Baseball and Pythagoras; or, Finger Painting the Word Picture by Numbers

Journeyman as Most Valuable Player. The unexpected: What did you expect?

The Right off the Bat (ROTB) project was angled for the hallowed halls of Cooperstown this week. Since we have rescheduled for 2019, permit me (Evander), in this our 601st blog and with little else to do, to consider baseball by the numbers and its impact on a sport, on the major-league level, which is in revenue-and-national-interest decline if regular-season attendance and World Series-viewership figures are to be believed. (Attendance fell by more than three million: below seventy million for the first time since 2003. Series ratings plummeted 23 percent from 2017.)

Before considering this jaw-dropping-numeric Decline of the West (or Western Divisions), here on numbers….

The earliest king of figures in space (geometry) and time (music), Pythagoras of ancient Greece and Egypt, defined numbers in three ways: quantitative (counting things), mathematical (addition/subtraction), and qualitative (number as symbol: the refined-differentiating aspect of each number).

But aren’t numbers informing an orderly cosmos exclusive markers of the predetermined? The predictable? The boring? Is reality solely expressible in rational (“ratio”) units? Whence lieth the elements of Mystery and Drama?

None exists in a Newtonian or pantheistic universe. Hello!

So what does any of this have to do with baseball? It is still a sport of “intangibles,” right? The miraculous? We don’t know who will win or lose, correct? Or do we? Was the 2018 postseason the most predictable in memory? Yes, yes, and yes; and the trend is clearly turning off the fans.

Since the coming of Bill James, baseball, especially professional baseball, has been dominated by so-called analytics. Organizations hire younger, faster, more-scientific general managers and managers who spend hours, in stress and strain, crunching the numbers.

These can get pretty sophisticated. ROTB surveyed some of this trendy modulation five years ago in (Im)probabilities, a genially impudent and most subjective look at objective probability. A portion from that blog on the array of stats will cause all but the most spectral-eyed fans to number their days with their favorite pastime:

Twenty-first-century major-league talent is now regularly monitored via Statcast (essentially, a refinement of traditional Sabermetrics) with such generally accepted as well as esoteric stats as WAR (wins above replacement, sometimes rendered WARP); FIELDf/x and Reaction Analysis (respectively measuring a player’s defensive value and how much ground is covered, as well as how quickly); UZR and ISO (Isolated Power, derived by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage); wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus: a stadium- and league-adjusted power measurement); UBR (Ultimate Base Running: self-explanatory); Launch Angle and Exit Velocity; line-drive rate; contact rate (these also self-explanatory); Scoring Efficiency (SE); Scoring Load (SC%); and undoubtedly others, even a little older, like one of the first of the new-breed stats WHIP (walks-hits-innings-pitched: the lower, and even below “1,” the better) or DIPS (defense-independent-pitching-statistics); or, for offense, OPS, which combines on-base-and-slugging percentages.

Beyond attendance, think I’m exaggerating? Amid all the numbers, the records’ keeping, permit me to disclose that 2018 featured more MLB strikeouts than hits. Did you know that for the first time ever eight teams lost 95 games? In contrast three won 100, and the Boston Red Sox set a franchise-hallowing record of 108. We have not seen this degree of quality-polarization since the 1950s, when perhaps three or four clubs dominated a decade and attendance fell off the (multiplication) table. It all became too… probable and predictable.

Whence goeth the fun?

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Ripeness Is All

Jimmy Anderson offers a few words of advice.

Relentlessly, the English medium-fast bowler James Anderson is climbing the list of all-time wicket takers (in Test cricket). At the time of this writing, he’s placed fifth (with 544), a mere 19 wickets below the great Australian quick Glenn McGrath, and in sight of becoming the fast bowler who’s taken the most Test wickets. What’s more, Anderson’s body shows no signs of breaking down or his heart of losing interest, in spite of the fact that he just turned thirty-six  and has been playing international cricket since 2003.

