The Atlanta Braves signed right-handed pitcher and free agent Charlie Morton following his exploits during the Tampa Bay Rays' run to the MLB World Series.

Morton returns to the Braves on a one-year, $15million deal, having been drafted by Atlanta in 2002, while he debuted in 2008 before leaving the following year.

The two-time All-Star played a key role as Tampa Bay reached the World Series for the first time in 12 years in the shortened season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Tampa Bay turned down a $15m club option as Morton opted to reunite with the Braves, who fell to eventual champions the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series (NLCS).

A World Series winner with the Houston Astros in 2017, Morton tallied 42 strikeouts and an ERA of 4.74 in nine regular-season appearances in 2020.

The 37-year-old stepped up in the playoffs, with 23 strikeouts and a 2.70 ERA in four games, while he had a 3-1 win-loss record.

Morton also became the only pitcher in MLB history with four winner-take-all victories after pitching 5.2 scoreless innings as the Rays prevailed in the American League Championship Series (ALCS).

"We saw him trending back to where he was in 2019," Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos said. "In September and into the postseason, his stuff was back to where it was in 2019."

After debuting for the Braves 12 years ago, Morton was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009 and he spent seven seasons at the NL franchise.

A brief spell with the Philadelphia Phillies followed before moving to the Astros and then the Rays in 2019.

November 2, 2016 was a night many Chicago Cubs fans never thought they would see.

After generations of fans witnessed their beloved Cubs come up short, the 2016 team ended the franchise's 108-year title drought by capturing the World Series.

The events that transpired that night in Cleveland – as well as the raucous celebrations taking place 350 miles to the west in Chicago – were set in motion five years earlier when the Cubs named Theo Epstein the team's president of baseball operations in October 2011. And just over four years after the Cubs hoisted the championship trophy, Epstein determined that his time with the franchise had come to an end, announcing Tuesday he would be stepping down from his position.

His contract was set to expire at the end of the 2021 season, and he was then expected to move on with general manager Jed Hoyer filling his position. Over the last few months, however, Epstein decided that since the franchise is facing several big personnel questions this offseason that will shape the future of the team, and that the one making the decisions should be around for the long haul, so Hoyer will take over now.

Epstein will forever be remembered in the Cubs' storied history – as well as the Boston Red Sox's – for delivering a championship to a long-suffering fan base. Though a Cubs dynasty never materialised like some fans envisioned after the 2016 title, Epstein successfully transformed a team known as the loveable losers into perennial contenders.

"The best part of this journey with the Cubs has been the feeling of togetherness: the friendships, trust, camaraderie, and collaboration inside the organisation as well as the deep connection with the fans," Epstein wrote in a letter to Cubs fans.

"Nine years ago, after I laid out some lofty goals at my introductory press conference — a pledge to create a foundation for sustained success that would mean playing baseball regularly in October as well as a promise, over time and together, to build a team that would ultimately win the World Series — our first act as a baseball department was to set out a collective vision for how we could meet those goals and make our fans proud."

Building a contender began with "The Plan".

Epstein had no intention in competing immediately, his vision was a complete tear down to rebuild with high draft picks of position players, develop those picks into a core of the team and acquire pitchers.

As far as being bad in those first few years under Epstein's watch, the Cubs excelled.

In his first three seasons at the helm, the Cubs had the league's second-worst winning percentage at .412. Chicago's poor play, however, led to high draft picks, and Epstein and the Cubs drafted Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ with top-10 picks from 2012-15.

Over that same span, the Cubs traded for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks, and prior to the start of the 2015 season, they signed free agent Jon Lester. Also before the 2015 season, they landed highly coveted manager Joe Maddon.

With the core in place, the Cubs went from 73 wins in 2014 to 97 victories in 2015 and a berth in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) – their first since 2003. Over the last six seasons, their 505 wins are the third most in baseball behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers (528) and Houston Astros (510).

Excluding the 2020 season because of the truncated 60-game schedule amid the coronavirus pandemic, the five-year stretch from 2015-19 was also one of the best in franchise history – the 471 wins only behind the 530 between 1906 and 1910.

Four straight 90-win seasons from 2015-18, helped the Cubs pile up many of those victories. Since 2015, only the Dodgers have more 90-win seasons.

What makes the Cubs' recent success even more incredible is that it followed a particularly forgettable four-decade stretch. Chicago had the fewest seasons with 90-plus wins between 1970 and 2014 with four, only the Miami Marlins and Colorado Rockies (both two) fared worse.

With the exception of the Cubs, every other team on the list – including the San Diego Padres, Arizona Diamondbacks, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays – started in the division era, and the two clubs with fewer 90-win seasons than the Cubs did not even begin play until 1993. So, Chicago had 23 more opportunities than the Rockies and Marlins to reach 90 wins in a season, 28 more seasons than the Diamondbacks and Rays (both started in 1998) and seven more than the Mariners and Blue Jays (both started in 1977). The Padres first season was in 1969.

