By Andrew Simon
The 2014 season began in Australia, with Clayton Kershaw beginning his run to his third Cy Young Award and first MVP. It ended it Kansas City, with Madison Bumgarner locking up the Giants' third championship in five years by throwing his 21st brilliant inning of the World Series.
In between, all sorts of numbers helped define a thrilling year, whether it was Kershaw's jaw-dropping 1.77 ERA, the Royals' 8-0 blitz through the American League playoffs or Derek Jeter picking up the last of his 3,465 career hits. So which stats will jump out in 2015? The possibilities are almost endless, but here are 10 to watch.
MLB runs per game, strikeout rate: Last season, there were 4.07 runs scored per team per game, the lowest mark since 1981. That number has declined in seven of the past eight years and is down from a high of 5.14 in 2000. Meanwhile, batters last year struck out in 20.4 percent of their plate appearances, setting a new record for the seventh straight season.
There could be all sorts of reasons behind this, including a crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs, the increase in power arms and specialized bullpens across the game and the heightened focus on ideas such as infield shifts and pitch framing. Perhaps the most interesting factor is a strike zone that research has shown is growing, particularly below the knees. Whatever the combination of reasons, the question this year is whether these trends will continue unabated, or if adjustments will be made to stem the tide of pitching dominance.
Margin in WAR between Josh Donaldson and Brett Lawrie: It came as something of a shock in late November when the A's shipped Donaldson to the Blue Jays for Lawrie, a pair of young pitchers and a Minor League shortstop. After all, Donaldson has posted 14.1 WAR over the past two years, the third-most in the Majors according to FanGraphs, while Lawrie has battled injuries and produced 5.4 WAR over the previous three, following a promising 2011 debut.
The trade obviously doesn't come down to a direct comparison between the two third basemen, as Donaldson is more expensive, and the A's also got three other players in the deal. But if Donaldson and Lawrie both continue on their recent tracks, it will be a big win for the Blue Jays, who just might make a run at their first playoff berth since 1993. If, however, the 29-year-old Donaldson begins to fade while the 25-year-old Lawrie starts putting it all together, perhaps it will go down as another win for Billy Beane and the A's, who could wind up in the postseason yet again.
Nationals starting rotation ERA: Washington made a bold move by agreeing to a massive seven-year deal with right-hander Max Scherzer on Sunday night, seemingly creating a super rotation. General manager Mike Rizzo still could turn around and trade one of his other starters -- perhaps Doug Fister, Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmermann -- but the club will be able to roll out an impressive group either way.
The question is, will it actually perform better than last year's? In 2014, Nats starters posted a 3.03 ERA that blew away the rest of the field and set a high bar. That will be tough to beat whether Scherzer, moving to the easier league, replaces a traded pitcher or pushes Tanner Roark (2.85 ERA in '14) to the bullpen. The long-term implications of the Scherzer gamble are numerous, but the immediate impact is more than worth watching as well.
Mike Trout's strikeouts: The Angels center fielder won AL MVP honors as a 22-year-old last season, as his amazing career continued on its Hall of Fame trajectory. But, and this clearly amounts to nitpicking, Trout also led the AL with 184 strikeouts. His K rate of 26.1 percent was one of the highest in the league and dwarfed his previous high of 21.8 percent. So while Trout hit for more power last year, there is perhaps some reason for concern.
A big part of the issue could be handling high fastballs, something teams attacked Trout with more and more as last season progressed. And while Trout did just fine despite all of the whiffs, he's also a special talent who is fully aware of the issue and determined to address it. It will be fascinating to see how he adjusts.
Cubs games before Kris Bryant's debut: Will it be zero? It's possible, but the Cubs, understandably, are not committing one way or the other. Bryant, one of baseball's top prospects, was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 Draft and slammed 43 home runs in 138 games at Double-A and Triple-A last season, while posting a 1.098 OPS. This while Nelson Cruz led the power-starved Major Leagues with 40 homers.
