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Mudville: July 18, 2024 11:47 pm PDT

Opening Day is here…. so is your 2021 MLB preview.

This is not like the other previews, the other predictions on who will finish where in the AL East, NL East, NL West and the other divisions, yada, yada yada.

This preview is based on teams, players and outcomes that I am rooting for in 2021. Root, root, root for baseball. I want the Comeback Player of the Year in 2021 to be baseball.

I want the game to have a resurgence. I want baseball to be baseball again even without a last-second designated hitter added to the National League.

All this has nothing to do with the shortened 2020 Covid Season. That season is gone and forgotten. Like a bad dream, let’s move on from 2020 and the 60-game experiment.

First, there should be a baseball bonfire.

You know all those cutouts of fans that popped up in the stands in every ballpark as the teams tried to make it a cool thing? It wasn’t cool. It wasn’t real fans. It was more theater in a year filled with way too much theater.

Take ‘em all, throw them in a pile in the parking lot and build a bonfire, a modern day version of Disco Demolition Night that happened on July 12, 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

C-ya, cutouts.

Having fans back in the ballpark is the first step to success in 2021. Enjoy a hot dog. Enjoy the game again. Talk to other fans. Enjoy life, every wonderful inning of it.

Well hello.... and welcome back.

The Lords of Baseball are determined to ruin the game, we know that. Look what they have done to the minor leagues, even getting rid of all those great names of the different leagues, but we can’t let them destroy everything in the game. The game needs to bounce back from all the years of no action and the explosion in strikeouts because those in charge of baseball, MLB officials, GMs, and their toadies went all-in on the “home run or nothing’’ approach.

That did not work. It’s the game of baseball that is essential, not the big swing.

Baseball devalued itself by devaluing the base hit. Baseball devalued itself by devaluing the win. Once the win and the base hit were not deemed important, once they were no longer the bedrock of the game, baseball itself began to crumble.

Don’t tell me wins are not important for starting pitchers. Don’t tell me base hits are not important and that it is all about the home run, and that a strikeout is really the same as any other out. That’s how we got to this mess. That’s how we got to 58,718 plate appearances where absolutely nothing happened.  The ball was not put in play. In the last full season: 2019, there were 42,823 strikeouts and 15,895 walks.

As a result, new rules and regulations are under consideration, including moving back the pitching mound. The irony of all this is the people in charge of saving the game are some of the same ones who put the game in this vise grip of nothing happening because of their love for the home run. They are the ones who pushed to take speed out of the game, the stolen base became a memory. Athletes were replaced by launch-angle bots. Perhaps they now realize the damage they created and want to fix the game.

Theo Epstein is leading the charge from the commissioner’s office and hopefully he will find a way to make the game better but moving the pitching mound back is not the answer.

Developing players who get on base, steal bases, hit and run, do more than hit home runs, is the answer. Theo’s Cubs in 2019, again, the last year a full season was played, Theo’s Cubs were middle of the pack offensively, 14th in strikeouts with 1,460, 13th in batting average at .252, 29th in stolen bases.

Don’t change the rules. Change the way the game is being played. I am here at BallNIne if Theo wants to talk about getting the game back on its feet again.

You fix the game by going back to its roots: speed, defense, fundamentals, action, hit and run, and run and hit to go along with power hitters. If opponents shift, something they have always had the option to do, beat the shift any way you can and then the shift stops.

B-U-N-T. (On occasion).

Do not put rules in to stop the shift. Allow players to play the game to beat the shift and it is relatively easy to do. Hit the ball the other way like Derek Jeter did his entire career. Make these max-effort pitchers field their position. Use every weapon at your disposal on offense. Be balanced.

“Mike Trout to the postseason for the first time since 2014. Trout will turn 30 this season and he will be AL MVP. He has a total of 12 postseason at-bats. When Jeter turned 30, he already had 366 postseason at-bats. The Angels blew it.”

Ronald Acuna, Jr..... he ain't gonna suck.

Hustle out of the box. Stop posing. It’s not a video game.

Someone I deeply respect in the game mentioned to me one of the big reasons those in charge can’t fix things is they rarely sit down and watch a game from first pitch to last pitch. They look at highlights, snippets of success, not the entire picture. Rob Manfred should sit and watch at least one complete game a day and then go to work on fixing what’s wrong instead of destroying the game.

When baseball was America’s Game, it was simple. You get runners on base any way you can and you score more runs than the other team. You play defense. You create. You outsmart your opponent. You anticipate. You don’t just stand there and either hit a home run or strike out. There is plenty to keep you busy and keep the fan interested.

I watched a lot of spring training games this year and the hitting was horrendous. The strikeouts were once again off the charts because of the bad approaches in the box and then in the later innings you had lesser talented players trying to use the same launch angle tactics of starters and they could not make any contact.

How surprising.

Seems like every time I looked at a Yankee box score (remember box scores?) the Yankees were in double digit strikeouts and they are the best team in the AL East. I expect the Yankees to win that division easily even though they are already suffering from typical Yankee injuries like Luke Voit, whose knee injury was downplayed until the day he had knee surgery. There was a reason he was DH-ing early in the spring and his lower half of his body was not involved in his swing. Aaron Judge will have to carry the load all season.

Jay Bruce, always a class act, will get more of a chance now at first base and he could really help the Yankees turn a negative into a positive, plus now the Yankees don’t have to make a choice between Bruce and Mike Tauchman. I like Tauchman’s toughness. He is a younger version of Brett Gardner. He’s good for a ballclub.

