MLB's 10 most superlative moments of 2018

December 21st, 2018

Let's head into 2019 by taking one last look back at 2018, and we'll do that by looking at 10 of the most exciting and interesting plays of the year. Let's be honest right up front: This is going to get subjective! There's not actually one perfect way to do this. But that's OK. We're trying to get to things that were, well, cool. Your mileage may vary. Here's 10 categories for 10 plays.
The best-looking great catch: Jr. robs , June 5

Look, we said this was going to get subjective. There were so many great catches this year. You might prefer reaching into the bushes to take a homer away from Freddie Freeman, or any of the three homers that took away in the span of a week, or any of a million other great plays by or or anyone else. They're all the right answer. Feel free to pick yours.
This one was ours, however, because the data looked great -- it had a mere 6 percent Catch Probability -- and because unlike other great catches, it wasn't a "run to the wall, stop, and jump" kind of play. It was a "run at full speed leading with your face and still make the catch." This ball wasn't even going to leave the park, we get it. It just looked great. 
"I was telling [reliever Jake Diekman], it's like when you play catch with your dog," DeShields said. "You throw it as far as you can and he'll still run and catch it. I was racing to make the play, and the wall was coming up. It was either stay or make the play. I felt I could make the play."
He could! And he did. For our money, this was 2018's most fun catch.
The most exciting play: 's double play, Aug. 11 
Look, we said this was going to get subjective. On Aug. 11, Laureano had been in the big leagues for all of eight days. He was making his fifth start in center. stepped up to crush a ball to center field, and then Laureano did this.

The catch itself was a tough one, with a 42 percent Catch Probability, but we're not here for the catch, are we? This one's all about the throw, which covered 321 feet on the fly to hit first baseman right in the glove, doubling up Eric Young Jr. 
That's longer than the 100 yards of a football field, remember, and it immediately garnered comparisons to throws by Bo Jackson and . As a bonus, Laureano hit a little too, putting up a .288/.358/.474 line in 176 plate appearances as a rookie.
Strongest throw from the outfield: 103.4 mph, , June 19
Speaking of throws, this isn't the first time you've seen Bradley unleash a cannon, but this particular one on June 19 to nail Robbie Grossman at the plate stood out.

"Oh, unreal," manager Alex Cora said. "I saw him getting an angle, and I was like, 'This might be fun here.' It's kind of like showcase baseball. 'The scouts are looking, and I'm going to throw it as hard as I can to see if I can get him, and I did.' That was a great play."
"That was amazing," added catcher . "Just amazing. I wasn't sure if he was going to throw the ball. That was one of the best throws I've ever seen."
It was the hardest tracked throw of 2019. We've seen Bradley do this again and again and again. If there's a downside here, it's that runners may eventually stop challenging him, thus depriving us of the chance to see that arm.
The hardest-hit ball of the year: , 121.7 mph, Aug. 9

Critics will say "it doesn't matter how hard the ball was hit as long as it's over the wall and puts runs on the board," and perhaps that's true, but there were 5,585 home runs hit in the Majors this year. They don't all count the same, in terms of runs scored, impact on the game's outcome, distance, or, yes, exit velocity. Everyone wants to know the most this or the best that. This one was the hardest-hit, and the video makes that clear.
In this case, Stanton's 121.7 MPH blast off of wasn't just the hardest-hit home run of the year, it was the hardest hit ball of the year, and how fortunate for our purposes that it was a dinger and not a groundout. This ball got out so quickly that Texas left fielder traveled only four feet during the play. Why bother?
"That's one of those in today's game, you see it hit off the bat and everyone's just like taken aback," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "You're like, 'All right, where's it going to land?' And you take a look at the scoreboard at the exit velocity and everyone's like, 'I think that's the hardest one we've seen.' It really is amazing how hard he hits the ball when he really squares it up."
The longest home run of the year: , 505 feet, Sept. 5

If we're going to start with the hardest-hit ball of the year, then we have to move right on to the longest home run tracked by Statcast™ not just in 2018, but in the entire four years that the system has been online. Like the previous record holder, Stanton's 504-ft blast in 2016, this one came at Coors Field (one of three that Story hit that day), and it's hard to look past the fact that 26 of Story's 37 home runs came at home, along with a massive slugging percentage advantage of .678 at home versus .452 on the road.
So there's that, but regardless, this ball was going to make it out of any park, being crushed as it was at 111.9 MPH off the bat. For what it's worth, Story made some major steps forward in 2018, dropping his strikeout rate all the way from 34.4 percent to 25.6 percent, the second-largest drop (behind Corey Dickerson) of any player to get at least 400 plate appearances in both seasons.
The game-winning 'hi' that shouldn't have been: , April 7
Bregman hit this ball a mere 82.5 mph, but more importantly, he hit it with a 78-degree launch angle, where 0 is "back at the pitcher" and 90 is "straight up." Another way to say that is "a weakly-hit popup," and another way to say that is that the Hit Probability was zero percent, which is to say that this particular combination of exit velocity and launch angle had never, ever been a hit before.
Until April 7, that is. 