Chicago's turnaround was a result of Epstein's moves and the team's player development. Bryant would go on to win the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year Award, while Arrieta took home that year's NL Cy Young Award. A year later, Bryant earned NL MVP honours, Lester finished second in 2016 NL Cy Young voting while Hendricks finished third.

While Arrieta signed with the Philadelphia Phillies after 2017 and Epstein inked Yu Darvish prior to 2018, the tandem of Lester and Hendricks has been one of the most reliable in the majors over the past six seasons.

Since 2015, the Cubs' pitching staff has posted the majors' third-best ERA at 3.66, while Lester (77 wins), Hendricks (62) and Arrieta (54) are also one of just two trios to have at least 50 wins for one team - along with the Cleveland Indians' Carlos Carrasco (69), Corey Kluber (67) and Trevor Bauer (61).

With Hendricks, Lester and 2020 NL Cy Young runner-up Darvish heading the rotation, the offense has compiled the majors' second-highest on-base percentage since 2015 at .332 behind a familiar line-up.

Rizzo and Bryant have each made three All-Star teams, while shortstop Javier Baez – the Cubs' first-round pick from the year before Epstein took over in 2011 – has earned two trips to the Midsummer Classic. Those three stars along with Schwarber have provided consistent home-run power only two other teams can match over the past six seasons – the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros with four players with 100 or more homers since 2015.

The Cubs have had an incredible run since 2015, reaching the postseason five times – one of four teams with at least five playoff berths in the last six seasons, along with the Dodgers, Astros and New York Yankees. Not every move Epstein has made worked to perfection like signing Craig Kimbrel or trading Eloy Jimenez for Jose Quintana. And the team have not won a playoff game since 2017 with their offense inconceivably scoring two, one, one, three, one, one, one and 0 runs in their last eight postseason games, but the last six years overall will still be considered one of the best stretches in Cubs history.

''If you look at my track record in Boston and then here, in the first six years or so, we did some pretty epic things,'' Epstein said Tuesday. ''And then the last couple years weren't as impressive. Maybe what that tells me is I think I'm great at and really enjoy building and transformation and triumphing. Maybe I'm not as good and not as motivated by maintenance.''

Epstein is not sure what the future will bring, but will take the next year off of baseball. At least, working at the ballpark. He did say he plans to buy season tickets for the Cubs to enjoy the game as a fan.

"Getting dropped into this situation nine years ago, feeling like a stranger, Chicago, the Cubs, Cubs fans all being foreign to me," Epstein said. "And now I look, nine years later, and I feel like it's in my blood too. I don't think that would’ve been possible elsewhere. The closeness of the connection with the fans as you go through the Cubs experience, that stands out to me."

New York Mets second baseman Robinson Cano has received a 162-game suspension from MLB for violating the league's Joint Prevention and Treatment Program, ruling him out of the entire 2021 season.

MLB said in a statement on Wednesday that Cano, 38, tested positive for Stanozolol, a banned performance-enhancing substance.

The eight-time All-Star's suspension will begin at the start of the 2021 campaign and prohibits the World Series champion from participating in any postseason games as well. Cano will also forfeit his $24million salary for the upcoming season.

Cano, who batted .316 with 10 home runs and 30 RBIs in 49 games during the abbreviated 2019 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, was previously suspended 80 games in 2018 for testing positive for furosemide, a potential masking agent also on MLB's list of banned substances.

"I understand that everything that goes into my body," Cano said in a statement. "I'm responsible for that."

"We were extremely disappointed to be informed about Robinson's suspension for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program," Mets president Sandy Alderson said in a statement. "The violation is very unfortunate for him, the organisation, our fans, and the sport.

"The Mets fully support MLB's efforts toward eliminating performance enhancing substances from the game."

Cano has three seasons remaining on a 10-year, $240m contract he signed with the Seattle Mariners in December 2013 following a distinguished nine-year tenure with the Mets' crosstown rivals the New York Yankees.

The Mets acquired the five-time Silver Slugger and two-time Gold Glove winner from Seattle prior to the 2019 season.

A .303 career hitter, Cano bounced back from a disappointing first season with the Mets in which he batted a career-low .256 in 107 games.

Baseball great Ken Griffey Jr wants to help the Seattle Sounders become the closest thing MLS has to the New York Yankees.

The former Seattle Mariners star has joined the ownership group of the Sounders, which also includes Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and chart-topping rapper Macklemore.

Griffey, a Baseball Hall of Famer who hit 630 MLB home runs in his career to sit seventh on the all-time list, spent 13 years with the Mariners and retired in 2010.

The 50-year-old father-of-three said of his and wife Melissa's investment in the MLS side: "I wanted to be a part of something, not only for myself, but for my kids to be proud of. This is it.

"You always want to be a part of a winning team. To be on a championship-calibre team and an organisation that wants to win and wants to compete and wants to go out there every single game and put the best product on the field, not only for the guys who are in that locker room, but for the 70,000 people who are watching [in the stadium] and the people who are sitting at home watching, that's important. You want a winner.

