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The MLB Records* That Could Fall In A 60-Game Season

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

Will someone hit .400 this season?

MLB batters since 2015 with the highest single-season batting average from July 23 through Sept. 27

Year Name Team Games At-Bats Hits Average
2016 Joey Votto CIN 60 217 87 0.401
2016 DJ LeMahieu COL 57 223 85 0.381
2018 Justin Turner LAD 49 184 68 0.370
2016 Yadier Molina STL 54 199 73 0.367
2016 Freddie Freeman ATL 57 210 77 0.367
2019 Nelson Cruz MIN 47 180 66 0.367
2019 Tim Anderson CWS 51 223 81 0.363
2017 Avisaíl García CWS 48 180 65 0.361
2015 Francisco Lindor CLE 61 237 85 0.359
2017 Lorenzo Cain KC 58 222 79 0.356

Source: FanGraphs

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.

Will we see a sub-1.00 ERA?

MLB pitchers since 2015 with the lowest single-season ERA from July 23 through Sept. 27

Year player team Games Innings Pitched Earned Runs ERA
2015 Jake Arrieta CHC 13 94.1 9 0.86
2019 Jack Flaherty STL 12 81.0 9 1.00
2016 Jon Lester CHC 12 79.1 12 1.36
2018 Trevor Williams PIT 12 71.2 11 1.38
2019 Gerrit Cole HOU 10 70.2 12 1.53
2019 Jacob deGrom NYM 12 82.0 14 1.54
2016 Kyle Hendricks CHC 11 74.0 13 1.58
2015 Clayton Kershaw LAD 12 89.0 16 1.62
2017 Corey Kluber CLE 13 98.0 18 1.65
2018 Clay Buchholz ARI 9 59.2 11 1.66

Source: FanGraphs

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:

We would be lucky to see 30 home runs

MLB batters since 2015 with the highest single-season home run totals from July 23 through Sept. 27

Year Name Team Games At-Bats Home Runs
2017 J.D. Martinez ARI 58 220 29
2017 Giancarlo Stanton MIA 61 225 27
2016 Brian Dozier MIN 61 262 25
2015 Carlos González COL 62 224 25
2017 Josh Donaldson TOR 56 209 24
2018 Khris Davis OAK 58 225 24
2019 Eugenio Suárez CIN 59 208 23
2015 Chris Davis BAL 62 223 23
2018 Christian Yelich MIL 58 233 21
2015 Yoenis Céspedes DET/NYM 60 251 21

Source: FanGraphs

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.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Only one inning and 3.1 plate appearances needed per game for pitchers and hitters, respectively.

  2. We selected the sample by date for consistency, and we used the end of the seasons rather than the beginning because of the effect of weather on hitting.

  3. So perhaps his record deserves an asterisk.

  4. One inning per team game.[footnote] In fact, it might be difficult to accumulate many more innings than that over just 60 games (or about 12 starts): Starters may be on stricter pitch and innings limits their first couple of turns through the rotation, given the accelerated calendar of the restarted “spring” training.[footnote]Pitchers usually need six spring training appearances to build up to a 100-pitch threshold, which typically takes 30 days with the requisite rest in between appearances. Restarted training for this season lasted only about 20 days.

  5. Cleveland’s Len Barker led the AL with 127 strikeouts in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

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