The Cubs' trade of Luis Valbuena on Monday should help clear the path for Bryant at third base, but it's still not a given that he makes the Opening Day roster. The 23-year-old did strike out 162 times last year, so the argument could be made that he needs a bit more seasoning, but the bigger issue is probably service time. If the Cubs hold Bryant back for a while, they could gain another year of control over his rights, but Theo Epstein's front office will have to balance that against the desire to contend this year.
Home runs for Yasmany Tomas and Jung Ho Kang: Two of the more intriguing free agents this offseason come from overseas carrying a reputation for power, but also plenty of question marks. Tomas, 24, signed a six-year, $68.5 million deal with the D-backs after escaping from Cuba. The Pirates won the rights to Kang, a 27-year-old South Korean, via the posting system before signing him to a four-year, $11 million agreement.
Both players face some uncertainty about their positions in the field but are here primarily for their bats. Tomas impressed scouts with his power and hit 30 homers in 205 career regular season games in Cuba's Serie Nacional, while Kang crushed 40 long balls in 117 games in the Korean Baseball Organization last season. While it's hard to say how that power will translate to a tougher MLB environment, it will be fun to watch and find out.
Padres outfield wRC+: One of the offseason's biggest makeovers has come in San Diego, where new general manager A.J. Preller set out to jolt an offense that ranked last in the Majors in many statistical categories last year. Preller shipped off prospects and some big league talent to acquire Matt Kemp from the Dodgers, Wil Myers from the Rays and Justin Upton from the Braves, leaving him with a brand-new starting outfield and middle of the lineup.
This big-name crew could be shaky defensively, especially with Myers in center, but the bats are potent enough to more than make up for it. That doesn't mean they don't come with questions, however, with Myers coming off an injury-plagued sophomore slump and Kemp having missed significant time in both 2012 and '13. Last year the Padres' outfield ranked 22nd in MLB with a 92 weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which measures total offensive contributions while adjusting for ballpark. If that number doesn't climb by leaps and bounds in '15, it will be a huge disappointment.
Alex Rodriguez's starts, hits: Really, every number surrounding A-Rod is compelling. Rodriguez, of course, was suspended last season and now comes back at 39 years old, with a recent history of hip injuries and without a clear role. He reportedly will head to Spring Training believing he can be the Yankees' third baseman, even though the club re-signed Chase Headley to a four-year, $52 million contract this offseason. That's obviously not realistic, but what is?
He certainly could pinch-hit and split time at DH with left-hander Garrett Jones, while perhaps backing up at third and first. Ultimately, much will depend on whether Rodriguez holds up physically and is able to perform. He only played 44 games in his last season in 2012, but still was a useful offensive player, posting a 113 OPS+ and smacking seven homers. If he can find that form again, he could make a run at picking up the 61 hits he needs for 3,000. And what a circus that would be.
Combined WAR for Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios: Following their run to the World Series last season, the Royals haven't made any high-profile moves. An offense that ranked in the bottom half of the AL has subtracted Billy Butler and Nori Aoki while adding Morales (two years, $15.5 million, plus a 2017 team option) at DH and Rios (one year, $11 million, plus a '16 mutual option) in right field.
Morales didn't sign until June last year, then posted a .612 OPS, sixth-lowest among all players with 400 plate appearances, and -1.7 WAR. Rios saw declines in most significant categories, hit only four homers in 521 plate appearances, and finished with a below-average 92 wRC+ and 0.2 WAR. For Kansas City, this is a big bet on rebounds for both players, who will be 32 and 34 years old this season, respectively.
Tigers saves: The bullpen was an issue for Detroit all of last season, as veteran closer Joe Nathan signed a two-year deal, then finished among the MLB leaders with seven blown saves, while posting a 4.81 ERA. The Tigers haven't done anything drastic to address the problem, instead hoping Nathan turns things back around in his age-40 season.
If he doesn't, the other options include former closers Joakim Soria, acquired in a trade last July, and Joel Hanrahan, still working his way back from Tommy John surgery in May 2013. Whether it's Nathan or someone else, finding the solution figures to be crucial for a Tigers team that is built to win now and faces a tougher slate of challengers in the AL Central. With the margin for error low, one blown lead too many could make a huge impact.
* * *
Andrew Simon is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a reporter for MLB.com.