"I don't play games to be competitive, I play to win. I want the Sounders to be compared to the Yankees. Twenty-seven, 28 championships. That's what I root for, that's what I want."

Established in 2007, the Sounders won the MLS Cup in 2016 and 2019.

The Yankees were formed in 1901 and have won a record 27 World Series titles.

The Miami Marlins have made Kim Ng the first female general manager in MLB history.

Miami announced the historic hire on Friday, with Ng believed to be the first woman hired as a general manager in any of the four men's major sports leagues in North America.

"I entered Major League Baseball as an intern and, after decades of determination, it is the honour of my career to lead the Marlins as their next general manager," Ng said.

"We are building for the long term in South Florida, developing a forward-thinking, collaborative, creative baseball operation made up of incredibly talented and dedicated staff who have, over the last few years, laid a great foundation for success.

"This challenge is one I don't take lightly. When I got into this business, it seemed unlikely a woman would lead a major league team, but I am dogged in pursuit of my goals.

"My goal is now to bring championship baseball to Miami. I am both humbled and eager to continue building the winning culture our fans expect and deserve."

Ng has over 30 years of experience in MLB having worked with the Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, serving as assistant general manager for the latter two.

Since 2011, Ng has worked as senior vice president of baseball operations for MLB.

She now takes the reins of the Marlins front office after a 2020 season that saw them reach the playoffs for the first time since their 2003 World Series win.

The Marlins went 31-29 in a campaign shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, beating the Chicago Cubs in the National League Wild Card Series before being swept by the Atlanta Braves in the Divisional Series.

Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu and the Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman were crowned MLB MVPs of their respective leagues on Thursday.

Abreu (374) finished clear of the Cleveland Indians' Jose Ramirez (303) and New York Yankees' DJ LeMahieu (230) in voting for the American League (AL) MVP.

Another first baseman, Freeman was also a first-time MVP winner.

With 410 points, he beat Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts (268) and the San Diego Padres' Manny Machado (221) to the National League (NL) crown.

Abreu helped the White Sox reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

He had an AL-high 60 RBIs while hitting at .317, which ranked fourth, while his 19 home runs was the second most.

Abreu added the 2020 AL MVP to his three All-Star appearances, becoming the first White Sox player to win the award since Frank Thomas went back-to-back in 1993-94.

Freeman, meanwhile, guided the Braves to the NL Championship Series before they were edged by eventual champions the Dodgers.

His .341 batting average and 53 RBIs ranked second in the NL, while he also crushed 13 HRs, becoming the first Braves player to be named MVP since 1999.

Trevor Bauer became the first Cincinnati Reds pitcher to win the Cy Young Award in the National League (NL), while Cleveland Indians ace Shane Bieber earned American League (AL) honours.

Bauer beat out Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish (123) and New York Mets star Jacob deGrom (89) with 201 points as he made history for the Reds on Wednesday.

DeGrom had claimed back-to-back Cy Young awards but 2018 MLB All-Star Bauer led the NL in ERA (1.73), ERA-plus (276), WHIP (0.79), opponents' average (.159) and shutouts (two).

Bauer (100) only ranked second to DeGrom (104) in strikeouts and strikeouts per nine innings (12.3) as the Reds reached the NL Wild Card Series in 2020.

Cleveland's Bieber was the unanimous choice to win his first Cy Young title after finishing ahead of Minnesota Twins pitcher Kenta Maeda and Toronto Blue Jays star Ryu Hyun-jin in the AL.

Bieber received 210 points, well ahead of Maeda (92) and Ryu (51) to join Corey Kluber (2014 and 2017), Cliff Lee (2008), CC Sabathia (2007) and Gaylord Perry (1972) as the only other Cleveland winners.

Cleveland's four Cy Young recipients since 2007 are the most in the big leagues during that span.

The 25-year-old – who reached 100 strikeouts in the fewest number of innings (66.3) in MLB history – is the youngest Indians pitcher to clinch the award in franchise history.

Bieber dominated the AL, leading pitchers in wins (eight), strikeouts (122), ERA (1.63), batting average allowed (.167), slugging percentage allowed (.265) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.2).

The Indians advanced to the AL Wild Card Series.

Tampa Bay Rays boss Kevin Cash was named American League (AL) Manager of the Year for 2020, while Miami Marlins counterpart Don Mattingly reeled in National League (NL) honours.

Cash was crowned the AL's best after leading the Rays to their first division title since 2010 and first MLB World Series appearance in 12 years.

An AL Manager of the Year finalist in 2018 and 2019, Cash received 22 of the 30 first-place American League votes for 126 points, ahead of the Chicago White Sox's Rick Renteria (61) and Toronto Blue Jays skipper Charlie Montoyo (47).

"When I think about this award, it feels like a team award," Cash, whose Rays fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the showpiece clash, said. "I feel like it's an organisational award, because it's really your staff and your players have to buy in.

