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When MLB’s Season Finally Starts, These Are The Guys We Can’t Wait To Watch

With ESPN’s Jeff Passan reporting Wednesday that Major League Baseball plans to send the players association a return-to-play proposal as quickly as next week, MLB’s long-awaited comeback could happen relatively soon. (Perhaps by June, some have speculated.) The structure of play will be different — probably borrowing logistics from leagues that have already resumed play, with empty stadiums and an emphasis on keeping players, officials and staff safe from the coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage across the country. But the sport itself has momentum to return, which is a source of cautious optimism for fans missing the familiar comforts of the game.

With so much time passed since spring training was suspended, it can be hard to remember that 2020 initially offered a lot to be excited about. Yes, the central baseball storyline in March was the fallout from the Astros’ cheating scandal, which nobody is likely to forget throughout the season (no matter when it starts). But there are also many positive storylines to look forward to after the extra months spent waiting for opening day to arrive.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have a number of players who qualify as must-see this season, from stat machine Cody Bellinger and the ever-versatile Max Muncy to Clayton Kershaw, who has as much to prove in the postseason as anybody. The whole team is worth watching, but we’ve got our eye trained on Bellinger’s co-five-tool teammate Mookie Betts during his first season in Dodger blue. The ex-Red Sox right fielder left Boston via trade in February, after compiling 32.0 wins above replacement1 over the previous four years — giving him some of the best young seasons any player has produced in modern MLB history:

Mookie had some of baseball’s best young seasons ever

Most wins above replacement (WAR) for MLB players in their ages 23 through 26 seasons, 1901-2019

Wins Above Replacement
Player Years Bat/Field Pitch Total
Walter Johnson 1911-14 3.1 40.0 43.0
Babe Ruth 1918-21 40.1 2.3 42.4
Mickey Mantle 1955-58 41.1 0.0 41.1
Ty Cobb 1910-13 37.7 0.0 37.7
Rogers Hornsby 1919-22 37.5 0.0 37.5
Mike Trout 2015-18 36.3 0.0 36.3
Lou Gehrig 1926-29 36.0 0.0 36.0
Willie Mays 1954-57 35.0 0.0 35.0
Hal Newhouser 1944-47 1.7 33.2 34.8
Tris Speaker 1911-14 34.6 0.0 34.6
Eddie Collins 1910-13 34.3 0.0 34.3
Jimmie Foxx 1931-34 33.9 0.0 33.9
Albert Pujols 2003-06 33.6 0.0 33.6
Alex Rodriguez 1999-02 32.1 0.0 32.1
Mookie Betts 2016-19 32.0 0.0 32.0
Ron Santo 1963-66 31.7 0.0 31.7
Arky Vaughan 1935-38 31.5 0.0 31.5
Joe DiMaggio 1938-41 31.3 0.0 31.3
Barry Bonds 1988-91 31.1 0.0 31.1
Robin Roberts 1950-53 0.3 30.5 30.8

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Aesthetically, Betts is also one of the most exciting players in the game, with his mix of power, speed and defensive skill. His arrival in L.A. took an already stacked Dodgers team and made it even scarier, with the best projected record in baseball (98.7 wins per 162 games) according to the average of projections we use to set preseason Elo ratings.2 Los Angeles remains desperate to win its first championship since 1988 after losing the World Series in 2017 and 2018 and falling short in its National League Division Series last season. Betts, who will be 27 this season — the age at which a typical player peaks — might be the final puzzle piece that puts the Dodgers over the top … and we can’t wait to see him try.

Most career WAR for batters through age 27, 1901-2019

Player WAR
Mike Trout 73.1
Ty Cobb 68.8
Mickey Mantle 67.8
Rogers Hornsby 64.1
Jimmie Foxx 63.0
Alex Rodriguez 62.8
Mel Ott 60.8
Ken Griffey Jr. 58.0
Tris Speaker 55.1
Arky Vaughan 54.4

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Close by to Betts in Southern California, there’s the ever-intriguing saga of Mike Trout to watch play out. Trout won his third American League MVP Award last fall, and he remains the best position player in modern history through age 27 by WAR (see inset). At the same time, though, he has yet to win a single playoff game in his career, a cruel fate that speaks volumes about the inability of any single baseball player to shape his own postseason destiny. But after years of assembling subpar supporting casts around him — with a few exceptions, such as two-way star Shohei Ohtani — Trout’s Angels got him a new best-ever teammate when they signed former Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon in December.

Will it be enough? Our initial blend of projections sees the Angels still finishing a distant third in the AL West with 80.9 projected wins — but some forecasts see them rising higher. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA model calls for 85.7 wins per 162 in Anaheim this season, which would rank second in the division behind the Trash-Can-Banging Team That Shall Not Be Named. The chance to see Trout take another crack at a postseason run, armed with his best supporting cast in a while, is enough to get us excited about the 2020 season.

Looking outside of the L.A. metro area, it’s hard not to be optimistic that we might get to see a healthy version of New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge by opening day. Like many of his teammates, Judge was riddled with injuries before play halted in the spring — including a broken rib and a collapsed lung. But the delay to the season has given Judge a chance to rest and heal, which could potentially make him available by the time the season starts. If so, Judge will be back as the game’s hardest hitter and a tremendous defensive outfielder with a cannon for a throwing arm.

And on top of Judge, the Yankees as a whole should be more intact when the season finally opens. Although starter Luis Severino will miss the entire season no matter what after undergoing Tommy John surgery in February, ailing teammates James Paxton and perhaps even Aaron Hicks could be ready to go. Add in new signee Gerrit Cole and a growing championship hunger — the team went the entire 2010s without a title — and New York is positioned to be one of maybe three superteams this season, alongside the Dodgers and (yes) Astros. It would be fascinating if the Yankees staged a pinstriped revenge tour after being ousted each of the past three postseasons by teams who were later found to have stolen signs.

There are the under-the-radar stars to watch, too, such as Oakland’s dynamic duo of Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien — who in 2019 became just the 64th pair of teammates since 1901 to both eclipse 7 WAR. And the breakouts who are looking to repeat, like Pete Alonso of the Mets (who belted a rookie record 53 home runs in 2019) and Ketel Marte of the Diamondbacks (who exploded for 7.1 WAR). There’s perennial MVP candidate Christian Yelich, who keeps finding new ways to improve. There’s today’s historically great crop of super-young hitters, headlined by Ronald Acuña Jr. of the Braves, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Blue Jays and Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres. And, of course, there are the defending-champion Washington Nationals, who are poised to thrive again on veteran pitching (Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer) and the rising star power of 21-year-old left fielder Juan Soto.

In short, there’s so much to hold out hope for this season, whenever it can begin.

Of course, it’s important that MLB not get too impatient and bring the game back too soon, risking the safety of everyone involved. But if the sport does get the all-clear from both the MLB Players Association and medical officials on its plan to return, the 2020 season could finally get underway. And with everything we have to look forward to, it will have made the extra-long offseason worth the wait.

Footnotes

  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  2. Which gives two-thirds weight to an average of the projections found at Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and Clay Davenport’s site, and one-third weight to a regressed form of last season’s final end-of-year Elo ratings.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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