In fact, although the pace at which Anderson delivers the ball has slowed to the low- to mid-eighties (m.p.h.), he not only keeps on taking wickets, but keeps on improving. One lingering asterisk over his greatest-of-all-time status has been the number of runs he’s conceded per wickets taken. Anderson’s career got off to a very rocky start. Between his debut against Zimbabwe fifteen years ago and the last day of 2009, his average was an unremarkable wicket every 34.65 runs conceded—a consequence of tinkering with his action that caused him to slump in form and confidence. Between 2010 and today, however, his average has been a world-class 24.33 runs per wicket—an improvement of a full ten runs per wicket. The result is that Anderson is not only the most durable, reliable, and successful of England’s Test bowlers, but (with an aggregate average of 27.19) at the heavily policed border of unquestionable GOAT territory.

Anderson’s continued improvement is not only a testimony to his extraordinary fitness, intense enjoyment of the game, and fine cricketing brain, but also to the elegant and efficient mechanics of his bowling action and his remarkable control over the ball as it leaves his hand. Able to swing the ball both ways, he is now no longer reliant on England’s cloud-cover and cool temperatures to make the ball do enough through the air or off the pitch to fool the batsman—although he still remains more successful in English conditions. His best-ever figures (7 wickets for 42 runs) came last year (beating out his 7–43 of 2008). Not only did he average a miserly 17.58 runs per wicket in 2017, but he allayed the skeptics during the dismal England tour of Australia in 2017–18, when he was his team’s most successful bowler in harsh conditions. He is now a man for all pitches and climates, maintaining tight discipline over the line and length of his deliveries, and making scoring runs off him difficult.

The three bowlers above McGrath in the list—Anil Kumble (619 wickets), Shane Warne (708), and Muttiah Muralitharan (800)—were all spinners of the ball, an art and science with less wear-and-tear on the body than for those who run up to the wicket, ball after ball after ball. The spinners’ records, each a testament to their greatness, are unlikely to be beaten, although Kumble and Muralitharan were thirty-eight when they played their last Tests. It’s, therefore, conceivable that Anderson could play for another two years, and, if he maintains his current trajectory, would end up with an astonishing 626 wickets. Given England’s ongoing trouble with finding a frontline seam bowler to replace him, and Anderson’s ever-ripening skills, it’s not out of the question that he could take more wickets, even more rapidly, and go on even longer. Either way, it’s hard to imagine another fast bowler will ever catch him.

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The Thousandth Test

IPL Fireworks

It’s all cricket!

On March 15 1877, Charles Bannerman and Nat Thomson strode out to open the batting for Australia at Melbourne against an England team, in what is generally acknowledged to be the first “Test” match—a cricket game of two innings each between nations. Over the course of four days, slightly more than 20,000 spectators saw Bannerman score the first century (over a hundred runs in an innings) and witnessed a couple of records that have still not been broken: Englishman James Southerton remains, at 49 years old, the oldest person to make his Test debut; Bannerman scored almost 70 percent of his side’s runs as they beat England by 45 runs.

On August 1, 2018, Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings walked out to open the batting for England at Edgbaston, in Birmingham, England, against a team from India in the thousandth Test match that England has played. This match, which also lasted four days and saw England eke out a victory by 31 runs against the best team in the world, was watched by 75,716 people at the ground and millions (mainly in India) on television.

Needless to say the world has changed a great deal for England between the first and thousandth Test match. A game that began as an aristocratic, private pursuit morphed into a public spectacle; the amateur pastime changed into a professional pursuit; and a sport defined by white privilege became a means by which members of the territories of the British Empire could beat their colonial overlords (literally) at their own game and assert their independence. The center of gravity has also shifted: from the hundreds of thousands of fans in England and Australia to the more than a billion fans worldwide; from a game controlled by white men to one played by rainbow nations of men and women from Barbados to Colombo, Hong Kong to Cape Town; and from a leisurely occupation over several days to the fast-paced, televised spectacle of T20 competitions, in which a match is done and dusted in about four hours.

Amid the financial flood of endorsement packages, TV rights, and multimillionaire superstars playing for franchises around the world, Test cricket finds itself increasingly marooned. The thousandth Test match was played before an appreciative and substantial crowd, but many Test matches not featuring India, England, or Australia (the three most well-financed cricketing nations) are played in virtually empty stadia. People have jobs to do, the tickets are too expensive, and the fact that one might show up to watch a day’s cricket and not see a result is unsatisfactory to most contemporary fans. Cricket authorities are tinkering with the format (introducing day/night games, considering four-day-only matches, proposing a world championship) but it’s hard to argue with the all-round family oriented entertainment value of limited-overs cricket.