"We've taken our lumps for a couple years, and it looks like we're starting to turn the corner a little bit."

"I do think it's an organisational award," Cash, who became the second Rays skipper to win the award, joining Joe Maddon (2008 and 2011), continued. "But it certainly means a lot to me personally.

"When you look at these awards, there's only two that are given out every year, and to be recognised as one of the better ones on that given season means that a lot of things went your way."

In the NL, Mattingly and the Marlins capped a remarkable season with a managerial gong.

Mattingly received 20 of the 30 first-place votes after guiding the Marlins to their first playoff appearance in 17 years, despite a coronavirus outbreak that threatened to derail their campaign.

He became the third Marlins manager to receive the honour, along with Jack McKeon (2003) and Joe Girardi (2006), following Miami's run to the NL Division Series.

Mattingly is also the fifth individual to claim both the MVP Award and Manager of the Year title, joining Don Baylor, Frank Robinson, Kirk Gibson and Joe Torre.

"As I look back to the season, I think about all the people that paid the price for this," Mattingly, who beat Jayce Tingler of the San Diego Padres to the award, said.

"It starts at home with my wife and my little five-year-old. I didn’t see 'em for 110 days."

Alex Cora apologised and said he deserved his punishment for sign stealing after returning as manager of the Boston Red Sox.

The Red Sox re-hired Cora on a two-year deal last week following the conclusion of his year-long MLB suspension.

Boston mutually parted with Cora in January after the World Series-winning manager – who was bench coach for the Astros when they illicitly stole signs and went on to win the 2017 World Series – was named in MLB's findings.

The Red Sox were also stripped of their second-round pick in the 2020 draft for using video equipment to steal signs from opposing teams during their 2018 championship season.

Cora fronted the media on Tuesday, and he told reporters: "First of all, I want to thank my family back home [in Puerto Rico]. It's been a tough year. To spend time with you guys, it was amazing this year.

"But like I've been saying all along, I was spending time at home for the wrong reasons. For that, I want to apologise. I deserved what happened this year. It's something that, I'm not proud of it. But we went through the whole process with the commissioner's office, the department of investigations. At the end, I got my penalty and I served it."

Bench coach Ron Roenicke was elevated to the role of manager in 2020, overseeing a 24-36 record during the shortened season amid the coronavirus pandemic as the Red Sox finished bottom of the American League (AL) East.

"I knew I was going to miss the game," Cora said. "It's my passion. I've been around the game since I was four years old. I missed the game. At the same time, I made some bad decisions. You've got to take ownership.

"Just being able to be a dad, the kids, obviously they're still three, they don't understand what's going on right now, but some deep conversations with my daughter, with [my partner] Angelica, with my mom, with [my brother] Joey throughout the year about how wrong I was. The only thing I can do now is get better. I will be better. I'm going to be surrounded by a team that, they'll help me out and we’ll continue moving forward."

Cora added: "I want to make sure that everyone knows, this situation is part of who I am. For the rest of my career, as a man, I have to deal with it. I don’t want people to make it seem like it's a great comeback story.

"I don't want that. I'm actually going to use this bad experience to make people better, starting at home with [my kids] Xander, Isander and Camilla. The process started early in the year, and we're going to keep continuing it.

"I know there are a lot of people that I disappointed, and for that, I'm sorry. And also, I'm telling those people that, 'Hey, I'm still Alex. I made a mistake. I still love the game. I love what I do'. I promise you that from now on, I'm going to use this experience the right way. I'm not proud of it. I'm not happy about it. But we have to move on."

The Boston Red Sox have brought back Alex Cora as manager after the conclusion of his MLB suspension.

Boston parted with World Series-winning manager Cora in January amid allegations of sign stealing, but he has been re-appointed on a two-year deal, with a two-year club option for the 2023 and 2024 seasons.

Cora was handed a one-year ban, while the Red Sox were stripped of their second-round pick in the 2020 draft for using video equipment to steal signs from opposing teams during their 2018 championship season.

Bench coach Ron Roenicke was elevated to the role of manager in 2020, overseeing a 24-36 record during the shortened season amid the coronavirus pandemic as the Red Sox finished bottom of the American League (AL) East.

"I am grateful for the opportunity to manage once again and return to the game I have loved my entire life," Cora said in a statement. " ... I am eager to get back to work with our front office, coaches, and especially our players.

"Boston is where I have always wanted to be and I could not be more excited to help the Red Sox achieve our ultimate goal of winning in October."

Cora added: "This past year, I have had time to reflect and evaluate many things, and I recognise how fortunate I am to lead this team once again.

"Not being a part of the game of baseball, and the pain of bringing negative attention to my family and this organisation was extremely difficult. I am sorry for the harm my past actions have caused and will work hard to make this organisation and its fans proud."

Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said: "Alex Cora is an outstanding manager, and the right person to lead our club into 2021 and beyond. The way he leads, inspires, and connects with everyone around him is almost unmatched, and he has incredible baseball acumen and feel for the game.

