J. Faleris

12. Matt Harvey's Surgically Removed UCL
Many years from now, when we think about baseball in 2013, we'll think about the season Matt Harvey had. When we think about the season Matt Harvey had, we'll think about the way that season ended. And when we think about the way that season ended, we'll think about the ulnar collateral ligament that made it stop too soon. So what would be better than including Harvey's torn, surgically removed UCL in our 2013 time capsule/exhibit?

Anything. Almost literally anything would be better than that, because UCLs, and elbows, and just generally anything that originated inside of a body, can be super, super gross. But that's okay! Because sometimes history hurts, and often it isn't easy to look at. And it's precisely at those times that we should force ourselves to stare. The only way to overcome our fear of phenoms getting hurt is to confront the fact that mere sound mechanics and responsible pitch counts are powerless to prevent catastrophe. Look upon Matt Harvey's broken body part, ye Mighty, and despair. ‚Äč—Ben Lindbergh

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