From COVID-19 outbreaks within the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals clubhouses to rescheduled games, nomadic teams, impossible occurrences and almost every team still hunting for a playoff spot, the 2020 Major League Baseball season is already off to a pretty chaotic start.
Just as weird, though, could be the things we’ll never even know about this season. Although we noted that a 60-game season wouldn’t offer much less certainty than a 162-game campaign usually does, it’s also true that a sample of 60 games can be unrepresentative of how good a team actually is. In fact, there are plenty of cases from throughout history in which 60 games were highly unrepresentative of how a team played over its other 102 games — 102 games that, this season, we’ll never actually get to see.
For instance, in 1977 the Chicago Cubs had a 60-game stretch in which they went 43-17, a record that will probably resemble what the best team in baseball produces this season. Based on this, you might think they had a strong season — after all, even if they just played .500 ball over their other 102 games, that’s a 94-win season. But no: They went 38-64 in those other games, landing their full-season record at just 81-81 despite the scorching 60-game stretch. That differential in winning percentage — more than 34 points between their best 60 games and the rest of the schedule — is the largest gap in MLB history:1
|Best 60 Games||Other Games|
More recently, a couple of Los Angeles Dodger teams have wrapped scorching 60-game runs inside of otherwise mediocre years. In 2013, L.A. was 45-57 (on pace for a paltry 71 wins over 162 games) outside of its best 60 games … but it went 47-13 during that hot streak, allowing it to finish with 92 wins despite subpar play for the majority of the season. It happened again four years later, when the Dodgers went an unbelievable 51-9 in their best 60 games — the third-greatest 60-game stretch in the history of baseball, in fact2 — but were barely better than .500 (53-49) in their other 102 games.
And just last year, the Rockies had 37 wins in a stretch of 60 early season contests, which helped them climb to six games over .500 after a dreadful 3-12 start. But from that point onward they went 31-57, eventually finishing a distant fourth in the NL West with a 71-91 record. Outside of the 37-23 run, the Rockies went 34-68 — a difference worth 28 points of winning percentage.
The 2017 Dodgers ended up nearly winning the World Series, so it’s safe to say their hot 60 games were pretty representative of how good they could actually be. But all of this also illustrates how streaky baseball can be, how much luck 2020’s teams will need in order to be in top form when the games are actually played — and how, even if a team has a good 60 games, we’ll never really know whether that would have carried over to the rest of the season.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are teams that had terrible 60-game stretches totally uncharacteristic of the rest of their season. Consider the case of the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers; they started the season on a 20-3 streak only to go 21-39 over the next 60 games before ending the season with a 50-29 run. That seesaw season still gave the Brewers 91 wins in total, but their bad 60-game stretch — with a winning percentage 34 points below what they had in their other games — ultimately cost them a playoff spot. It did, though, earn them a place in baseball history:
|Worst 60 Games||Other Games|
By definition, there’s some overlap with our earlier list — but this one can also be more tragic, filled with stories of teams that were better over larger samples of games but whose hopes were undone by a couple of cold months.
The 2018 New York Mets are a good recent example. When they started the year 14-5, hopes were high the team could reclaim its World Series form of just a few seasons earlier. Instead, they promptly rattled off an 18-42 stretch over the next 60 games,3 falling well out of the NL East race before a 45-38 finish brought their final record within a few games of .500. Take out the bad 60 games, replace them with just about anything else, and the Mets might have won the division.
But some of these teams also survived bad 60-game stretches to make some noise in the playoffs. Speaking of the Mets, the 2016 San Francisco Giants beat New York at Citi Field in the playoffs after weathering a terrible 22-38 sequence down the stretch of the regular season. The 2004 Houston Astros overcame a 24-36 record in their worst 60 games to finish 92-70, won a playoff series over the Atlanta Braves and took the St. Louis Cardinals to seven games in the NLCS. Then, the very next year, Houston did it again! The Astros powered through a rough 23-37 stretch early in the season, returned to the postseason and even made the World Series.
So if a team wins only 23 games this year, who knows? It might be hiding World Series talent that would have come out if only the season had been longer. Certainly, history tells us that plenty of storylines will materialize — or be lost forever — depending on which section of 60 games happens to be the 60 that get played this year. But in the end, those will be the only data points we have on each of 2020’s teams (assuming some teams even play that much). Whatever else remains will be left to baseball’s department of what-ifs, an office that’s sure to be busier than ever in this strange, strange season.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.
CORRECTION (Aug. 7, 2020, 4:10 p.m.): An earlier version of this article described a 51-9 record over 60 games by the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers as the best 60-game stretch in MLB history. It was the third-greatest behind the 1906 Chicago Cubs and the 1912 New York Giants, who each went 52-8 in 60 games.