"Because of all that had happened, I knew that I wanted to speak with Alex once his suspension ended, but I didn't yet know if it made sense to consider him for the job as well.

"Our conversations were lengthy, intense, and emotional. Alex knows that what he did was wrong, and he regrets it. ... He loves the Red Sox and the game of baseball, and because of that we believe he will make good on this second chance."

Los Angeles Dodgers star Justin Turner will not face punishment for leaving isolation to celebrate his team's World Series victory last month, despite testing positive for coronavirus.

The Dodgers were on the verge of winning the MLB World Series in Game 6 when third baseman Turner was removed from the game in the eighth inning due to the team receiving word that he had returned a positive COVID-19 test in October.

Turner was placed in a room with his wife Kourtney, where the couple watched Los Angeles clinch a 3-1 win and 4-2 series victory over the Tampa Bay Rays – the Dodgers' first World Series title since 1988.

During the celebration, Turner was seen on the field in close contact with team-mates, sometimes with his mask removed.

The MLB announced the end of its investigation into Turner's conduct on Friday, with commissioner Rob Manfred saying no further action would be taken.

"We all have made mistakes as we navigated these unprecedented challenges and have tried to learn from those mistakes so they are not repeated," Manfred said in a statement.

"With this in mind, I am closing this matter by applauding Justin for accepting responsibility, apologising and making a commitment to set a positive example going forward."

Despite Turner's behaviour – which he has since admitted was wrong and regrettable – MLB did take some responsibility and acknowledge other mitigating factors.

"Our investigation revealed additional relevant information that, while not exonerating Mr. Turner from responsibility for his conduct, helps put into context why he chose to leave the isolation room and return to the field," Manfred said.

Two Dodgers employees were stationed outside Turner's isolation room. When the 2017 All-Star left to return to the field to celebrate, he mistook the employees' inaction for permission.

Manfred conceded in his statement that a league employee should have been given explicit instructions to keep Turner in isolation or take him directly to the team hotel.

Many of Turner's team-mates thought they had already been exposed enough to him in the previous hours and days that isolation was pointless. Turner was also told by an unidentified person that some of his team-mates had also received positive COVID-19 tests, leading him to believe he was being singled out.

Due to this confusion – and Turner's contrition after the fact – Manfred decided not to punish the 12-year veteran.

"Mr. Turner has publicly recognised that his conduct was wrong and has expressed remorse for that conduct," Manfred said. "I have spoken to him personally and I know that he is extraordinarily upset by the incident.

"By all accounts, Justin is a leader in the clubhouse, a contributor to his community and a responsible person who was instrumental in the Dodgers diligently following the health protocols all season long."

Turner, a member of both Dodgers' teams that lost in the World Series in 2017 and 2018, was a candidate for World Series MVP, ultimately won by Corey Seager.

The 2017 National League Championship Series (NLCS) hit .320 with two home runs and four doubles in the World Series and is the franchise's career postseason leader in hits, runs, doubles, home runs and RBI.

"In hindsight, I should have waited until the field was clear of others to take that photo with my wife," Turner said. "I sincerely apologise to everyone on the field for failing to appreciate the risks of returning to the field.

"I have spoken with almost every team-mate, coach, and staff member, and my intentions were never to make anyone uncomfortable or put anyone at further risk."

Los Angeles Dodgers star Mookie Betts won the Gold Glove Award for a fifth straight year.

Betts, 28, helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 2020 – his first season with the team after joining from the Boston Red Sox.

He was named the Gold Glove winner for right field in the National League (NL).

Betts has won the Gold Glove in each of the past five seasons, with four of those coming with the Red Sox.

He had 11 defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2020 and it led all NL right fielders, according to

Kansas City Royals star Alex Gordon – who retired at season's end – won an eighth Gold Glove, while the Colorado Rockies' Nolan Arenado was awarded an eighth straight.

Gold Glove Award winners:

First base: Evan White (Seattle Mariners)
Second base: Cesar Hernandez (Cleveland Indians)
Shortstop: J.P. Crawford (Seattle Mariners)
Third base: Isiah Kiner-Falefa (Texas Rangers)
Left field: Alex Gordon (Kansas City Royals)
Center field: Luis Robert (Chicago White Sox)
Right field: Joey Gallo (Texas Rangers)
Catcher: Roberto Perez (Cleveland Indians)
Pitcher: Griffin Canning (Los Angeles Angels)

First base: Anthony Rizzo (Chicago Cubs)
Second base: Kolten Wong (St Louis Cardinals)
Shortstop: Javier Baez (Chicago Cubs)
Third base: Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies)
Left field: Tyler O'Neill (St Louis Cardinals)
Center field: Trent Grisham (San Diego Padres)
Right field: Mookie Betts (Los Angeles Dodgers)
Pitcher: Max Fried (Atlanta Braves)
Catcher: Tucker Barnhart (Cincinnati Reds)

Never before had there been a full-time female coach in MLB history.

