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What MLB Statistical Frontiers Will Be Threatened in 2020, and by Whom?

Could we see someone hit .400 in the shortened season? Could a pitcher best Bob Gibson’s mark?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Baseball, like bad takes on Twitter, constitutes a veritable smorgasbord of ratios. Batting average, contact rate, isolated power, K/9—if you have a division sign, baseball’s got two numbers to stick on either end of it. And in a shortened 2020 season, all of baseball’s favorite ratios will have a much smaller denominator. That in turn, of course, brings small-sample-size weirdness. (Cue the immortal Ted Berg banger.)

The inherent volatility of the shortened season increases the possibility of, say, someone hitting .400 from nil to remote. Here are a few such statistical marks to look out for, and the players who could get there.

Batting .400

Let’s just start off with the big tamale. While the modern-era batting average record (.426, set by Nap Lajoie in 1901) is essentially untouchable, .400 is just close enough to be tantalizing, and there is no more revered rate statistic in North American professional sports. The last time anyone hit .400 (Ted Williams in 1941, but you all knew that), expansion was 20 years away, MLB was bounded by St. Louis in the West and Washington in the South, and the league wasn’t even integrated yet. The Yankees (renamed in 1913) were roughly the same age then as the Marlins are now.

Only one player in the past 30 years (Tony Gwynn in the strike-shortened 1994 season) has even made a serious run at .400, and while the 60-game season ought to help, it won’t help as much as you’d think: Since the strike, only three players (Gwynn and Larry Walker in 1997 and Chipper Jones in 2008) have hit .400 through their team’s first 60 games.

But once you stipulate that it’s possible, two kinds of players stick out on the list of players who post high batting averages. The first, obviously, are the Gwynn types, bat-control dudes: Ichiro (who hit .372 in 2004), Joe Mauer (.365 in 2009), or Rod Carew (.388 in 1977). These are prototypical singles hitters with exceptional hand-eye coordination who spray the ball between fielders and—crucially—never, ever, ever swing and miss.

In this day of grip it and rip it, there are fewer such players, but they’re still out there. Angels infielder David Fletcher led qualified hitters last year with a contact rate of 91.1 percent, while Twins second baseman Luis Arraez hit .334 in half a season last year with more walks than strikeouts. White Sox rookie Nick Madrigal, once he’s called up, should have the best contact skills in the majors—and maybe the best since Ichiro. Last year, AL home run leader Jorge Soler struck out 59 times in his first 45 games. Madrigal has struck out 58 times in competitive games since he graduated high school in 2016, and he’s played a total of 314 games with more than 1,400 plate appearances.

The other kind of high-average hitter resembles Jones, Walker, or, well, Williams: disciplined batters who hit the absolute piss out of the baseball. Mike Trout fits the bill here, as do other middle-of-the-order hitters like Anthony Rendon and Alex Bregman who avoid outs through walks and opposing fielders through home runs, but don’t strike out much given their power.

But one name transcends all others in the quest for .400: Christian Yelich. The Brewers outfielder has by far the highest hard-hit rate in baseball in the past two seasons, as well as the second-highest career BABIP since integration. (Carew has him by one point.) Yelich hits a lot of home runs, draws a lot of walks, doesn’t strike out much, and when he puts the ball in play it comes screaming off his bat. Moreover, he’s left-handed and can run, which means he’ll beat out more ground balls than a slower, right-handed batter like Rendon. Nobody else in baseball has an offensive profile quite like Yelich’s, and if you want evidence that it could help him hit .400, well, he’s won the past two NL batting titles.

Breaking Bob Gibson’s ERA Record

My friend and colleague Zach Kram, who is a titanic pedant, is fond of pointing out that the modern ERA record belongs not to Gibson but to Dutch Leonard, who posted a 0.96 ERA for the Red Sox in 1914. To which I can only say that you might as well throw out all the records from before the sinking of the Lusitania. Besides, Zach’s Dutch Leonard isn’t even the career bWAR leader among pitchers named Dutch Leonard, so who cares?

