The Shortened MLB Season and the Potential for Broken Records

When it was announced that there would be an MLB season this year, many questions were raised. What precautionary measures would be in place, would there be any rule changes, and is it even worth having a season by this point? But one thing was for sure. The 2020 MLB season would be shortened. Obviously this sucks, but a shortened season gives the players a special opportunity to chase records. Not cumulative records of course, but rate records. This season is a chance for players to break someone baseball’s most historic accolades. 

200+ wRC+: This mark isn’t as rare as you might think for a single season. There have been 32 seasons in which someone had a wRC+ of 200 or greater, 13 of which happened post integration and most recently in 2004 by Barry Bonds. The closest active players have gotten since happened in 2013, 2015 and 2018 when Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout all posted a wRC+ greater than 190. As with all offensive stats, this one is highly dependent on batted ball luck. Cabrera, Harper and Trout averaged a .357 BABIP in their bids to break the 200 mark. Who is most likely to break the barrier? Well despite being mentioned previously, Cabrera has almost no chance of reaching 200. A severe drop in power has resulted in him averaging a wRC+ of 105 over the past three years. Unless he follows in Bond’s footsteps and starts eating a balanced breakfast every day, he’s not gonna match Barry. Trout is the obvious choice, and for good reason. He had a 180 wRC+ in 2019, and that was with an unlucky BABIP. Trout wasn’t an elite power hitter in 2018. He is now. Trout had a .316 ISO in 2018, and a mark of .353 in 2019. Should he get the same luck in 2020, it would be a foregone conclusion he breaks the 200 wRC+ barrier. I mentioned Harper, and I think he sits right in the middle between Cabrera and Trout. It’s not a forgone conclusion that if he gets a lucky BABIP he’ll break the mark, but it would require a pretty big breakout performance. The closest he’s come to matching his power outburst in 2015 was 2017 when he posted an ISO of .276 compared to his 2015 ISO of .319. Another man that could smash the wRC+ ceiling is Cody Bellinger. His career wRC+ of 140 and mark of 162 from last year are good, but they aren’t spectacular nor do they make you think he could be the one to break the mark. But you just have to look a little bit deeper at the numbers. Bellinger had a 183 wRC+ over the first half of 2019 with a BABIP of just .328, a mark easily achievable for one of the league’s fastest runners. He also only walked 14.3% of the time in that first half sprint. If he could improve his mark to something approaching Trout numbers, or even just gets lucky with balls in play, he could smash the 200 wRC+ mark. If I had to bet, Trout and Bellinger would be the two players I’d put my money on.