Here are some more players I am rooting for this season and the first I am going to mention is not in the major leagues or on a team – yet. That is Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had through the years with Jack’s dad, Al Leiter about the art and the emotion of pitching.

Al, you did good.

Jack is his father’s son and his pitching skills will be a reason to watch the game in the future after the Pirates make him the No. 1 pick.

Listen to what a top scout told me about Jack Leiter.

“I saw the final pitch of his no hitter and if you look at his delivery he’s got a little bit of a Nolan Ryan pause in his delivery,’’ the scout told BallNine. “The leg kicks up real high and he really gathers and stays compacted up – and the pitch jumped out of his hand and I went, ‘Wow.’ I don’t know if Al had him watching Nolan Ryan videos or maybe the kid was just that strong in his lower half but good for him.’’

Jack Leiter is listed at 6-1, but he pitches much taller, longer and stronger.

Speaking of Al Leiter, good for the Mets and Steve (I am Every Mets Fan, Only a Billionaire) Cohen. The Mets are bringing back the black jerseys from the Leiter days, a positive for the fans and players like Pete Alonso, who is pumped up. Pete also has his hands back up higher in a better hitting position during the load thanks to hitting coach Chili Davis and this will be a win-win for the Mets. Shortstop Francisco Lindor will get his chance to make his mark on the Mets.

One of the more exciting young players to watch is Ke’Bryan Hayes, son of Charlie Hayes. I expect him to be the NL Rookie of the Year with the Pirates, and it looks like the current odds are agreeing with me.

“His dad is a no bullshit guy who taught his kid how to play the game the right way,’’ one scout told Baseball or Bust. “He’s got a chance to be a pretty good player. His dad was a very solid big league player who toward the end of his career always ended up on good teams because he was a good guy too.’’

Over in the American League I love what I saw of Bobby Witt Jr., once he gets some minor league games out of the way and is promoted to the majors with the Royals, he will be a star. Another son of a major leaguer, he plays the game right. The Rays Randy Arozarena has a head start on AL Rookie of the Year honors and should come away with the award. In shortstop Wander Franco, the Rays will finally have their own Derek Jeter — for a while.

One fascinating older player to watch will be Matt Harvey with the Orioles. Can he pitch in the majors? Can he pitch in the AL East? That’s a lot to ask, but it will be interesting to see if he can cut it in a career sidetracked by injuries and now he gets to face the team he idolized growing up, the Yankees, on a regular basis.

The Corey Kluber experiment with the Yankees is off to a good start even though he doesn’t have the velocity he once had when he was winning Cy Youngs. “He’s [sitting] 88-91 but he knows what he is doing,’’ said a scout who has seen Kluber pitch several times this spring. “He sequences pitches, he knows how to move the ball around the strike zone. I think he is going to be fine for the Yankees.’’

I’m also keeping tabs on another player who lost his way, the Phillies Scott Kingery, who was sabotaged from within by former Phillies GM Matt Klentak and former manager Gabe Kapler, giving Kingery a big contract way too early and also giving him too many positions to play.

Keep the game simple.

It’s not Ivy League, it’s baseball. Way too much launch angle advice derailed Kingery’s career.

Here’s hoping Kingery can go back to his baseball roots, be a line drive hitter again, and make it back to the majors. Klentak, once the favorite of all those who idolize numbers, still has some kind of job with the Phillies –  hopefully it is far away from players – and Kapler is working his magic in the Petri dish known as the San Francisco Giants, who have zero chance to win the NL West. One other Phillies note: Bryce Harper needs to use the entire field again.

Watching late games from San Diego, my old baseball stomping grounds, and Dodger Stadium, will be one of the best things about this season. The World Champion Dodgers will be challenged by Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Padres, who added Blake Snell (thank you, Rays) and Yu Darvish. The Padres are finally playing hard ball and the long-suffering San Diego fans who were screwed over by Dean Spanos and the Chargers, deserve to have playoff success, but they will have to earn it against the Dodgers – who once again took the best at-bats I saw any team take this spring.

The Dodgers, starting with Mookie Betts (thanks Red Sox you dopes) grind it out and can become the first team since the Yankees of 1998-99-2000 to win championships back-to-back.

Other happy wishes for this season:

Maybe now that the Angels are a little more scout-based as an organization and have a better bullpen they will get Mike Trout to the postseason for the first time since 2014. Trout will turn 30 this season and he will be AL MVP. He has a total of 12 postseason at-bats. When Jeter turned 30, he already had 366 postseason at-bats. The Angels blew it.

Ronald Acuna Jr. is all of 23 and has 80 postseason at-bats and may be my favorite all-around player to watch in the NL and will be NL MVP with a 40/40 season. Everyone is counting the Mets as the winners of the NL East, but I believe the Braves will give them a fight for the division.

There is one thing I want to ban this season, the cheat cards players pull out of their back pockets or their caps or have wrapped around their wrists. There is no reason in the world a player should have to look at a card to see how to position himself. Learn the competition and if the coaching staff wants to re-position you, they can wave their arms. Nothing says B-O-R-I-N-G like a fielder pulling out a card and studying it before the pitch.

Some other predictions: Jacob deGrom was toying with hitters in spring training. He is all about pitching rhythm and outsmarting the hitter. He will win the NL Cy Young Award, not Trevor Bauer. In the AL it will be Bauer’s old college teammate Gerrit Cole winning the Cy Young.

The Dodgers will find a way to get past deGrom and the Mets in the NLCS. The Yankees will finally make it back to the World Series for the first time since 2009 but will not have the pitching to stack up against LA as Bauer will get the last UCLA laugh on Cole.

The Dodgers-Yankees rivalry is back. Baseball wins.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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