"If you watch enough games I guess you see everything," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "They tell you that. I've never really seen that before."
This wasn't the only play like this, for the record. There's a handful of dropped popups or 'lost in the sun' fly balls each year. But this was the one that turned into a walkoff, and this was the one that happened in 's first two weeks with his new team. 
The best extra-innings catch: , June 17
For this one, we're going with pure data. There's plenty of great catches, but which one had the lowest Catch Probability in extra innings, which should in theory add extra pressure and value?
Well, it's this one. It's Laureano's teammate, Canha.

Canha had to cover 98 feet in 5.1 seconds, and by doing so -- with slight adjustments for direction and wall -- he made a catch that's converted into an out just 5 percent of the time. This wouldn't have been a home run, but it would have at least been a double for , and perhaps more, putting a man in scoring position with just one out.
You'd think making a potentially game-saving catch would be the highlight of your day, but realize what else Canha did that afternoon.
 • 2nd inning: Two-run home run off
 • 9th inning: Game-tying RBI single off of
 • 10th inning: Takes extra bases away from Simmons
 • 11th inning: Scores game-winning run off on single
That's a day. That's a good day. 
The great catch that required the longest distance: , March 29
There were plenty of great catches in 2018, of course. We take all the ones that had a Catch Probability of 25 percent or below and call them "Five Star" plays, i.e., the best of the best. Some of those are about quick reactions, or running into the wall, or some combination of a few things. 
For this one, we wanted to find the answer to a simple question: Which one of those great plays required the fielder to run the longest distance? Unsurprisingly, it was Kiermaier, who covered 133 feet to take a hit away from

This wasn't just "on Opening Day," by the way. This was actually the very first pitch of the season, when Betts tried to be aggressive against then-Rays starter Chris Archer. It's not like we didn't know Kiermaier was great, of course, but it took almost literally no time into the season for him to prove it.
The fastest home to first: , 3.43 seconds, Sept. 1
Acquired from St. Louis in the deal, Sierra didn't hit much for Miami in 2018, and maybe that's overstating it. In 156 plate appearances, he hit .190/.222/.211. That's a 25 OPS+, and that's one of the weakest hitting lines in the entire 21st century.
So obviously hitting isn't a strength here, and there's got to be another reason he's in the Majors. There is. He's got elite, 80-grade, game-changing speed. He just ranked tied for second behind only , among 549 qualified players, on the Sprint Speed leaderboards.
On Sept. 1, he laid down a bunt against . Not only did he beat it out for a hit, Estrada didn't even bother with a throw.

It took Sierra only 3.43 seconds to get from home to first, the fastest of the year. We're aware that this isn't necessarily a fair fight; Sierra is a lefty, and it was a bunt, which lets him get moving faster than a swing. Then again, given Sierra's speed and lack of hitting acumen, maybe this should be his strategy. What's the record for highest bunt attempt percentage in a season?
The entire experience
Ohtani's debut season was marred by the elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery which will keep him off the mound until 2020, but despite that tremendous disappointment, he still won the American League Rookie of the Year.
Here's a ball he crushed at 112.9 mph for a homer. It wasn't his hardest-hit ball of the year -- that was 113.9 mph for a groundout -- but it showed us something. Only 0.3 percent of batted balls in 2018 were hit 113 mph or more. Only 51 hitters did it at least twice. None of them were also pitching.

Here's a pitch he threw at 101.1 mph. Only four other pitchers threw a pitch that hard. None of them slugged .564.

Here's Ohtani stealing a base, one of 10 on the season. To get on base to make this possible, he'd beaten out an infield hit, touching 30 feet per second -- that's an elite-level mark -- to do it. 

On the season, he ended up in the top 20 percent of running speed, similar to or . Ohtani came to America with just an impossible amount of hype to live up to. Turns out, he did exactly that. He did that, and then some.