The Players Who Defined 2017

A prolific home-run hitter, Aaron Judge has also distinguished himself as a capable athlete.
(Photo: Keith Allison)

The 2017 regular season is officially in the books. We didn’t get any kind of dramatic finishes, with the No. 1 pick the only thing decided on the final day of the season; Pablo Sandoval remained a net negative for his employers by costing the Giants the top pick with his season-ending walk-off.

Despite the lack of pennant-race drama, however, this was still a pretty fun season, with a lot of spectacular individual performances and the emergence of a few true powerhouse teams. So, let’s take a look at a few players who helped define the 2017 season.

Aaron Judge

While Giancarlo Stanton captured the home-run title, Aaron Judge is the new face of what power looks like in baseball. He not only became the first rookie ever to hit 50 home runs, he was also arguably baseball’s best overall player this season; he was the only guy in the game to crack +8 WAR this season. Unlike the last time power spiked in MLB, this one is defined less by hulking one-dimensional designated hitters and more by the most freakish athletic specimens ever to play the game.

Judge also represents the changing nature of contact in baseball; his 208 strikeouts are tied for the sixth-most in baseball history. What’s notable about Judge, though, isn’t that he strikes out a lot, but that he was among the best hitters in baseball while threatening the all-time strikeout record. The previous nine hitters to record at least 200 strikeouts in a season produced an average wRC+ was just 118; three of those nine seasons resulted in below-average offensive production that year.

Judge didn’t just set the mark for the highest wRC+ by a guy who struck out 200-plus times; no one had put up a wRC+ of 172 or better while striking out more than 150 times since Mark McGwire in 1998, when McGwire had 155 strikeouts but managed a 205 wRC+. We have never seen a great hitter strike out this often, and nothing sums up 2017 like the walking embodiment of a game where home runs more than offset all of the strikeouts.

Jose Ramirez

Though Stanton and Judge did both crack 50 home runs, the home-run story this time isn’t about the guys at the top. Instead, most of the added power in baseball came from guys who weren’t supposed to hit for power, and no one embodies this unexpected power spike more than Jose Ramirez.

In his first two years in the majors, Ramirez totaled just 38 extra-base hits in 635 plate appearances, putting up a paltry .106 isolated-power figure from 2013 to 2015. This year, he racked up 90 extra-base hits in 641 plate appearances, his .264 ISO landing him right between Nelson Cruz and Paul Goldschmidt. The changes in the way the ball flies disproportionately benefited hitters at the lower-end of the power spectrum, and no one gained more than Ramirez, who has now emerged as an elite star in this game.

Ramirez might have benefited the most from being able to hit the ball just hard enough to send it into the gaps or over a short fence, but he’s only the most prominent member of the diminutive slugger. Of the league’s qualified middle infielders, 14 ran an ISO over .200 this year; in 1999, at the height of the “Steroid Era”, that total was just nine. A combination of defensive shifts and fewer balls in play (because of the rise in strikeouts) has reduced the range required of players to competently man an infield position. With the ball now also providing more rewards for guys who elevate, the game is now flush with slap hitters who have become legitimately dangerous.

Chris Sale

The only starting pitchers in baseball history to strike out 35% of the batters they faced in a season: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and now Chris Sale. The era of the strikeout obviously means it was easier for Sale than either of the other two, but even adjusting for the league-average strikeout rate, Sale still had one of the most dominant seasons in baseball history.

But strikeouts aren’t the only reason why Sale embodies baseball in 2017. He also highlights the dramatic change in starting-pitcher usage, as his 214.1 innings pitched led the league this season. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index, this is one of just three seasons in baseball history where nobody cracked the 215 IP mark, and the other two were shortened by work stoppages. Even in the abbreviated 1995 season, three pitchers topped 215 innings.

Prior to this year, no full season of baseball had ever seen fewer than eight pitchers pass the 215-inning threshold. Not surprisingly, those happened recently, with last year’s mark tying 2013 for the fewest 215-plus-inning pitchers. But the change is still dramatic, the game going from eight to zero in a single year. Starting-pitcher usage has been trending down for a while now, but this is the year that everyone was aggressive about managing even their best pitcher’s workloads. Barring a structural change in the way the game is played, we probably won’t ever see anyone throw 250 innings in a regular season again; after this year, even 225 innings looks like something of an upper limit.

Freddie Freeman

What could have been? We can ask that question of too many elite players this year, and perhaps of no one more than Freddie Freeman. On May 17th, he was hitting .341/.461/.748, good for a 203 wRC+. Then Aaron Loup hit him with an up-and-in fastball that broke his wrist. He would return six weeks later, but wrist injuries are notorious for lingering, and Freeman hit “just” .290/.375/.507 after returning from the disabled list. A season that looked like it might establish Freeman as a contender for best hitter in baseball was cut short by an errant pitch, and we’ll never know what Freeman could have done if he’d have stayed healthy.

Freeman is hardly the only star to get sidelined this year. Mike Trout broke his thumb diving into second base. Bryce Harper‘s knee problems limited him to just 111 games played this year. J.D. Martinez played in only 118 games after beginning the year on the DL with a foot problem. Carlos Correa played just 109 games after suffering a thumb injury similar to Trout’s. Josh Donaldson‘s leg issues limited him to just 113 games. Michael Conforto’s breakout ended after just 109 games when his shoulder broke.

And those are just the hitters. Pitchers get hurt every year, but it feels like we lost more than our fair share of elite arms this year. Noah Syndergaard barely pitched at all this season. Madison Bumgarner missed two months after getting hurt riding his bike on an off day. Aaron Sanchez couldn’t figure out how to grip the ball without tearing his fingers apart, and missed most of the season because of it. Zach Britton’s arm hurt, then his knee hurt, and he was never really the Zach Britton of the last few years.

The Tommy John epidemic seemed to slow down a bit this year, but still managed to claim Shelby Miller, Michael Pineda, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Ross, Drew Smyly, and Edinson Volquez, among many others. Julio Urias wished he would have just needed TJ; the recovery rates for his anterior capsule shoulder surgery are not nearly as promising.

We got some new stars this year, which is always nice, but hopefully next year, we get more full healthy seasons from the best players in the game. Aaron Judge and Jose Ramirez are fun, but I want six months of Mike Trout next year, please.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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4 years ago

TJ also claimed Alex Reyes preseason – arguably the pitcher I was most excited to watch this year.