The 60-game 2020 MLB season — provided it can be completed — will be filled with all of the usual statistics baseball fans love. But if history is any guide, expect the sport to again be embroiled in a fierce debate over asterisks, a controversial record-book remedy since Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 162 games, instead of Ruth’s 154. While the current home run record is certainly safe, others of the game’s most sacrosanct records could be in serious jeopardy this season.
Leaders in MLB’s rate statistics qualify on a per-game basis,1 regardless of how many games are played. But randomness plays a primary role in many baseball statistics even in a normal season. In a much shorter one, this is more pronounced.
Consider, for example, the stabilization rates of batting average (910 at-bats or about 260 games), batting average allowed (630 batters faced or about 154 innings) and homers per fly balls allowed (400 fly balls or about 300 to 500 innings). And remember that when “stabilization” is reached, that doesn’t mean performance is fully indicative of skill; it only means that it’s at least half skill (and half random factors). So stats achieved before they can stabilize are mostly the result of luck.
This could have a pronounced effect on the holy grail of baseball stats: the .400 average. That’s a mark, as fans know, not reached since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. But in a sample of 60 games, the odds of someone doing it, even in an era when batting average is dead, dramatically increase. After all, Cody Bellinger was hitting .404 49 games into the Dodgers’ 2019 season.
In 2016, Joey Votto hit .401 between July 23 and Sept. 27 (the dates of this year’s regular season). If we limit ourselves to games played between those dates over the past five seasons, the list of top 10 batting averages is eye-popping.2
To get a sense of the high variance possible in such a relatively small sample, last year Nelson Cruz, a career .277 hitter, hit 90 points higher from July 23 to Sept. 27. Even the 10th-best average in this five-year sample is 8 points higher than any qualifying hitter managed in a 162-game season since 2015.
What about pitching? Baseball’s most revered pitching record is Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA in 1968 — the lowest in the Live Ball Era that began in 1920. He was so dominant that the league decided it had no choice but to lower the mound to make things more fair for hitters.3
Gibson pulled that feat while hurling over 300 innings, including 28 complete games. But this year, a starter will need at most 60 innings pitched to qualify for an ERA title.4 So Gibson’s 52-year-old record seems like a strong contender to be overtaken.
|Year||player||team||Games||Innings Pitched||Earned Runs||ERA|
Jake Arrieta would have shattered the record in 2015, clocking in at a 0.86 ERA in 94.1 frames from July 23 through Sept. 27 en route to winning the National League Cy Young Award. Just last season, Jack Flaherty posted a 1.00 ERA in 81 innings over the same period. Flaherty would have nearly broken another record last year, too, with a WHIP of 0.667. But Gerrit Cole would have just edged him, posting a 0.665 WHIP in 70 2/3 innings — better than Pedro Martinez’s live-ball era record of 0.74 WHIP over 217 innings in 2000.
Counting stats, of course, are an entirely different matter. While we think of 20 wins in a normal season as a milestone, getting just 10 would be a significant achievement this year. That mark has been surpassed from July 23 to Sept. 27 just once in the past five seasons — by Corey Kluber, who tallied 11 wins in 2017.
Ditto for roundtrippers. Forget 60, 50 or even 40 homers. A tremendous season would be 25, given what we know about the home run leaders in this time frame since 2015:
The last time a hitter led a league in homers with a total under 30 was in the shortened season of 1981, when Tony Armas (A’s), Dwight Evans (Red Sox), Bobby Grich (Angels) and Eddie Murray (Orioles) tied for the AL lead with 22. And before that, you have to go all the way back to the full season of 1946, when Ralph Kiner slammed just 23 for the Pirates (though he’d lead the NL six more seasons in a row, clubbing over 50 twice).
The most runs scored between July 23 and Sept. 27 in the past five seasons was 58 (Brian Dozier in 2017). That same year, J.D. Martinez had the most RBI (65) — one of two players to top 60 in our sample (the other was Giancarlo Stanton with 61, also in 2017). No one has, over a complete season, averaged an RBI per team game this century.
The most strikeouts any pitcher has managed in that time frame since 2015 was Corey Kluber, who fanned 127 batters in 98 innings over 13 starts in 2017. The last time a league leader in a full season had a total lower than that was during World War II, when Tex Hughson and Bobo Newsom topped the AL with 113 in 1942.5 As will be the case with many stats, the 2020 strikeout leaders will seem one day like misprints on the backs of the baseball cards.
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