Step forward Alyssa Nakken.

Nakken made history when she was appointed San Francisco Giants assistant in January, joining Gabe Kapler's coaching staff.

The 30-year-old has her first season under her belt, and reflecting on the historic campaign, Nakken told Stats Perform News: "There is a lot of emotions that come with it. Throughout the interview process, I was just really working towards that next step in my career. I wasn't thinking about making any sort of history or anything. I was just looking for that next opportunity in baseball, and specifically within the Giants organisation.

"So, that was my focus for a month and a half of a pretty intense interview process. Then at the end, when the offer was made, it sort of hit me. 'Okay, yay, I have this new job but wow there's this whole extra layer coming on top of it' in the form of being the first full-time female coach at the major-league level. It's an incredible honour that makes me so humble, then it also lights this other fire within me that is like 'okay, I have this additional responsibility to ensure that I continue to pave this path for many, many other women who are about to walk it soon after this'.

"What was difficult or just an interesting feeling, when the announcement was made, just an outpouring of love, support, respect and congratulations were thrown my way. Of course, I was so appreciative but I was also like, I still have a job to do, just like this hire. It's not like when you win a World Series or big game, and when people congratulate you, you can relax your shoulders a little and soak it all in. It was the exact opposite.

"I have a lot of work to do, a lot to learn, a lot of relationships to build, my life is going to look a little bit different than what it did in 2019, so here we go. But I'm incredibly honoured and humbled by this responsibility."

A former Sacramento State softball player and lifelong Giants fan along with her family, Nakken first joined the eight-time World Series champions as an intern in baseball operations in 2014.

"I was three weeks old when I went to my first Giants game," Nakken said with a smile. "I grew up about two hours away from San Francisco. My parents and family are just big Giants fans. It was a dream to come to graduate school in San Francisco, and then to get an internship with the team I grew up loving was beyond my wildest dreams. Then to just continue to move within the organisation and take steps forwards in my career, it is a dream come true.

"It does mean a little bit more that it's my 'hometown team'. There's also some added comfort in that. This organisation has felt like family for a really long time. To go on this journey with my family is a really special and huge benefit for me."

Nakken's first season as an assistant was far from routine amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Initially scheduled to start in March, the 2020 MLB season was pushed back to July, with the regular season reduced from 162 games to 60.

The Giants (29-31) missed the playoffs, but there were signs of improvement in Kapler's first season as manager.

San Francisco arguably had the most improved offense in MLB, while their improvement in on-base plus slugging was one of the biggest by any National League team in the division era since 1969, per Stats Perform.

Brandon Belt (1.015), Mike Yastrzemski (.968) and Alex Dickerson (.947) all had an OPS of .900 or higher this year, marking the first time the Giants had three players with a .900-plus OPS in the same season (minimum 150 PA) since 2000 (Barry Bonds, Ellis Burks, Jeff Kent).

The Giants hit very well in clutch situations this year. Their .289 batting average in "close and late" situations was the second best in the majors, behind the San Diego Padres (.295).

"Close and late" is defined as the seventh inning or later with the batting team ahead by one run, tied, or with the tying run on base, at bat or on deck.

"A rollercoaster from the beginning," she said. "Back in March during Spring Training, we were really getting to that halfway point and really working our way up, starting to really get a feel for each other because it's a brand new staff for the most part and a lot of new players, we were getting into this nice rhythm of getting to know each other. Then all of a sudden, a complete shutdown.

"That three months of lockdown was full of emotions. You know when you're anticipating something, like the anticipation of going to the dentist and it scares you. When you're anticipating that, it causes some anxiety. For me personally, the idea of maybe having a season or maybe not, the anticipation of it was causing some anxiety. I just wanted to get in there and get going. When I'm thinking about something, I find myself overthinking and I spiral into some negative thoughts and it's not healthy for my mental game.

"Then you had the back-and-forth with the league and Players Association. For a while, we were like, 'Okay, we think we will be back in mid-May', and then it was nope, June 1st, nope, mid-June… this wild and range of feelings. On top of that, the extreme anxiety the whole world has faced with the global pandemic and wanting to make sure my family was okay and I remained healthy and did all I could to support those around me.

"Then we get into the season and it came with its own restraints and restrictions that no one has seen before. There's a benefit though for this season being your first because you have nothing to compare it to really, so I just rolled with it. The season itself, 60 games in 66 days – that's a lot of emotions, rollercoaster feelings. We went on a seven-game winning streak at one point, and at another point, we didn't have a great road trip. To go through that, it was pretty wild but I wouldn't change it for anything."

Before the season got underway, Nakken became the first woman to coach in an on-field capacity during an MLB game when she took over as Giants first-base coach in July's exhibition against the Oakland Athletics.