Sub 1.21 ERA: The pinnacle of pitcher performance for many, Bob Gibson’s 1968 ERA of 1.21 is the best since the end of the deadball era and has stood for 52 years. And nobody has even gotten close. The closest someone has come since was Dwight Gooden in 1985, and he had a 1.53 ERA! The closest an active player has gotten was Zack Greinke in 2015, when he had a 1.66 ERA. This is a mark that is made extra complicated by the shortened season. You can’t have one bad start. Even an outing where you give up two runs in five innings would be devastating to your chances. In a 60 game season, a pitcher would make 12 starts. You need to be the elite of the elite for all of those 12 starts. But it’s not impossible. Jack Flaherty proved it. Over the second half of 2019 he had a 0.91 ERA. Like with the 200+ wRC+ mark I talked about earlier, this achievement is incredibly luck dependent. Flaherty had a .206 BABIP in his second half run.  Now it’s true that good pitchers will have lower BABIPs because they give up weaker contact, but .206 is ridiculously low. It is incredibly unlikely he will match that mark this year.  Other pitchers likely to get lower than 1.21? Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole spring to mind. deGrom had a 12 game stretch in 2019 where he had a 1.82 ERA with a .284 BABIP, but the Mets most likely won’t be able to provide deGrom with the defense needed to reach the lofty mark, or in this case, recessed mark. The Mets finished 2019 with -86 DRS, good for 3rd worst in the MLB. deGrom is so good that it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility, but he will need help. Unfortunately the Mets have a bad habit of not helping deGrom, and it’s very unlikely he will break Gibson’s mark without help. Justin Verlander, despite being the oldest pitcher of the five I’m talking about, has the best chance of the group in my opinion. Despite his trouble with home runs, finishing the 2019 season 13th in HR/9, he still finished with an ERA of 2.58, fourth best in the MLB. He was the beneficiary of a .218 BABIP, but it wasn’t unearned. Verlander was eighth in the MLB in xBA, with a mark of .189 and the Astros did have the third best defense in the MLB by DRS, posting 96 DRS in 2019. He’s also shown the ability to string together multiple incredibly good starts, shown by a 1.70 ERA in his 12 starts between July 19th and September 17th. And most strikingly, he had a .262 BABIP during that run, so his chances at getting low enough to match Gibson isn’t completely luck dependent. Gerrit Cole, as one of the best strikeout pitchers in baseball, isn’t as dependent on his defense as Verlander or Flaherty, but that doesn’t mean he won’t need help. He’s great at limiting base runners and well hit balls, as he sported a .238 xWOBA in 2019. He’s also continued to lower his walk rate, continuing to reduce the amount of bases he gives up. It’s unlikely that he’ll replicate his insane strike out numbers from 2019, but he’s shown the ability to be dominant for a stretch without relying on pure strikeout numbers. From June 7th to August 7th, Cole had a 1.82 ERA while only striking out 36.2% of the batters he faced, down almost four percent from his regular season average. He also didn’t get crazy BABIP luck, having a .264 mark during that 12 game stretch. What really hurt him were home runs. He had a HR/9 of 1.14 over the stretch. If 2020 doesn’t match the home run mashing of 2019, a 1.12 ERA isn’t out of the question for him. But honestly, every pitcher has a shot at this. It’s just so incredibly luck reliant. Sean Manaea had a 1.21 ERA in his 5 starts at the end of 2019. It’s a toss up if anyone gets it, and who has a chance is anybody’s guess.