The irony is that Test matches remain the yardstick by which international crickets measure their greatness. It’s called Test cricket because it remains the ultimate challenge for a cricketer: the discipline, concentration, stamina, skill level, and tactical nous are—so cricketers say—an order of magnitude above that of the other forms. When England captain, Joe Root, and Indian captain, Virat Kohli, walked off the pitch following the match at Edgbaston, they both acknowledged that the excitement and tension, the seesawing of advantage throughout the three days and one session of play, and the ebb and flow of performances from different members of the two elevens, had been a great advertisement for the format.

It goes without saying that no one knows what the future for Test cricket will be, although prognostications are grim. However, it’s doubtful any player in the first Test match (played on the first day in front of a “crowd” of 4,500) could have imagined their sport would ultimately engage more than one-seventh of the world’s population. Right now, it’s hard to believe that England will play another hundred Test matches, let alone another thousand. And if they do, perhaps those games will be as rare and select as that initial match in 1877.

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Tab, Joe, Joe, and Joe

The original Mike Trout: Joe Hardy played by the late Tab Hunter

The synchronicity of nostalgia. Events that rhyme in timeA circling of the sun. The revolution of the cold-blooded moon. Fantasy and fact orbit one another!

It is 60 years ago today, July 21, 2018, that “Joe Boyd, a middle-aged real estate salesman, met the man who was to change the course of his life and, indirectly, the standings of the American League.” It is also 13 days since the death of Tab Hunter, who plays Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees, a musical based on the novel from which the quote is taken. It is one of Hunter’s signature roles.

The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant was published by W. W. Norton & Co. in 1954. That was one year the New York Yankees did not win the pennant.

Author Douglas Wallop, whose surname, according to family legend, was earned by ancestors for what they did to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings, was peering even further ahead for Yankees’s failure…to 1958, when the truly cataclysmic would occur: the lowly Washington Senators (several times removed from the present-day Nationals, definitely not patsies) would take a league championship from the Yankees.

(The word pennant is rarely evoked these days. In real life, the 1958 Yankees stormed back to retake the World Series from the Milwaukee Braves.)

The movie-musical and the novel from which it derives are fresh and entertaining. Wallop’s influences were several, real-life and fictional: the burgeoning Adonis-myth of Mickey Mantle (in My Favorite Summer 1956: “I was never much for plays. People said the author patterned this Joe Hardy after me. I don’t know if that’s true.  Another thing I don’t know is why the club would want us to see a play where the Yankees lose the Pennant.”); the sizzling and (ultimately) doomed relationship of Joe DiMaggio (who, 77 years and 3 days ago at this writing, embarked on a less-famous 16-game batting streak, thus to hit in 72 out of 73 games) and Marilyn Monroe; plus a nocturnal-cynical narrative of bad karma and redemption called The Natural (1952), which itself would be adapted as a 1984 film.

I have no idea if Tab Hunter is routinely compared to Robert Redford, who stars in The Natural: respectively, leading men in much-different times. Hunter’s death, along with others of a generation, represents a closing of the Hollywood studio-system mind.

Below, Ray Walston, the Yankees #1 fan, muses on the bad-old days.

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Prospect Pipeline

As the 2018 MLB season dawns and hope springs eternal, it precedes the draft by nine weeks (June 4 to 6). Months before that and earlier in blooming careers, Perfect Game, once a term solely relating to pitchers mowing down 27 (or more) straight hitters, is the late-September go-to source/showcase for/of talent. Held in Jupiter, Fla., PG brings prodigious high-schoolers to the attention of college programs as well as to the pros. Since 2003, David Rawnsley, tho he may not be a household name among even more-than-casual baseball fans (he’d be known locally for his 1990s stint with the Astros), is vp over 60 full-time PG staff and hundreds of part-timers. (Baseball America is another well-accepted source of talent-rating.)

The sort that they look at: 2017 high-school prospect Jake Eder.

