Inside the weird and wild numbers we could see in a 60-game MLB season

With a 60-game schedule on tap for Major League Baseball in 2020, we now know we’re getting a season, but one whose brevity could yield some surprising outcomes in the standings and in the record book. With that in mind, we asked three of ESPN’s MLB experts — Bradford Doolittle, David Schoenfield and Sam Miller — what the shortened schedule will mean for the playoff picture and the stat sheet — and we challenged each of them to add one 2020 question of their own.

How many wins is the team with the best record likely to have in a 60-game season?

Doolittle: Forty to 43 seems about right. The one wild card is that we don’t know if or how the separation of talent between teams might become magnified when teams know they have 60 — and only 60 — games in which to distinguish themselves.

Schoenfield: I had researched 50-game stretches over the past three seasons, and the best winning percentage was .860 by the Dodgers in 2017 (43-7). The Indians went 42-8 the same season when they had that incredible, 22-game winning streak. But that’s 50 games, not 60, and a great team doesn’t necessarily play its best at the start of a season. I’ll go with something just under .700 — say, 41 wins. Probably by the Dodgers.

Miller: I think we’re more likely to be shocked by who has the most wins rather than how many they have. Dave’s guess — 41 — is right in line with recent first-60-games results. The past five years, the most wins through 60 games were 41, 41, 42, 42 and 39. Dave’s guess that it will be the Dodgers is also a prudent one, but I could pick 15 teams capable of ripping off a 39-21 stretch. If you told me four months ago that the Angels, the Phillies or the Cubs would have the best record in baseball in 2020, I’d have scoffed, but over 60 torrid games, I could squint and see it.

How many wins might it take to make the playoffs?

Doolittle: Sam and Dave — sounds like a good name for a band, no? — have the math. The dynamic I want to point out is that there are likely to be about 25 teams within shouting distance of a slot as we enter the final stretch. There should be few games between contenders/non-contenders. I’d be surprised if we don’t have three or four teams that make the postseason with a record within five games over .500.

Schoenfield: The average winning percentage of the worst playoff team in each league over the past five seasons is .549 — that’s 33-27 over 60 games. I’m not sure if that percentage would change just because it’s a shorter season, so I’ll say we have a 33-win team in the playoffs.

Miller: To continue following the guide of previous years’ first 60 games: Over the past five years, the worst “playoff” team through 60 games was between 31 and 33 wins in each league in each season. But! The volatility of 60 games seems to lead to a few more circumstances in which the “third wild-card” team — the team that loses out on the final wild-card spot — actually has a better record than at least one division winner. So, best answer: There’s a pretty solid good chance that a 31-29 team will make the playoffs, and a pretty solid chance that a 32-28 team will miss it, and a pretty solid chance both could happen at the same time in the same league.

Hitting .400: realistic 2020 stat or still not going to happen?

Doolittle: Nah, won’t happen. Obviously, the chances for it go way up in such a short season, but the fact remains that this is not an era conducive to high batting averages.

Miller: It has been a while since I got to say, “We’ll have to wait and see how juiced the ball is,” so I will say that, as with all records, a lot depends on details like that. But under any realistic circumstances, no, .400 almost certainly isn’t going to happen. The reason .400 never happens in full seasons isn’t that .400 is incredibly hard. It never happens because .350 is incredibly hard. The modern player in the modern game isn’t close enough to .400 to fluke into it over 60 games.

Schoenfield: Since 2000, only one player has hit .400 over the first 60 games of a season — Chipper Jones, who hit .408 in 2008. In the past 10 years, the highest average was Cody Bellinger‘s .376 mark last year. Of course, that’s only the first 60 games as opposed to any 60 games, but the odds are really, really slim.

How many home runs would be the equivalent of a 50-home run season, and how many do you think will lead the league this year?

Schoenfield: Well, the prorated number is 18.5 home runs. I would say 20 home runs is the league-leading figure to aim for. By the way, only one player has ever hit 20 home runs and swiped 20 bases in the first 60 games of a season — Eric Davis, in 1987.

Miller: There is no equivalent of 50! Fifty is an arbitrary figure that stands out to us only because it’s half a hundred, as round as a big full moon low on the horizon — and because we have played so many full seasons that we have an intuitive sense of how difficult it is to get to it. There’s no round number that we feel so intuitively across a 60-game season. A batter could hit 25 this year, and we wouldn’t really know what to do with it.

