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Who could break MLB records this season?

Jacob deGrom at 2019 Spring Training. Photo by slgckgc via Flickr.

With the 2020 MLB season scheduled to be just 60 games, we’re about to see a baseball season different than any other in the history of the sport.

One of the many interesting wrinkles this season brings is the possibility of some long-standing records being broken. The counting records are obviously safe — Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs, Ichiro’s 262 hits and Rickey Henderson’s 130 stolen bases all won’t be touched, though out of all of them, that last one I think will be safe for a long, long time.

The rate records are in much more danger though, with players only having to keep up the record-breaking pace for 60 games instead of 162. So, let’s guess who might have a chance of etching their name into the record books this season — with an asterisk of course.

Realistically, if someone does break a record, it will probably be someone that no one expected, because that’s how it always works. Someone will get hot at the beginning of the season and then just not cool down. Someone who no one would have guessed. That’s baseball.

There also needs to be a cutoff date. Baseball has been around since the 1800s, and as a result, the record books are filled with players who frankly played a much different game than what is played today or even what was played 50, 60-plus years ago. Ted Williams’ famous season in 1941 where he hit .406 is technically only No. 17 on the All-Time leaderboards. Of the 16 seasons ahead of his, nine came in the 1800s and none of them were after 1924.

So, what’s the cutoff? Well, it’s a tough question and by nature will be arbitrary, but I found an old article by Jayson Stark for ESPN from 2006 that talked about this very issue, and I’m going to go with the year he chose: 1969.

Why 1969? I encourage you to read the whole article to find out, but the gist of it was because of the institution of divisional play, an expanded postseason and the lowering of the mound among other things. I’ll use the cutoff loosely though, acknowledging any notable records that may have come before 1969, just like Williams’ 1941 season.

But with that said, here are my best guesses as to who it could be.

Average
The most talked-about milestone that could be reached this season has been a .400 batting average. The current record holder of players since 1969 is Tony Gwynn’s 1994 season when he hit .394 — in 110 games. See, the 1994 season was cut short due to a strike, the season ended in mid-August and no postseason was played. For non-strike shortened seasons, the record goes to George Brett in 1980 when he hit .390, but he played in just 117 games as he was sidelined briefly due to injury. This then really raises the question: How many games in a single season does someone have to play in order to not have an asterisk next to their records? If 117 is enough, then Tony Gwynn’s 110 would surely be enough. If Gwynn’s 110 isn’t enough, then it’s hard to argue Brett’s 117 is. So, next up would be Rod Carew in 1977 when he hit .388 in 155 games. There’s a real argument for Carew being the true record holder because neither Gwynn or Brett played a full season. Either way, whichever milestone you personally choose as the mark, there’s a real chance it gets beat this season.

So first, who are the obvious candidates? Well there’s the reigning batting champ Tim Anderson of the White Sox, who hit .335 last season, though for one that was in just 123 games. Though in his previous three seasons had never hit higher than .283 and was even coming off a 2018 season where he hit .240, so it could have been a fluke. Ketel Marte of the Diamondbacks falls into a similar category, hitting .329 last season despite also never hitting higher than .283, oddly enough. There’s Jeff McNeil of the Mets, who hit .318 last season but was hitting .349 before the All-Star break before a noticeable change to try to hit for power. He hit seven home runs in 76 games before the break but that skyrocketed to 16 home runs in 57 games after the break, but his average in those games was .276. There’s also DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees who hit .327 last season, though news broke on Saturday he tested positive for COVID-19, so his status for the 2019 season is very much up in the air. Then there’s obviously the best of the best like Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Anthony Rendon and a handful of others. Any of them could do it for pretty much the same reason — they’re just really good at baseball. Jose Altuve is a “dark horse” candidate as well, having led the MLB in batting three times in his career including hitting .346 in 2017, albeit with some apparent help.

OPS
This one is going to be a whole lot tougher than batting average most likely for one main reason — Barry Bonds. In case you don’t know, when Bonds was nearer the back-end of his career, he started working out religiously, eating well and overall just transforming himself into pretty much the best hitter the game has ever seen, all-natural of course. As a result, a lot of the hitting records are probably well out of reach, even in a 60-game season. The current record is Bonds’ 2004, age-39 season when he put up an absurd OPS of 1.422. He also holds spots No. 2, 4 and 8 on the all-time leaderboards, with Babe Ruth holding No.’s 3, 5 and 6 and Williams’ 1941 season holding the No. 7 spot. The next post-1969 non-Bonds season was Mark McGwire in 1998 with an OPS of 1.222, but he was also someone who ate well and worked out religiously. So, the next post-1969 season who was never linked to the same training pattern of Bonds and McGwire was Frank Thomas in 1994, putting up an OPS of 1.217. Wait, 1994?! We’ve hit strike year again. Time to narrow down the criteria once again. Of all players after 1969 who played a full season and weren’t linked to steroids (yes, that’s what “eating well and working out” was alluding to if you haven’t figured it out yet), the crown then goes to Larry Walker, who had an OPS of 1.172 in 1997, and if don’t try to tell me that doesn’t count because it was in Coors Field, it does. Now, that is a number that has a chance of being touched this season.