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Streaking

Popular performance art in the heyday of Bobby Riggs: This type of streaker perdures.

Like the proverbial first-small-step of the longest journey, record-MLB streaks begin innocently enough. Each captures the imagination of the public in different ways. The most enthralling streaks occur over the course of a season. A few, equally impressive, are accomplished over several seasons. Baseball is a game of streaks.

(Nota: ROTB draws a scant-but-telling distinction in this blog and context between the words streak and consecutive: even if they appear to be used interchangeably in certain ways. For example, the New York Yankees won a remarkable five consecutive World Series 1949-53. Likewise, same franchise holds the record for consecutive seasons with a winning record: thirty-eight, 1926 to 1964. Pitchers hold records for winning games in a row. But a starting pitcher works every fourth, fifth, or sixth day and his record over the course of a season is in large measure a function of the lot of his teammates. The same holds for consecutive-games saved among “firemen”: cf. Eric Gagne. None of these measures or milestones or records, however memorable and majestic, quite qualifies, in this narrower context, as a streak. Further, by definition a streak connotes fast, and thus are some aspects of baseball [pitching velocity, the startling-reaction play at the hot corner {third base}, Mickey Mantle from home to first, or the trendiest-offensive obsessions and metrics including aspects of launch angle and, especially, exit velocity], even if many entertain the sport is monotonous, more tortoise than hare. There are all sorts of  “remedies” to move things along: a hitter cannot stray more than a few feet from the batters’ box or the new way to walk the opponent intentionally at the plate. For a game that is “slow,” baseball also still gets settled by instant decisions. Another paradoxical cliché has “the game slowing down” for the best of the best in achieving their best. Baseball, like cricket, a chasing of perfection, is loaded with the contradictions and prejudgments, or predetermination, of truisms.)

Consider the most sublime and famous of all: Joe DiMaggio collecting a hit in fifty-six-straight regular-season games. This was seventy-six-years-ago (plus a few months at this writing) as a good deal of the world was at war, one that the U.S. would enter a mere five months to the day after a walk-off American League win in the All-Star Game.

Ted Williams, who hit that walk-off home run, with DiMaggio at home plate to congratulate his rival, holds the record for consecutive games on base via hit, walk, HBP, any means: eighty-four (1949: in ’41, Joe D. reached based in ten-fewer-straight games; this stat has especial interest for the age of OBP and Moneyball).

DiMaggio actually did hit in the Heinz-promoted ($10,000 was offered, probably a quarter of Joe D.’s annual salary) record of 57 straight games, going one-for-four in that All-Star Game. But this is an exhibition, considered a sifting of heaven.

The all-time professional record is 69 straight games, set outside MLB by Joe Wilhoit in 1919, then playing for the Wichita Jobbers of the Western League, mostly or entirely after his stint in the majors. (From June 14 to August 19, Wilhoit went 153-for-297, a .515 batting average, to set the record streak. Hits included 24 two-baggers, 9 triples, and 4 home runs.) DiMaggio had earlier experience with making hits in consecutive games: as a superb tennis-playing five-tool prospect, he’d batted safely in 61 straight for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.

Re the Big One, the Yankee Clipper began it all within the confines of an under-attended-stadium field ca. 3:30 on May 15 (triple and single), whereas everyone saw it end, in Cleveland of all places (see immediately below and well below), on July 17.

The streak qua Streak was first alluded to in the New York Times on June 3, 1941. The last hit was yielded on July 16 by a French-Canadian pitcher for the Indians, the one and only Joe Krakauskas. (Could there be another?) Next day, teammate Ken Keltner made two nifty plays to lift North America from under the Richter magnitude scale-pressure and suspense. Certainly when TV was little more than a rumor or futurist projection out of the science-fiction pulps (the depression, then World War II would retard its development and production), decades preceding the Internet of course, the nation was riveted in a way that has not been repeated in sports (including any Super Bowl), or perhaps in any other since the Civil War, over parts of May and July, and of course all of the first month of summer.

When the Streak concluded, at the end of Keltner’s defense (cf. Cleveland, below, for more on this franchise), the Clipper went on a second streak of sixteen. No one is close to 56 games, and it’s safe to say 72 out of 73 is as sublimely inexplicable as the origins of the Cassini-explored rings of Saturn: acts and signs of the unapproachable Divinity.