"It was such a special moment. In the moment, I knew I had to be prepared," Nakken added. "Antoan Richardson is our first-base coach, who I worked very closely with this season. Before the game, during BP [batting practice], he said hey be ready I'm going to bring you in to coach first in the seventh inning. I was like okay, there is no benefit in stressing about it or hesitating in saying yes. I was ready for it quite honestly. Having those three months of that shutdown and have some more time to learn from Antoan and connect with players in a different way than what we thought, and a very intense training game, it was extremely beneficial just for my development and growth.

"I felt nothing but ready for that moment. Stepping onto the field, there's no fans, but it was the first time we were playing against a team that wasn't ourselves. That was a really cool thing because it's like, 'man, a couple of months ago we weren't sure if this moment would happen and now it's here and we're playing against an opponent who are playing in a different colour uniform to us'.

"It also went through my head, okay cameras are here and I think the game is on TV, I don't think a female has ever coached on the field before in a MLB game, this might make a few headlines. Sure enough it made quite a few but I was just so locked-in into the game and moment, I was just focused on really knowing the signs, how the opposing pitcher controls the running game, just being a resource for our players when they got on base. Afterwards in the club house when I was able to have access to my phone, another outpour of respect and congratulations."

So, what is the ultimate goal for Nakken as she paves the way for women in baseball?

"It's so crazy and exciting to think about. What is exciting to think about is that there doesn't have to be an end goal, but there is so much to learn in the process to get to the next step of your career," Nakken said. "I experienced that through my time with the Giants. I think an assistant coach is the best job ever because I get to work alongside all our coaches in all aspects of the game and be a resource for our players in every aspect they may need.

"It's just a great learning opportunity for me and then when I do sit back and think because I know it's important to set goals and not get complacent, but my goal in the next couple of years is to really dominate this assistant coach role. I'm exciting to go into a full 162-game season with this added knowledge and be able to be a sharper resource. Kai Correa, he has been someone I've been learning from so much, I think that he is just a resource for me.

"I'm learning a lot about a bench coach role. There's some things that I really see that if I continue to develop my skills in this area, I could potentially become a bench coach in the future if future me wants that. I know a lot of bench coaches in the league are looking to become managers one day, so that just seems like a good path to journey along."

The use of data, machine learning and AI has helped revolutionise sport and MLB in recent years, as professional teams look for any advantage they can get.

Analytics goes way beyond recording basic stats such as home runs, RBIs and ERAs, the new metrics and data are able to more accurately quantify and predict player and team performance.

Stats Perform harnesses the true power of sports data by leveraging advancements in AI to generate the industry's richest insights.

"It's so important," Nakken said when discussing the role of data and analytics. "With our staff specifically, it's a foundation of what our coaching philosophy is. We work alongside our analysts every single moment of the day. We have a text thread that is just coaching staff and our analysts are on that. They had so much value to our roles and team, and to our game strategy. We lean on them so much.

"I can't speak for other organisations but we couldn't do our jobs without them. Any question we have about anything, they are able to answer it very quickly with data and research behind it. As coaches, we are involved in a lot of processes of developing the analytics, but it's really them who put the work into it and give us the reports. Then it's on as coaches to learn how to digest that and communicate it effectively to players so it's not an overload of information. Behind that nugget is a vast amount of work and research. Our analysts are incredible, the heartbeat of our organisation. It's on us coaches to put that nice art flair on it, not overwhelming for our players. Almost every decision made this season, there was a huge emphasis in analytics behind it to confirm why we were making a decision."

In a year where very little has gone as expected, it is perhaps fitting that a backfired strategy contributed to the end of the Tampa Bay Rays' otherwise remarkable 2020 season.

With one highly controversial – and very questionable – managerial manoeuvre, Kevin Cash became a strong contender for Public Enemy No. 1, with his ill-fated decision to remove ace Blake Snell after 73 pitches and 5 1/3 virtually spotless innings in Game 6 of the World Series drawing the ire of the Twitterverse. 

Everyone knows the outcome by now – a 1-0 Tampa Bay lead turned into a 2-1 deficit two batters into replacement Nick Anderson's stint, and the Los Angeles Dodgers would end the night celebrating their first championship in 32 years.

As unfathomable and unpopular as Cash's move was, the numbers – for the most part – do support it. Snell was as dominant as any pitcher during the truncated 2020 season in his first 50 pitches of a start, limiting hitters to a miniscule .149 average and a .498 OPS.

He was considerably less effective in pitches 51-75 and struggled substantially beyond that threshold, as opponents batted .321 with an .892 OPS off the left-hander after the 75-pitch mark.

The reality is that Cash has been consistently – and successfully – employing the very same tactic with Snell not only for this season, but for the past three.

Only 11.3 percent of Snell's batters faced in 2020 came during the third time through the lineup, the exact point when he was lifted in Game 6. That's the lowest percentage of any pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched this season.

Going back to his brilliant 2018 AL Cy Young Award campaign, only three pitchers with at least 300 innings faced a smaller percentage of batters during the third time in the order.

