As we draw nearer to the 2020 MLB season, I can’t help but wonder — if not root for — how strange things could look throughout a 60-game season. The sample sizes will be small. The asterisks will be aplenty. Perhaps your favorite team that isn’t remotely talented enough to sneak into the playoffs will. The possibilities are endless.
Being that I enjoy betting on sports, looking at the odds for the MVP and Cy Young awards made me think: wouldn’t this be the perfect year to wager on a random good, yet not great, player to win one of these awards? I did some digging into how random these awards would have looked after 60 games over the past three seasons. Yes, circumstances are different for the 60 games this season as opposed to the first 60 games of any given year. I also understand that the mentality of players this season will be different than in seasons in the past. It will be a sprint and not a slow burn. At the same time, 60 games is still 60 games.
Last season, Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger took home the NL and AL MVP awards respectively. They both led their leagues in fWAR after 60 games, too. It is safe to say that each would have won the award in a shortened season. The only player that would have received votes after a 60 game season who didn’t receive an actual vote at the end of last season was Joey Gallo. After 60 games, Gallo was hitting .276/.421/.653 with 17 home runs and an fWAR of 2.9 (second in the AL at the time). Unfortunately for him, his season ended early due to a wrist injury.
For the Cy Young award, Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom each won. After 60 games though, neither were in the top-10 in starting pitching fWAR. It was Max Scherzer and Matthew Boyd who led their respective leagues in fWAR after the first two months. Scherzer finished third in NL Cy Young voting. Boyd did not receive a single vote.
What happened to Detroit’s best starting pitcher? In his first 13 starts, Boyd had a 3.01 ERA (2.83 FIP). His strikeout-to-walk ratio stood at an impressive 26 percent. Opposing batters hit .217 against him. Over his final 19 starts, Boyd’s ERA rose to 5.68 (5.40 FIP). Because of a slight increase in walks, his K:BB rate fell 22.4 percent. Although that rate was still well above league average, opposing hitters had more success against him as they hit .262 over that span.
Mookie Betts won the AL MVP and Christian Yelich won the NL MVP. After 60 games, Betts trailed only Trout (who would finish second for the award) in fWAR. In this case, the first 60 games held up as a proper predictor of the MVP. In the NL though, Yelich was 28th in fWAR after 60 games while Freddie Freeman led the league. That year, Freeman ended up finishing fourth in MVP voting. Not far behind Freeman after 60 games was Scooter Gennett (third in fWAR at the time).
Gennett was a monster during the first two months of the season, hitting .344/.379/.568 with 12 home runs. Even by season’s end, Gennett had put together a solid season. In 638 total plate appearances, the Reds’ second baseman hit .310/.357/.490 with 23 home runs and an fWAR of 4.5. That said, he did not receive a single MVP vote.
Looking at the Cy Young that year, deGrom and Blake Snell won the award. After 60 games, deGrom trailed only Scherzer in fWAR (Scherzer ended up finishing second in voting). Snell was the eighth-best pitcher in the AL according to fWAR after 60 games that year. It was a close race all year, but a great second half propelled Snell to the top. He had a 1.56 ERA (2.59 FIP) over his final 17 starts.
Here is where things get wacky. The winners of the MVP award in 2017 were Jose Altuve and Giancarlo Stanton. After the first 60 games though, neither would have been considered MVP candidates. Instead, the likes of Zack Cozart and Aaron Hicks would have gotten more love. Cozart led the NL in fWAR after the first 60 games while Hicks was third in the AL behind Aaron Judge and Trout.
After 60 games in 2017, Cozart had hit .337/.424/.594 with nine home runs. Although he cooled off for the rest of the season, he was still solid over the course of his final 68 games, hitting .263/.349/.508 with 15 home runs. Somehow, the Reds shortstop did not receive any MVP votes despite his 5.0 fWAR.
Hicks was out of his mind offensively over the first 60 games in 2017, hitting .316/.425/.582 with 10 home runs. For the remainder of the season though, multiple oblique injuries put a damper on what was his breakout season. Over his final 39 games, the Yankees outfielder hit .210/.311/.357 with five home runs.
Other players who likely would have received votes after 60 games that year were Michael Conforto and Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman did, in fact, go on to play well enough to receive one vote, despite being worth one less win.
Corey Kluber and Scherzer won the Cy Young award in 2017. Scherzer held down the award all season long. He led the NL in fWAR after the first 60 games and every game after. Kluber, on the other hand, was not apart of the Cy Young conversation after 60 games that year, as he ranked 30th among pitchers in fWAR. During that time, he had only started seven games (4.38 ERA, 3.58 FIP). For the remainder of the season, though, Kluber was unhittable. Over 21 starts and 154.1 innings, the right-hander had an impeccable 1.57 ERA (2.10 FIP) with 206 strikeouts to just 20 walks. Opponents hit .172/.209/.286 against him over that span. In 2020, there obviously won’t be an opportunity for such a turnaround if he or other potential candidates start slowly.
Guys like Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, and Lance McCullers Jr. would have received votes at the end of a 60 game season. The three ranked second, third, and fourth respectively in the AL in fWAR at the time. By seasons end, only Archer had a top-five fWAR among pitchers in the AL. None received a vote that year.
What does this mean for the 2020 season?
In the three years above, I sense a common theme. Although a lot of great players exude their greatness from day one, some great players have seasons where they need a little bit of time to hit their stride. Because of that, there will be room for some average-to-good players to produce at an elite level in the short-term and therefore be in the running to win an individual award this season.
There is a pretty solid chance that at least one of the four major awards will be won by an unexpected player. For the Cy Young award, I expect the true aces of the world to be in the mix — deGrom, Scherzer, Verlander. That said, don’t be surprised if a random pitcher like a 2019 Boyd or 2017 Fulmer is mixed in.
For the MVP award, Mike Trout is far and away the favorite in the AL. It would be extremely difficult to bet against him. In the NL, though, the MVP could be anyone’s.
For the sake of this article, I will choose one bizarre winner for each award. If it seems random, just remember: it is.
AL Cy Young: Kenta Maeda
Perhaps switching leagues will give him an advantage in the short-term. With the short season itself, this could be huge.
NL Cy Young: Marcus Stroman
Stroman was traded to the NL last season. The same can be said for him as well.
AL MVP: Gary Sanchez
If healthy, maybe Sanchez catches fire and hits 20 home runs in a shortened season. If his defense improves, advanced offense at a premium position could help win him the award. It could even be enough without improved defense.
NL MVP: Max Muncy
I like Muncy’s production in an extremely deep lineup. Because of that lineup, he will always see good pitches to hit. Muncy has recorded 10 total fWAR over the past two seasons. With an extended hot streak, the award could be his.
Graphic by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)
I like the Maeda prediction! Unfortunately Stroman will need a crazy babip to sustain a low ERA because he doesnt quite get the strikeout numbers and i dont think the Mets infield D can help him there.