All that said: In the past four juiced-ball seasons, there have been three 50-homer seasons, and there have been five 20-homer hitters in the season’s first 60 games. They’re not flukes: Yelich, Bellinger, Judge, Alonso, Trumbo. Twenty should lead the league, and a worthy-enough, round number.

Doolittle: Dave’s got the math, and Sam has the conceptual underpinning, and I’m not sure I have anything to add. As Sam said, 50 is essentially an arbitrary benchmark. But as Bill James once wrote, baseball standards have over time become a kind of shared language. We don’t have a language for a 60-game season. At least not one that doesn’t entirely comprise expletives.

What’s the statistical category that could have the weirdest-looking 60-game leader?

Doolittle: Wins. I predict a 19-way tie with six wins leading the majors.

Miller: It feels like somebody is on pace to set the all-time doubles record at the 60-game mark every year, and it’s often somebody you had never considered a huge doubles threat. Then that batter fades, but this year his doubles pace will be set in amber. I’ll predict something stupid, such as Amed Rosario hitting 31 doubles. (On the flip side, there are probably 150 batters capable of leading their league with, like, four or five triples.)

Schoenfield: Pitcher wins. Not that we’re supposed to care about pitcher wins anymore! Starters will max out at 12 or 13 starts, and managers will likely have very quick hooks early on to prevent injury risk, which will lead to fewer decisions. I mean, somebody will probably go 9-1 or something, but we could also end up with a wins leader at six or seven.

What will be the MLB-leading WAR?

Doolittle: Nine divided by 162 times 60. [Editor’s note: That’s 3.3 for folks keeping score at home.] I am personally trying to wean myself off of using any one version of WAR as the basis for analysis.

Schoenfield: Probably what Mike Trout puts up.

Miller: 5.1, and it’ll either be Trout or some pretty good defender who gets credit for a preposterous amount of defensive value in a noisy sample of games.

What, if any, MLB season record could legitimately be broken in so short a time?

Doolittle: Nothing that happens this year will really be a record, right? Someone could post the highest OPS or record the fewest something or other, but it doesn’t really count.

Miller: I’m going to be watching the fourth game of the season very closely. Any batter who doesn’t get a hit in that game is eliminated from surpassing Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.

Schoenfield: Roy Face went 18-1 for the Pirates in 1959, all his decisions coming as a relief pitcher, for a .947 winning percentage. A pitcher needs one decision for every 10 team games played, so six decisions will be enough to “qualify” a pitcher for the single-season, winning-percentage record. It’s certainly conceivable a starter could go 6-0 or 7-0. Heck, Gerrit Cole enters the season riding a regular-season winning streak of 16 in a row. James Paxton won 10 straight starts last year. Will Smith went 6-0 as a reliever for the Giants last year, although it might be difficult for a reliever to win six games in a short season. Still, Face’s record is in jeopardy.

How could a superlative or terrible performance in 60 games affect a player’s career?

Doolittle: I mostly worry about Miguel Cabrera and his quests for 500 homers and 3,000 hits. Given what’s left on his contract, he should be OK. But the bottom could drop out of his performance at any time. Down the line, we’ll see several players falling just short of historic milestones. But as far as Hall consideration goes, I think we’re sophisticated enough to make the adjustment.

Miller: For the most part, this season will be a blip in the history books, and a .220 batting average won’t have any more weight on a player’s career line than it would in any other 60-game stretch. But in about four months, teams are going to start putting their 2021 rosters together, and for players who are already on the bubble, these 60 games are going to be massively weighted. That might be most true for older players — players in their 30s who might already be fending off rumors of their decline. Over an 18-month stretch — from October 2019 through March 2021 — a player can, theoretically, go from their prime to over the hill. These 60 games can’t possibly represent their true talent level in all its fluctuating nuances, but those 60 games will be all we have.

Schoenfield: My first thought goes to somebody such as Fred McGriff, who finished his career with 493 home runs. If not for the strike in 1994 that spilled over into 1995, he would have hit 500, and that might have landed him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Of course, we won’t know which players’ final career numbers will most be affected by missing 100 games in 2020. As for specific performances in 2020, I think of a pending free agent such as Marcus Semien, who was in line for a big contract if he had another season like 2019. Money will already be tight in free agency given the economic fallout from this season, but if Semien doesn’t get off to a good start, his 2019 season will be considered a fluke — when maybe it wasn’t.

Doolittle’s added question: What special strategies might managers come up with to take advantage of the short slate?