Lowest Pct. of Batters Faced – 3rd Time Through Lineup vs. Total Batters Faced Since 2018 (min, 300 IP)

Chase Anderson 13.0

Ryan Yarbrough 16.3

Wade LeBlanc 17.3

Blake Snell 17.7

So, was it the right move? The answer is no, only because it didn't work out. But no eyebrows were raised when Cash did the exact same thing in Game 1 of the Rays' opening round playoff series with Toronto, when Snell was yanked after 83 pitches with Tampa Bay holding a 1-0 lead with two outs in the sixth inning. The Rays went on to win 3-1.

The real takeaways from the series were twofold. First off, the Dodgers, with their parade of All-Stars past and present and cavernous financial advantages over the bargain-shopping Rays, were simply the better team like they were during the regular season, where their +136 run differential towered over the rest of baseball (in contrast, the Rays tied for the AL lead with a +60 differential). Secondly, the Rays didn't win in large part because they didn't hit.

The performance of overnight sensation Randy Arozarena notwithstanding, Tampa Bay's run production was abysmal for the majority of the six games as an offense that succeeded with patience and resourcefulness during the regular season morphed into a free-swinging, home run-dependent unit.

Rays hitters struck out in an astronomical 33.2 per cent of their plate appearances, the highest rate in World Series history, and reached base just 26.5 per cent of the time. Of Tampa Bay's 23 runs scored for the series, 13 came via the home run (56.5 per cent).

The Rays were the 37th team in World Series history with an on-base percentage of .265 or lower. Only six of those clubs wound up with the title, and three of them (the 1911 A's, 1939 Yankees, 1983 Orioles) had a higher OBP than their opponent.

Reliance on the long ball also hasn't historically been a recipe for World Series success, as only nine of 28 teams with over 50 per cent of their runs scored coming from homers went on to win a Fall Classic.

Tampa Bay were not that way during the regular season, as their .737 winning percentage (14-5) in games in which they failed to homer was by far the best in the majors. The Rays often offset that lack of big power by drawing walks, a part of their game that was too often non-existent against the Dodgers.

Tampa hitters induced free passes on 10.7 per cent of their plate appearances in the regular season, the fourth-highest rate in the majors. In the four games they lost in the World Series, the Rays walked a mere seven times in 132 appearances (5.3 per cent).

Now, the Rays were hardly an offensive juggernaut during the regular season, as they led the majors in strikeouts and ranked in the bottom third in batting average with runners in scoring position.

Tampa Bay were still able to produce the AL's best record due in large part to their terrific implementation of Cash's analytics-based strategy of "run prevention", utilising their deep pitching and strong defense to permit the fourth-fewest runs in the majors.

Those offensive shortcomings weren't exposed during the Rays' run to the World Series, mainly because their three earlier opponents (Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros) weren't good enough to do so (none of those teams finished higher than 12th in the majors in runs allowed).

The Dodgers, who yielded the second-fewest runs, were a far greater challenge, and that superiority in overall depth and talent ultimately proved to be too difficult an obstacle to overcome.

In essence, the Rays needed to be close to perfect to take the series. In Game 6, they simply weren't.

Justin Turner deserved the opportunity to celebrate the Los Angeles Dodgers' World Series success despite contracting coronavirus, according to the team's president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman.

Third baseman Turner was pulled from Tuesday's Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Rays to start the eighth inning.

It was later revealed the 2017 NLCS MVP had tested positive for COVID-19, with the result only returned after the game had started.

The Dodgers sealed a 3-1 win in Turner's absence, but the 35-year-old returned to the field to join his team-mates in celebrating their first World Series championship since 1988.

Friedman suggested Turner should be allowed to take to the field in a mask, yet the player - now a free agent - was pictured among his Dodgers team-mates without his face covered.

Images also showed Friedman sat next to Turner with neither wearing a mask, although the LA president later insisted he was "definitely wearing a mask" but recognised "if there were people around him without masks, that's not good optics at all".

"I get the questions, but a lot of this will be for another day," Friedman told reporters, with the majority of questions in his news conference focused on Turner.

"Post-game, I think having a mask on and staying socially distanced, he wanted to come out and take a picture with the trophy. I can't state strongly enough how big a role he's played in the success of this organisation.

"For him, being a free agent, not knowing how the future's going to play out, I don't think there was anyone that was going to stop him from going out.

"At least from my perspective - not watching it super closely with everything that was going on - I think he was mindful of other people, especially other people he hadn't already been in contact with.

"This is something we're going to wrap our arms around tonight, then in the morning figure out where we're going from here."

Pushed on the pictures without masks, Friedman suggested Turner had already made contact with those he was socialising with.

"I think the people that were on the field were people he had been around," he said.

"From his standpoint, having the chance to take a picture with the trophy was incredibly important and meaningful from him.

"From our standpoint, the contact tracing and working out who's been around him and the test results are incredibly important from this point moving forward."

Asked if the team would now have to quarantine, he added: "Not sure yet. We're going back [to the hotel] tonight. We're going to all take tests, figure out what the results are from that and go from there."

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