Sub 9 PA/HR: I told myself I would only talk about players who had a decent chance at meeting the accolades. With a 1.21 ERA and 200 wRC+, not many have a chance of reaching it. With this, plenty of people have a chance of reaching it. Barry Bond absolutely destroyed the ball in 2001, easily setting the record for PA/HR with a mark of 9.10. Ever since, nobody, not even Bonds himself, has come close over a season. The closest was in 2017, when everybody’s favorite Yankee Giancarlo Stanton hit 59 in 692 plate appearances for a PA/HR of 11.7. But in a shortened season, anything is possible. Matt Olson set the record for most home runs in a season where a player played less than 60 games, hitting 24 in 2017. He had a PA/HR of nine flat in the 59 games he played, and he was just a 24 year old at the time. While Olson has yet to match his mashing from his rookie year, he’s still capable of going on home run hitting tears. In his first 58 games in 2019, he had a HR/PA of 11.4. And that was after coming back from a hamate bone injury. He was still able to absolutely kill balls despite that setback. In 2019 Olson was in the top six percent of the MLB in barrel percentage and exit velocity, top five percent in exit velocity, and top two percent in hard hit percentage. A fully healthy Olson could absolutely give Bonds a run. Pete Alonso had a 12.5 HR/PA in the first half of 2019, and there is a chance for growth. Alonso already barrels up the ball incredibly well, as 15.8% of his swings result in a barrel. He was only 25 in 2019, so as he grows into his physical prime his exit velocity and hard hit percentage should also see growth. They’re already very good, and as Alonso continues to polish his game by getting better at reading pitches, expect him to continue to swat homers. Eugenio Suarez quietly became one of the majors best home run hitters over the 71 games he played in the second half, blasting out home runs at a rate of 10.2 PA/HR. He had a career best Barrel percentage in 2019, a mark of 14% that was 3.4% higher than his previous best. If he can continue his growth and get a similar streak going, he could make Bonds sweat. Joey Gallo is known for his home runs. Since 2017, he’s had a PA/HR of 13.6. He also beats the hell out of the ball. For back to back years his exit velocity and hard hit percentage have been in the top one percent of the league. But unfortunately, his approach will always put a cap on how many home runs he can hit. Strikeouts just make up too much of his plate appearances. That, unfortunately, means he will be very unlikely to match Bonds’s performance. Jorge Soler was able to ride a swing change into the best season of his career by a large margin. His barrel percentage, exit velocity, xSLG, and hard hit percentage were all in the top 4 percent of the MLB. He was able to maintain a 14.1 PA/HR rate while appearing in all 162 games of 2019. That rate was helped by a torrid second half in which Soler hit 25 home runs in 305 plate appearances, good for a 12.2 PA/HR. If the 28 year old can continue to improve and maybe cut down on his strikeouts, he could be a front runner to challenge Bonds’s record. Cody Bellinger caught on absolute fire in the first half of 2019, smacking 30 long balls in his first 377 plate appearances for a PA/HR total of 12.6. And, believe it or not, he might’ve underperformed. Yeah, Bellinger’s SLG of .692 was much higher than his xSLG of .638, but Bellinger’s xSLG on breaking balls was .625, compared to his actual total of .580. If Bellinger can go on a similar streak while also not getting unlucky on breaking balls, the reigning NL MVP will give Bonds a run for his money. Oh, and he’s continuing to mature physically, only turning 25 when Spring Training 2.0 starts. Mike Trout. What is there to be said about him that hasn’t been said? He is simply the best player in the MLB. But being the best player in the MLB doesn’t mean he’s most likely to break Bonds’s record. Over the second half of 2019 he did have a PA/HR of 12.3, but being such a good player harms his chances. Almost 40 percent of Trout’s plate appearances in 2019 ended with him either drawing a walk or striking out. It’s the same problem Bonds had in 2004. You can’t hit any home runs if you’re not swinging the bat. And unfortunately for Trout that’s where he is right now. Doesn’t mean he’s a bad player, far from it. It’s just that his set of skills don’t help him in this scenario. He is going to be in his prime physical year in 2020, so maybe he could do it, but it’s unlikely if he continues to walk as much as he does. Christian Yelich probably would’ve won NL MVP in 2019 had he not been injured for the final month of the year. Yelich started the year going on a tear where he hit 31 home runs in 365 PAs for a PA/HR of 11.8. He also smokes the ball with casual ease, finishing in the top four percentile for every important contact stat. He did overperform by quite a bit, having a .623 xSLG compared to a .671 xSLG, but playing in a hitter friendly Miller Park will cause that. Like Trout, he is entering his physical prime, but unlike Trout his walk rate is not high enough to cause concern with his home run rate. And to finish off this suite of sluggers, a player who I think is one of the most underrated in baseball, Nelson Cruz. Despite being 38 when the season started, Cruz was able to maintain a 12.7 PA/HR throughout the year and finished it by going on an absolute rampage, hitting 25 home runs in 254 plate appearances for a PA/HR of 10.1. Despite being an elder statesman of the sport, Cruz has shown he’s still got it. Last year he ranked in the first percentile in exit velocity, barrel percentage, xSLG, and hard hit percentage. Do not be surprised if the Boomstick is the one to break the record. But of course, there is a wildcard to mention. The chance of MLB juicing the balls even more is a possibility in order to bring back lapsed fans who were turned off by the bickering and endless negotiations between the owners and MLBPA. That would give the players an even greater chance of smashing Bonds’s record. 

This year will be memorable for many reasons. Hopefully one of the men I mentioned, or even one I didn’t makes it so that on field reasons will be why the 2020 season will be mentioned in the history books. The shortened season offers a unique opportunity for history to be made, and with luck, somebody will take that opportunity. In the meantime, we can only wish the players and everyone else in baseball stay healthy. 

Elizabeth Tsai

A lifelong baseball fan, I've supported the Oakland A's through good times and bad. A numbers geek, I love diving into the stats to find any fascinating stories not obvious to the basic eye test. Proud transgender woman

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