Pete Rose challenged the Streak in 1978, when television sets were ubiquitous and the Betamax was first liberating affluent viewers. Being much more of a contact- (as well as a switch-) hitter, Rose seemed a good bet (cough) to surpass DiMaggio. But like Wee Willie Keeler of the dead-ball era, Rose succumbed in the forty-fifth game.

Other streaks? Read on.

Thro the closing two months of the regular-1988 MLB season, Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers set a mind-blowing record for consecutive scoreless-innings pitched: fifty-nine. In fact, this is a streak that might have covered two seasons. It spanned from the sixth inning of an August 30 game against the Montreal Expos to the tenth inning of a September 28 game against the San Diego Padres.

The previous record of 58 2⁄3 innings was set by former Dodgers National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale during the so-called year of the pitcher, 1968. As Los Angeles radio announcer, Drysdale called Hershiser’s streak, fairly but with natural conflicting interests, as he pursued his (Drysdale) own. Pundits have described this streak as among the greatest individual feats in sports, and, it follows, among the most-formidable records of major-league history.

During this streak, the Elias Sports Bureau altered its criteria for the official consecutive-scoreless-innings record for starting pitchers from including fractional innings, in which one or two outs had been recorded, to counting only complete-scoreless innings. Since the streak was active at the end of the 1988 regular season, it would have spanned two years if Hershiser had pitched any more scoreless innings to begin 1989. However, he yielded a run in his first inning that season.

One streak did occur over several postseasons, and lo, in unusual fashion, got much less attention. That is, till the name of the greatest ballplayer, Babe Ruth (he is not connected to any batting streak we know, tho in 1927 he hit an astounding eighteen home runs in September [“Just how far could the big fellow go?” America asked {well, mostly in the U.S. and Canada: there are nearly fifty sovereign countries and territories that today make up North America, unknown how many existed in the season of possibly the Yankees’s greatest team}], which had to have seen some bunched together), came up. In 1961, underappreciated Roger Maris of the North Country, Hibbing then Fargo, professionally via the Indians and the Kansas City Athletics, topped Ruth’s 1927-season record of 60 homers. Maris has (or had) a big-fat Commissioner Frick asterisk to show for the herculean efforts that likely reduced his lifespan.

But no asterisk was attached to another record. Ruth started MLB life as one of the great left-handed pitchers and in World Series for the Boston Red Sox had pitched 29 1/3 scoreless innings. Yankees southpaw (like Ruth, but nowhere that kind of batter) Whitey Ford pitched an even-more unbelievable 29 2⁄3 straight scoreless innings thro the 1961 World Series. (“Tough year for the Babe,” Ford quipped.) The Chairman of the Board’s record would extend to 33 2/3 innings thro the 1962 Series. Like DiMaggio’s hitting streak, it is a record not likely to be broken: Pitchers, even closers, simply would have no opportunity with the many layers of today’s postseason play.

A streak of games hitting a home run? This does grab attention: When will the player fall off the proverbial ledge? Don Mattingly of the Yankees holds it (eight) with Dale Long, then of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mattingly accomplished this remarkable feat thirty years ago. Ironically, neither record-holder is among the all-time power hitters in terms of career numbers.

Such goes for some streak-record holders, most notably entire clubs on a winning roll; perhaps the most-wonderful achievements of all, from the fans’ point of view, who live and die with their teams, since so much could go wrong on the field, like Picasso’s costumes. Or as Wallace Stevens writes, it is a “This as Including That.” Of course, we are speaking of the team-winning streak.

Kudos to Terry Francona, surely Cooperstown-bound, and his Indians: in 2017 a record 22 games. As noted, like all the great ones, this streak began quietly: How could it start otherwise? It ended with fireworks and a Victor Borge exclamation point. (Fans and writers don’t begin to notice till such a streak approaches double digits. The season-long grind of 162 games, played almost every day and night, creates some understandably jaded followers among pundits and even the most-hearty fans. Multiply this by the seasons.)

