With the owners' lockout showing no sign of being resolved, it might be easy to forget the pandemic-related circumstances under which Major League Baseball operated at the beginning of the 2021 season. Considering the continuity difficulties facing other pro sports leagues right now, it’s fortunate and even somewhat miraculous that MLB avoided any significant pauses in action.
When players reported to spring training in February with the goal for every team to finish 162-game seasons, it was no sure thing. Not only were COVID-19 vaccines not widely available yet, but the previous MLB season lasted just 60 games. Getting through 2021 fully intact would be an unprecedented challenge of logistics, microbiology, human physiology and luck.
MLB got through it. And, despite valid concerns many share about pace of play and the continuing issues related to how the game is played these days — with an abundance of strikeouts and hitters putting fewer balls in play — MLB told some amazing stories in 2021.
The best story of the year depends a little on when you look. The San Francisco Giants got off to a start that surprised practically every analyst, not only hanging with the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers but also outperforming them just enough from the get-go. No matter what anyone expected, the Giants never really cooled off, and it took a Herculean effort on the part of the Dodgers to overcome them in the National League Division Series.
No individual made a bigger impact in 2021 than two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani, who proved that a human being could hit and pitch at MVP altitudes for an entire 162-game season. Ohtani performed in such an extraordinary and unique way that the league started to run out of ways to acknowledge his achievements. So the Commissioner's office brought back the Historic Achievement Award, which had not been given in seven years, and presented it to Ohtani during the World Series.
And yet, when Ohtani assessed his results near the end of the season, it was clear something essential was missing. He had everything but a contending season with the Los Angeles Angels, who, after finishing under .500, were put on notice that he wouldn't be interested in a contract extension if they didn't progress toward a World Series.
In short, the player who otherwise seemed to have everything wanted what the Atlanta Braves had: the stuff of world champions.
Story of the Year: Atlanta wins World Series
The Braves have been one of the more successful clubs in the majors for 30 seasons, nearing 20 division titles in that span. And they won only one World Series in 1995. Last July, even making the playoffs for a 27th time in franchise history seemed fanciful after superstar slugger Ronald Acuña went down with a season-ending ACL injury. Not only had the Braves lost their best player, but they also weren't playing particularly well with him in the lineup. A weak preseason favorite to win the NL East for a fourth-straight year, the Braves sat a game under .500 and trailed the New York Mets by 4 1/2 games when they lost Acuña to injury.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos wasn't about to find a player like Acuña — a 23-year-old MVP candidate — available on the trading block, but he also knew the Braves needed to get better in more than one place. With the blessing of ownership, Anthopoulos made several moderately priced acquisitions at different positions, most notably the outfield, transforming that unit from underperforming to indispensable. Everyone knows the names by now.
• Joc Pederson from the Cubs added a left-handed bat with postseason experience, an abundance of confidence and a light-hearted approach aiming to put the clubhouse at ease.
• Adam Duvall was a familiar face who played excellent defense with the ability to hit an occasional home run.
• Eddie Rosario was a solid contact hitter at his core, but capable of more when fully healthy and focused.
• Jorge Soler displayed huge power in recent seasons but always had a superior ability to get on base.
Added to the mix of a fabulous infield, strong rotation, underrated bullpen and a winning culture loosely but consistently administered by manager Brian Snitker, the Braves were one of the winningest teams from August onward. The rest of the NL East — from the Mets to the Philadelphia Phillies to the Miami Marlins to the Washington Nationals — could not match the Braves at full strength.
It was just the start. Come October, the Braves made magic.
The betting underdogs at every turn, the Braves stifled the Milwaukee Brewers in the first round, shocked the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series and stood tall in the World Series against the Houston Astros. All of Anthopoulos’ acquisitions made a difference, as Pederson hit a pair of home runs against the Brewers, Rosario sizzled with a .560 batting average and three homers against the Dodgers, and Soler won Series MVP.
Snitker kept everyone focused, even when the team continued to lose key players along the way, like ace Charlie Morton. Max Fried stepped up in the title clincher after enduring previous postseason setbacks. Freddie Freeman followed up his 2020 NL MVP season with a clutch postseason, right up to the final game of the Series. Ozzie Albies struggled through most of the playoffs but had huge moments at the plate and on the bases. Hometown shortstop Dansby Swanson got his biggest hits of the season when his team needed it most. Austin Riley continued his transformation from big prospect to big-time producer on both sides of the ball. The bullpen, notably the back end of Will Smith, Tyler Matzek, Luke Jackson and A.J. Minter was darn-near perfect. Ian Anderson out-pitched others who had much more experience.
The Braves really did have about two dozen heroes.
Player of the Year: Shohei Ohtani
When he reported to spring training in February, stories on the first day used the phrase “no limits” to describe Ohtani. Reporters were talking about a lack of restrictions on Ohtani’s usage as it related to old injuries, not the possibility of him putting up unheard-of statistics as a hitter/pitcher hybrid. When it was all done, good health was Ohtani’s proudest component of his unprecedented season. It was because nobody has more confidence in their abilities. All he needed to produce a singularly amazing season was a healthy opportunity.
The 27-year-old wasted no time fulfilling the two-way promise he showed as a rookie in 2018, hitting a home run and throwing a 100-mph pitch in his first appearance of the season. Awesome as it was, performances like that became more the norm than out of the ordinary for Ohtani, who drew early comparisons to Babe Ruth and later to Negro Leagues stars like Bullet Rogan, but he really was doing something nobody ever had in MLB. At midseason, Ohtani not only participated in the All-Star Home Run Derby, but he also started the game at designated hitter and pitcher for the American League squad.
Ohtani’s offense fell off at the tail end of the season, but he established a precedent for two-way production that led to a unanimous AL MVP selection. He finished with a batting line of .257/.372/.592 with 46 home runs, 100 RBIs, eight triples, 26 stolen bases and 318 total bases. As a pitcher, he went 9-2 with a 3.18 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 130 1/3 innings. He did it all. Almost. All that’s left is something like what the Braves had: a competitive season.
Play of the Year: Mookie Betts' diving walk-off catch
The San Diego Padres finished the season in disappointing fashion, far behind the Giants and Dodgers in the NL West. But before the outcome of the pennant race was decided, the Padres had their hearts ripped out by Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts, who, while diving full extension, made the best catch any major leaguer made all season to rob Tommy Pham of what almost certainly would have been a tying hit.
It happened in the bottom of the ninth inning on April 17 at Petco Park:
Biggest questions for 2022
When will the lockout be resolved?
What will the landscape look like?
Where is Carlos Correa going in free agency?
How does Ronaldo Acuña's return fit into the Braves possibly repeating, or at least how will Atlanta construct the rest of its outfield?
Are the Braves really keeping Marcell Ozuna and which among their newcomers won't be back?
Are the Blue Jays going to have to go back to Buffalo if COVID gets worse?
Can the Rangers compete for the playoffs?
Did the Mariners make themselves the team to beat in the AL West?
Is Mike Trout healthy yet?
Have the Tigers really closed the gap on the White Sox?
What is the status of Trevor Bauer's career?
How will the A's future ballpark and city be resolved?
Can the Padres be contenders all season?
Did the Mets do everything they needed to be actual contenders?