The All-Star break is in the rearview mirror and the chaos of the trade deadline is only two days away. We're in crunch time now. We've reached the second half of the regular season and the dog days of the summer are right around the corner.
As part of our weekly series breaking down trends across the league, we looked at Juan Soto's post-Home Run Derby surge, Cody Bellinger's fastball problems, and David Fletcher's long hitting streak last week. This week we're going to shift gears a bit and look back at the 2020-21 seasons combined, which conveniently work out to 162 games played for most teams. We're going to look at one "season" spanning two calendar years. Let's get to it.
Not every team has played exactly 162 games since Opening Day 2020 but most are in the ballpark. The Blue Jays were on the low end at 157 games played going into Tuesday. Several teams were right at 162 games. Because we have an uneven number of games played, we'll round to 162 for some teams. Got it?
First up, here are the combined 2020-21 standings for the American League
|AL East||AL Central||AL West|
1. Tampa Bay Rays: 101-61 (.623)
1. Chicago White Sox: 95-67 (.586)
1. Oakland Athletics: 93-69 (.574)
2. Boston Red Sox: 87-75 (.537)
2. Cleveland: 87-75 (.537)
2. Houston Astros: 91-71 (.561)
3. New York Yankees: 86-76 (.531)
3. Minnesota Twins: 80-82 (.494)
3. Seattle Mariners: 82-80 (.506)
4. Toronto Blue Jays: 84-78 (.519)
4. Detroit Tigers: 71-91 (.438)
4. Los Angeles Angels: 77-85 (.475)
5. Baltimore Orioles: 60-102 (.370)
5. Kansas City Royals: 71-91 (.438)
5. Texas Rangers: 58-104 (.358)
The Twins won the AL Central last season yet slip all the way to third place (with a sub-.500 record) because he's had such a poor season this year. On the flip side, the Red Sox had the fourth worst record in baseball last season, yet their success this year vaults them all the way into second place in the AL East, and a tie with Cleveland for the second wild card spot.
Last year's 29-31 record is enough to keep the Astros out of first place in the AL West in our combined 2020-21 standings, but only barely. The A's are hanging on to a slim two-game lead. The Mariners are objectively hilarious. They're two games over .500 the last two seasons despite being outscored by 98 runs. 98 runs! That run differential says they should be closer to 70-92. Crazy.
Not surprisingly, the Rangers still hold the worst record in the American League. They had the worst record in the league last year and they were only one game ahead of the Orioles for the worst record in the league this season going into Tuesday. I can't imagine the Royals feel good about having the same 2020-21 record as the Tigers after spending money this past offseason.
Now here are the combined 2020-21 National League standings:
|NL East||NL Central||NL West|
1. Atlanta Braves: 85-77 (.525)
1. Milwaukee Brewers: 88-74 (.544)
1. Los Angeles Dodgers: 106-57 (.646)
2. New York Mets: 81-81 (.500)
2. Chicago Cubs: 85-77 (.525)
2. San Diego Padres: 95-67 (.586)
3. Philadelphia Phillies: 80-82 (.491)
3. Cincinnati Reds: 83-79 (.513)
3. San Francisco Giants: 93-69 (.572)
4. Miami Marlins: 75-87 (.463)
4. St. Louis Cardinals: 82-80 (.506)
4. Colorado Rockies: 70-92 (.431)
5. Washington Nationals: 72-90 (.447)
5. Pittsburgh Pirates: 58-104 (.358)
5. Arizona Diamondbacks: 56-106 (.348)
Hoo boy, look at that NL West. The three best teams in the league (and three of the five best teams in baseball) reside in the same division. The Giants went 29-31 last season, remember. They finished tied with the Brewers for the No. 8 postseason spot, but Milwaukee held the tiebreaker and went to the postseason while the Giants went home. San Francisco now has baseball's best record.
The NL East is oppressively mediocre. The Braves have the best 2020-21 record in the division and that record would land them in fourth place in the AL East and NL West. Four of the other five divisions have at least three teams with winning records. The NL East has one. And finally, congrats to the D-Backs. They'll hold the No. 1 pick in the draft thanks to their combined 2020-21 record. Too bad this isn't real life and that doesn't matter at all.
Last year MLB used an expanded 16-team postseason field to account for the shortened season (teams had less time to let their true talent shine through in the regular season) and also to make more money after losing revenue during the pandemic. It was fine. I don't really want to see an expanded postseason again, but during the pandemic season, it was fine.
