Much of the focus in baseball right now is on who will sign where, and what will happen next year. But as 2018 winds down, it's worth taking one last look at the players who made history on the field last season. There were a lot of amazing performances, but
Much of the focus in baseball right now is on who will sign where, and what will happen next year. But as 2018 winds down, it's worth taking one last look at the players who made history on the field last season. There were a lot of amazing performances, but here are 10 that could remain extraordinary years down the road.
Jacob deGrom's incredible consistency
How did a starting pitcher claim all but one first-place vote in National League Cy Young Award voting after "winning" just 10 of his 19 decisions? By suppressing runs as well as anyone in recent memory.
There have been some terrific pitching seasons this decade (Clayton Kershaw in 2014 and Jacob Arrieta in '15 come to mind), but the campaign deGrom just put together competes with any of them. The Mets ace surrendered four runs to the Marlins in his third start on April 10, and then refused to allow that many again for the rest of the year. Not even the great Bob Gibson in his 1968 season matched deGrom's record 29-start streak of three runs allowed or fewer; the last pitcher to string even 26 such outings together was a man named Leslie "King" Cole.
How long ago was that? When Cole rattled off his 26 starts in 1910, he was still four years away from giving up Babe Ruth's first career hit.
Ronald Acuna Jr.'s leadoff home runs
Batting leadoff for a division champion more than 100 days before your 21st birthday is one heck of an accomplishment. But Acuna did it in style by homering in five straight games from Aug. 11-15, something no other player his age had done in at least 110 years. He began each of the last three of those games with a leadoff homer, joining Brady Anderson (1996) as just the second player to ever go three in a row, and hit the last two of those dingers on the first pitch he saw. No one had done that since Alfonso Soriano in 2007.
When players talk about feeling "locked in," Acuna's white-hot run might not even enter their imaginations.
Michael Trout somehow got better
Trout just posted career bests in walks, on-base percentage and overall OPS … and wound up with his fourth career runner-up finish in AL MVP voting. That's how good Mookie Betts was this year. But Trout's 2018 campaign might gain more appreciation with time; here's the list of players who have posted a 199 league-adjusted OPS+ (or a batting line at least 99 percent better than his peers), as Trout just did, since baseball integrated in 1947:
Barry Bonds (six times)
Mickey Mantle (3)
Ted Williams (3)
That's some decent company, and Mantle was the only player younger than Trout to dominate the league that much. Incredibly, the 172 OPS+ that Trout posted in his 2016 MVP season was his lowest mark of the last four seasons. Baseball's best player keeps finding ways to improve.
Mookie Betts' all-around greatness
As we just mentioned, it takes an incredible season to beat out Trout in an MVP vote -- and that's exactly what Betts just enjoyed. Boston's star right fielder finished 2018 with an MLB-most 10.9 wins above replacement (WAR), per Baseball-Reference, joining Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli and Tris Speaker as the only 10-win players in Red Sox history. But while Betts led the Majors with a .346 average and .640 slugging percentage, it was way more than his hitting that contributed to his sky-high WAR.
If WAR isn't your stat du jour, let's present it a different way: Betts became the only player since the Majors' first wave of expansion in 1961 to lead his league in average and slugging while also stealing at least 30 bases. He also tied for baseball's ninth-best total in Outs Above Average (OAA), Statcast™'s outfield defense metric, for good measure.
Juan Soto: Teenage terror
A quick list of all the historic things Soto did at age 19:
• Recorded three multi-homer games, something no teenager had ever done.
• Stole three bases against the Braves on Sept. 15, another teenage first.
• Drew multiple walks in 16 different games, shattering Mel Ott's previous teenage record of 11.
• Finished with 22 home runs, tied with Bryce Harper for the second-most by any teen behind Tony Conigliaro's 24 in 1964.
On top of all that history, Soto tiedAlex Bregman and Trout for the game's seventh-lowest chase rate, per Statcast™, and hit nine opposite-field homers to tie for third in the NL. So, yeah, the kid looks like he could be pretty good.