The candidates are the usual suspects, that same group from batting average who are the best in the game: Trout, Yelich, Bellinger, Rendon and a few others. Yelich led the league with an OPS of 1.100 in 130 games last season, so he came relatively close. They’re the best of the best, and any single one of them has the potential to maintain a 1.173 OPS pace over a 60 game season. The other demographic of players who could break the record are the power hitters. I know what you’re thinking, everyone mentioned above hits for power, and you’re right. But they’re more well-rounded than some other hitters in the league. They can hit for average regularly (I will admit some of the players I’m about to mention do hit for a good average), field, and with the exception of Rendon, run. What I mean when I say power hitters are the players who are pretty much paid to just go up to the plate and swing for the fences. I’m talking someone like J.D. Martinez, who hits for enormous power and a very good average. One option is Nelson Cruz, who also hits for a very good average with other-worldly pop. There’s also players like Pete Alonso, Eugenio Suarez and Jorge Soler, though all three of them would need to see a significant increase to their on-base percentage while still hitting for crazy power in order to even sniff Walker’s mark. In a 60 game season though, it’s possible they can do it.

ERA
Now onto the pitching stats, and of course, we have to start with ERA. Now, this is tricky because Bob Gibson’s legendary season where he had a 1.12 ERA came in 1968, the year before our cutoff. Remember how I said one of the reasons Stark chose 1969 as the cutoff year was because they lowered the mounds? Well, Gibson’s 1968 was one of the main reasons why, headlining a season that was deemed “the year of the pitcher.” So, after 1969, Dwight Gooden is the best with a 1.53 in 1985, and thankfully, no more narrowing down has to be done. It was a full season and Doc was never linked to steroids, so his 1985 mark stands as the best since 1969. It’s lucky too because the next guy on the list is Greg Maddux who had a 1.56 in 1994. If you’re still not convinced records could be broken this season, just look at how many times seasons from 1994 have already popped up in the record books, and teams played almost twice as many games then as they’re scheduled to play this season.

The most likely people to break this record are exactly who you would expect. Jacob deGrom has to be right at the top, as the back-to-back Cy Young Award winner putting up a 2.43 ERA in 2019 and a 1.70 ERA in 2018. However, playing two-thirds of his games against NL East competition this season, probably the strongest division in the league, he has a bit of a disadvantage versus someone like cross-town rival Gerrit Cole, who will be pitching two-thirds of his games vs. the AL East. Yes, the NL East has the Marlins, but the AL East counters that with the Orioles. Then, while the Mets will have to play three legitimate playoff contenders in the Braves, Nationals and Phillies, the Yankees will get games vs. the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rays, with the Rays being the only legitimate playoff contender of the bunch. Some other top candidates include the Astros’ Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty, The Nationals’ Max Scherzer and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and Walker Beuhler.

WHIP
This might be the record that has the best chance of being broken, purely based on how close someone came in 2019 to breaking it in a full season. Verlander, who led the league with a WHIP of 0.803, actually had the second-highest WHIP in league history after 1969. The current leader is Pedro Martinez, who put up an absurd 0.737 in 2000 to take the top spot.

A lot of the people most likely to break this record are the same as ERA. Obviously Verlander has to be in the mix considering how close he got last season. Zack Greinke puts himself at No. 4 on the list with his 2015 season, so he’s right near the top as well. Same goes for Kershaw, who is No. 5 with his 2014 season. Then there’s deGrom, Cole, Scherzer, Flaherty and Beuhler — the best of the best — who all have a chance to break Pedro’s mark. Really though, for both the ERA and WHIP record, there are so many good starting pitchers in the league that I can’t list everyone who has a shot. So many people do. The names above are just the top of the class.

Perfect Save Record
Throughout MLB history, there have been a few relief pitchers to go an entire season as their team’s primary closer without blowing a save. Four did so while saving 40-plus saves: Eric Gagne in 2003 (55), Jose Valverde in 2011 (49), Zack Britton in 2016 (47) and Brad Lidge in 2008 (41). No one in a 60 game season will even get the chance to save that many games, but what’s a realistic number of saves opportunities for someone to have in 2020? Well, in 2003 Gagne saved just over 33% of the games the Dodgers played. In 2011 Valverde saved just over 30% of the games the Tigers played. It was about 29% for Britton in 2016 and about 25% for Lidge in 2008. It’s not unrealistic to think there could be one if not multiple closers who end up perfect on the season with about 15-to-20 saves apiece. When we expand the criteria to a minimum of 15 games saved without blowing one, the list grows to just 10 people (two of them were from 1994), which makes sense. A closer going on a 15-to-20 game save streak isn’t exactly rare, and that’s why it will happen. Closers usually have to try to save at least 40 games throughout the course of a season and even the best slip up along the way. In 60 games, a lot of players won’t have time to slip up like they inevitably would have. This isn’t exactly a record, but it certainly is a milestone.

As for who could go perfect this season, there are a ton of guys. The most important thing though is the player would need to clearly be the team’s primary closer, and not in a committee. That eliminates people like Edwin Diaz and Seth Lugo for the Mets or Carlos Martinez and Jordan Hicks for the Cardinals. The top candidates are guys like Kirby Yates, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Ken Giles, Josh Hader, Roberto Osuna and the like. There are more guys who could fit the bill, but these are the most likely options.

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