Only four teams have reached twenty: the Moneyball Oakland Athletics in 2002, Cleveland in 2017, and the Chicago Cubs in 1935—the club that holds the modern National League record of twenty-one. (The 1916 New York Giants won twenty-six straight. But before there were lights in ballparks the occasional tie was declared [cricket features ties and draws], and such occurred, and such ends the officially sanctioned streak of wins.)

(Like Heinz and the Streak, there was a corporate-incentive angle to the story of the Indians. Universal Windows of Bedford, Ohio, offered a free home-improvement project-promotion if the request were made before July and the Indians won fifteen straight by October. The window company promptly paid out $1.7 million in rebates! Had Universal taken out no insurance, their owners would be cursing the Indians from the poorhouse, forever.)

Neither the Indians nor Cubs has set the championship world on fire. (Just saying.) The Giants have won eight World Series and have quite a postseason history in recent-success after years of bridesmaid finishes thro fifty-nine years in San Francisco. The Indians were a 2016-rain-delay short of the first since 1948—they were upset, in fact humiliated, by the New York Giants in 1954—against the Cubs, a franchise that had not won it all since 1908!

Wondering about historic futility beyond the Indians and Cubs? The 1875 Brooklyn Atlantics lost thirty-one consecutive games in the National Association (name herewith abbreviated), a number that is not considered official. In the modern two-league era, the longest losing streak belongs to the 1961 Philadelphia Phillies (when Maris and Ford were beating at the Gates of Ruth in the American League) at twenty-three games. In the American League, the 1988 Baltimore Orioles hold the record at twenty-one games. Remember, this is the year of Hershiser’s record in the other league.

The longest-ever losing streak consisting of postseason games belongs to the Boston Red Sox. Following their historic loss to the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series the Sox were swept in three consecutive postseason appearances from 1988 to 1995, losing an improbable (for a good team) total of thirteen games in a row.

There is something super exciting, fun, and essential to the nature of baseball, and even to everyday life, about the streak. The unique aspect and shape of the sport on the professional level, certainly on continental North America and in the Far East, a game which can seem routine and even tedious, is that it is played almost daily over the course of all earthly seasons. Most everything of significance in these lives of ours has its genesis in the small and monotonous-unnoticed of the quotidian. Things happening day after day, time after time, define a streaking toward the transcendent: the infinitely impossible.

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Home-run Boom in June

Mickey Mantle challenging John Glenn et al, May 1963: They don’t make ’em like this anymore…or do they?

What gives? Has it something to do with $$$? Yuh think?

Elias Sports Bureau registers 1,101 home runs slugged in the two major leagues during June 2017. That tops the one-month record (May 2000) by thirty-two.

We at Right off the Bat HQ, as in the book, have a dubious take on this as we write regarding Home Run Derby, which precedes the All-star Game.

Is pitching further watered down? Steroids’ taking making a 21st-c. comeback? Word is, the balls have more spring. The so-called rabbit ball dates back at least to the early 1920s. The winding of the horsehide has been known to vary as a correlative of attendance.

October 4 will be the 60th (this once a magic single-season number, courtesy Babe Ruth in 1927, followed by Roger Maris’s assault on Ruth’s then-record in 1961) anniversary of Sputnik 1. Players today are competing with launches in their own way.

Aaron Judge, for example, a king-sized strikeout machine with the New York Yankees in 2016, is challenging Mark McGwire’s rookie record (49): that is, if Aaron is technically judged a rookie.* He’s already hit one nearly 500 feet. The rate his ball travels, right off the bat, to the distant outfield and farther, is measured as the fastest ever. (I’m not sure how the metric exit velocity could stack up or validate on an all-time basis.) Launch angle is likewise a new term to baseball that is on the tip of every batter and announcer’s tongue.

(Speaking of all-time, does home-run frequency cheapen its unique impact? On September 19, 2017, ca. 9:15 EDT, Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals hit major-leagues home-run number 5,694. It breaks the all-time record set in 2000. Altogether, 6,105 dingers were uncorked in 2017.)

* Judge is a rookie, and he set the new home-run record on September 25, 2017. As things turned out, he did strike out a ton of times in the postseason, but nonetheless was elected one of two 2017 Rookie of the Year Awards on November 13, 2017.

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