Gibson’s 1968 campaign, the finest season at the height of the second dead-ball era of the late 1960s, featured more complete-game shutouts (13) than any pitcher is likely to have starts in 2020, but it’s not unreasonable to expect someone to go under a 1.12 ERA over 12 starts and 60 or 70 innings. In his 2015 Cy Young campaign, Jake Arrieta posted a 0.86 ERA in his final 20 starts, and just last year Jack Flaherty ended his season on a run of 16 starts with a 0.93 ERA. Flaherty could do something similar in 2020, as could Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, and Stephen Strasburg, but that’s just a list of the best starting pitchers in baseball, so we’re not exactly breaking new ground by saying so. Let’s go slightly off the board.

Tyler Glasnow is one of three Rays pitchers with a legitimate shot at an ERA below 1.12 ERA, along with Blake Snell, who posted a 1.89 ERA in 31 starts in 2018, and Charlie Morton. But while Glasnow is by no means his team’s top arm, the difference between him and the Morton-Snell combo is one of quantity, not quality. Last season, Glasnow made just 12 starts, but he posted a 1.78 ERA with peripherals that weren’t far off: a 2.29 FIP and a 2.77 DRA. He plays in a pitcher’s park that’s domed off from the summer heat, in front of a solid defense that’s improved over the winter.

I’d also keep an eye on new Blue Jays pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, who led MLB in ERA last year. At one point in late June, Ryu’s ERA sat at 1.27, and during the first half of the season, he ripped off a 10-start streak of 71 2/3 innings in which he posted an ERA of 0.63. It’s always tough to predict who will get off to a hot start, but Ryu’s command and ability to change speeds ought to be a big advantage early on while hitters are still getting their timing right and harder-throwing pitchers are working on location.

But both Ryu and the Rays’ bunch have one major disadvantage: the schedule. They’ll all have to face the Yankees 10 times, plus about six other teams with deep lineups. Walker Buehler, on the other hand, plays his home games in a pitcher’s park in front of a good defense, but also won’t have to face the Dodgers. After two years of dominant postseason performances and a phenomenal first full big league campaign in 2019, the diminutive ex-Vanderbilt hurler seems poised to take the mantle of Dodgers ace off Clayton Kershaw for good. And considering the amount of run support he’ll get, as well as the quality of the rest of the Dodgers’ pitching staff, Los Angeles manager Dave Roberts won’t be tempted to stretch Buehler as much as other managers will stretch their aces. We might see only 75 innings of Buehler this year, but they’ll be the best 75 innings he can muster.

Scoring Six Runs Per Game

This isn’t as sexy as hitting .400, but it’s nearly as rare as a team achievement. Since integration, only six teams have scored six runs a game, including four in the past 65 years: the 2000 White Sox; the 1996 Mariners with Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and a young A-Rod; and two versions of the Jim Thome–Manny Ramírez Cleveland clubs of the 1990s. All four of those teams featured multiple Hall of Fame–caliber sluggers, but most importantly they were all deep. The highest-scoring club of the integration era is the 1950 Red Sox, who posted a preposterous 6.67 runs per game, but not because of Williams (who played just 89 games that year) or Bobby Doerr, the team’s other Hall of Fame regular. Those Red Sox had no fewer than eight players who batted at least 400 times and posted an OPS+ of 100 or better. Only one player hit better than .328 but the whole team hit .302—that’s the kind of depth we’re talking about.

Last year, three American League clubs scored 5.6 runs per game or more: the Yankees, Twins, and Astros. All of them have lineups with multiple superstars and no automatic outs. The Yankees and Twins, both of whom scored at least 5.8 runs per game last year, stand to be even better in 2020—New York because Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, among others, are set to return to the lineup full time; Minnesota because Josh Donaldson is replacing C.J. Cron in the lineup.

The Dodgers are another team to watch; in 2019 they scored 5.47 runs per game, the most by a National League team in more than a decade. That lineup, which returns essentially intact, finished fifth in runs scored last year, behind those three AL teams and the Red Sox. Boston had two offensive advantages that were unavailable to the Dodgers in 2019, but will feature in the 2020 Dodgers’ lineup: Mookie Betts and the designated hitter. Pitcher’s park or no, the sky is the limit for the Dodgers.