Freddy Peralta smothered right-handed hitters
Peralta stands 5-foot-11, averages about 91 mph on his fastball … and was nearly unhittable to same-handed hitters last season. One hundred and forty-four righties stepped in for an official at-bat against Peralta, and only 16 of them got a hit. Just two righty hitters -- Jedd Gyorko and Trevor Story -- took him deep.
That comes out to a .111 average for righty hitters against Milwaukee's rookie starter. How special is that? If we take out relievers by setting minimums of 100 at-bats and at least 10 starts, no one tops Peralta for as far back as platoon-split data is complete beginning in 1974. The closest pitcher is former Astros fireballer J.R. Richard, who held righties to a .124 average in his final 1980 season, followed by Max Scherzer's .136 mark in 2017.
Josh Hader mowed hitters down
What did Hader's 2018 season share in common with Eric Gagne's legendary 55-save campaign from 2003, which came in the middle of his record 84-save streak? Both Hader and Gagne navigated 195 at-bats that went to two-strike counts, and both of them surrendered just 11 hits in those situations.
That comes out to a microscopic .056 average when hitters let Hader and Gagne get to two strikes, the lowest mark by any pitcher (min. 150 two-strike at-bats) for as far back as Baseball-Reference's pitch-count data is complete beginning in 1988. Three of those 11 hits surrendered by Hader went for home runs, including an 11th-pitch dinger by Starlin Castro in what might have been the best at-bat of the season.
But outside of that, Hader was completely relentless. The southpaw recorded a strikeout on 31.5 percent of the pitches he threw with two strikes in the count, MLB's highest "finish rate" since Dellin Betances' 32.3 percent in 2014.
Christian Yelich went on a tear
Yelich, a noted skeptic of the "fly-ball revolution," recorded the 10th-lowest average launch angle and 17th-highest ground-ball rate of any full-time hitter. And yet, Yelich doubled his homer output from 2017 and finished just two back of Nolan Arenado's league-leading total. A stadium change from Marlins Park to Miller Park probably helped, but Yelich was also extremely efficient at maximizing the balls he did get into the air. In fact, check out the highest single-season home run-per-fly ball rates kept by Fangraphs since the 2002 season:
1. 39.5 percent -- Ryan Howard, 2006
- 35.6 percent -- Aaron Judge, 2017
3. 35.0 percent -- Yelich, 2018
- 34.7 percent -- Jim Thome, 2002
- 34.3 percent -- Giancarlo Stanton, 2017
Each of those other four sluggers topped 50 homers in the seasons we referenced, so it's incredible that Yelich matched them without necessarily swinging for the fences every time up. As has been the case with Yelich for years now, there could still be more untapped potential in his bat.
Blake Treinen was nearly untouchable
Eighty and one-third innings, and just seven earned runs. Treinen, traded out of Washington in 2017 while he had a 5.73 ERA attached to his name, put it all together in an electric season for the surprising A's.
"The Witch," as Treinen is affectionately referred to by the popular Pitching Ninja Twitter account, entered a game 68 times and gave up multiple runs just twice -- neither time in which more than one of those runs were earned. Treinen's 0.78 ERA ranks as the fourth-lowest by any Live Ball Era pitcher with at least 60 innings, and he threw more frames than any of the three pitchers (Zach Britton, Fernando Rodney, Dennis Eckersley) listed above him.
The Red Sox refused to go down easy
"Pesky" is a word that applied to more than just Fenway Park's right-field foul pole this October, as the Red Sox offense that paced the Majors during the regular season was indomitable in the postseason. Boston hitters tallied 43 of their 84 total postseason runs with two outs on the scoreboard, and hit an unprecedented .420 (21-for-50) with runners in scoring position and two outs including four doubles, four homers and a triple. The next-closest postseason club in any era to the 2018 Red Sox, with a minimum of 30 two-out/RISP at-bats? That would be the Philadelphia A's, who managed a measly .394 average way back in 1910.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.