Doolittle: Roster management will be a huge factor. My feeling is that any manager who is willing to push the playing time envelope so that his best players are taking up a higher-than-the-weird-2020-norm of plate appearances and innings pitched could put his team in position to clinch early. Let’s use the 1981 A’s as the extreme (and not to be copied) example: With madman Billy Martin in the dugout, Oakland had 37 complete games over its first 60 contests and went 37-23. That team was not a .600 team by baseline talent. Managers won’t do that to their starters anymore, but I still think pushing the envelope across the board could be an advantage.

Miller: The Astros, Yankees, Dodgers — teams that would normally be able to coast a little bit, confident that the odds of a long season will eventually lift them to their rightful playoff spots — will have to treat every game as a must-win. It’s unlikely any team will win its division by more than a half-dozen games, and two bad weeks to start the season could sink even a superteam. So I’d expect a little more playoff-like urgency from the start, in particular with closer usage. In a really close race, I could see ace relievers throwing 40ish innings in 20ish outings this year.

Schoenfield: My pet idea is to use tandem starters early on — say, three innings apiece — and then use them again in a few days. A more likely strategy is using your best reliever more often — a guy such as Josh Hader, who pitched 75.1 innings last season, or just under one inning every two games. Without worrying about a six-month season, how many innings can he pitch in two months? Certainly one inning every two games, and I’d say even more than that. How about 40 innings in 60 games, 20 innings a month.

Miller’s added question: Will the World Series celebrations — dogpile on the field, champagne in the clubhouse — be any less enthusiastic than they were when the Nationals, Red Sox and Astros won over the past three years? If so, will the difference reflect social distancing or diminished excitement about winning a “weird year”?

Doolittle: I suspect that players on the winning team will be as happy as any of their predecessors. They’ll leave it to us cynical analysts to harp on the necessary context. That’s as it should be. While I usually don’t root for any particular team — and won’t this year, either — I kind of hope the winner is someone such as the Astros, Red Sox or even the Cubs — a recent champion that is still a contender.

It feels like a drought-clinching title run from the Yankees, Dodgers or especially the Indians would have too much of its luster taken out of it. However, if it’s an absolute Cinderella team, that might almost be the best outcome. It will be a permanent entry in the record book, reminding us what this season really was, and what it isn’t. As for the mode of celebration, I’d recommend a Zoom party.

Miller: I’m going to assume the playoff teams generally look like playoff teams — that at least seven or eight of them come from the teams that are credible contenders going into the season. In that case, I think the celebration can proceed as though this is a normal championship. After all, from the start of the postseason on, it will be: 3#&189; rounds of short-series challenges designed to produce a champion rather than determine, statistically, the “best” team.

So long as the path to the parade (or whatever they do in lieu of a parade) doesn’t pass through a division series against Baltimore and a World Series against the Marlins, the team that wins the title will have earned it as much as last year’s Nationals did. Spray on, in my opinion.

Schoenfield: Hmm, a social distancing champagne celebration sounds like the worst thing ever invented. But what if it’s the Mariners who win? Will people in Seattle’s CHAZ celebrate? Will Amazon offer free champagne deliveries to Mariners fans? I’m starting to get excited. I can see the ending: Jarred Kelenic hits the walk-off, World Series-winning home run off Edwin Diaz … and dammit, go ahead and dogpile at home plate, Mariners players. Just wear your masks and wash your hands.

Schoenfield’s added question: If 1927 Babe Ruth was somehow cloned from a fiber of his hair left on an old jersey stored in the basement in Cooperstown, and he had access to modern training methods, pitch metrics, the juiced ball, air travel, lighter bats he could whip through the zone and polyester uniforms that don’t weigh an extra 15 pounds when soaked with sweat while playing in St. Louis on a humid August afternoon, how many home runs would he hit in 60 games?

Doolittle: Twenty-three. That’s 60 homers over 154 games prorated to 60 games. The guy was something like five standard deviations better than the average big leaguer at that time. While he wouldn’t be that much better than average now, I think the context that now favors home run hitting above all else would soak up the difference.

Miller: Eleven? Even with the benefits of modern everything, there’s just basic math going against him: He was the best baseball player out of a shallow pool that populated major league baseball in the 1920s. In 2020, he’d be playing against the best baseball players from a much larger pool of major leaguers. You’d reasonably expect the outliers from the larger pool to be better than the smaller one.

Schoenfield: You guys are wrong. The correct answer is 34.