MLB is going back to the standard 10-team postseason format this year, and since our combined 2020-21 records approximate a full 162-game, that's the postseason format we'll use here. Here's the bracket:
Wild Card Game: Cleveland (wins hypothetical tiebreaker over Red Sox via qualifying for 2020 postseason) at Astros
ALDS1: Wild Card Game winner at Rays
ALDS2: Athletics at White Sox
Wild Card Game: Giants at Padres
NLDS1: Wild Card Game winner at Dodgers
NLDS2: Braves at Brewers
That AL bracket is definitely not what MLB wants. No Yankees and no Red Sox, so two of your biggest ratings drivers are out. The White Sox are good and fun though, so this postseason would be their time to shine and jump into the national spotlight. Also, basically everyone outside Houston will tune in to hate-watch the Astros.
The NL bracket, on the other hand, is pretty excellent. You have a dynamite Wild Card Game that sets up an NL West showdown in the NLDS, plus you get that Milwaukee pitching staff against a very fun Braves lineup. I'm an AL guy (long live the DH) but the NL bracket is far more appealing in our 2020-21 hypothetical. That's where the action would be.
We all wasted a lot of breath discussing the possibility that someone would hit .400 during the shortened 60-game season and no one came close. DJ LeMahieu led baseball with a .364 batting average and it goes to show how difficult it is to hit .400. Even in an abbreviated season, no one sniffed it.
Players need 3.1 plate appearances per team game to qualify for the batting title, or 502 plate appearances in a 162-game season. Since our combined 2020-21 records cover 162 games (or thereabouts), we'll stick with 502 plate appearances as our cutoff. Here are the 2020-21 leaders in the triple-slash categories:
|Batting average||On-base percentage||Slugging percentage||OPS+|
1. Trea Turner: .326
1. Juan Soto: .444
1. Fernando Tatis Jr.: .614
1. Juan Soto: 179
2. Michael Brantley: .320
2. Freddie Freeman: .420
2. Ronald Acuña Jr.: .591
2. Fernando Tatis Jr.: 170
3. Juan Soto: .312
3. Bryce Harper: .406
3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: .594
3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: 163
4. Tim Anderson: .310
4. Ronald Acuña Jr.: .399
4. Shohei Ohtani: .581
4. Nelson Cruz: 161
5. Freddie Freeman: .309
5. Justin Turner: .393
5. Juan Soto: .565
5. Ronald Acuña Jr.: 154
Soto is the only player to appear in all four top fives and that is enough for me to declare him the best hitter of the last 162 games. No one's going to argue about that, right? Freeman is sixth in slugging percentage (.562), so he just narrowly misses making the main three lists. Vlad Jr. being third in OPS+ is pretty impressive considering he was good last year, but not truly great.
Now here are the counting stat leaders over the last 162-ish games. There's no plate appearance requirement here. All are eligible.
|Home runs||RBI||Stolen bases||WAR|
1. Fernando Tatis Jr.: 47
1. José Abreu: 135
1. Whit Merrifield: 37
1. Fernando Tatis Jr.: 7.8
2. Shohei Ohtani: 42
2. Rafael Devers: 124
2. Fernando Tatis Jr.: 34
2. Mookie Betts: 7.1
3. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: 41
3. Manny Machado: 115
3. Trea Turner: 34
3. Trea Turner: 6.9
4. Matt Olson: 41
4. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: 113
4. Trevor Story: 33
4. Manny Machado: 6.5
Several tied with 38
5. Fernando Tatis Jr.: 112
5. Starling Marte: 31
5. Juan Soto: 6.2
Because of nagging injuries, Tatis has only the 44th most plate appearances the last two years, yet he leads in home runs (by a lot) and WAR (also by a lot), while also ranking among the league leaders in runs batted in and stolen bases. He is a marvel. And he's only 22 too. I'm not ready to say he's the best player in baseball yet -- that title still belongs to Mike Trout -- but he's close.
As for Trout, he owns an impressive .301/.419/.611 (173 OPS+) batting line with 25 home runs since Opening Day 2020, yet he doesn't appear on our rate stats leaderboards because he only has 387 plate appearances the last two years. This year's calf injury means he falls well short of our 502-plate appearances threshold. Bummer.
Because I know you're curious, the worst position player in baseball since Opening Day 2020 is Eugenio Suárez at minus-1.7 WAR, though several players are right behind him at minus-1.6 WAR (David Dahl, Hunter Dozier, Luis Rengifo).
Even in a 60-game season, no pitcher threatened Bob Gibson's record 1.12 ERA in 1968. AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber led baseball with a 1.63 ERA in 2020. He would've had to throw another 34 1/3 shutout innings to break Gibson's record. The game has changed a ton since Gibson's historic season (including fundamentally with the mound being lowered), yet not even in a short season could anyone approach his record. Incredible.
Pitchers need one inning per team game to qualify for the ERA title, so 162 innings in a normal season. At some point we'll need to have a conversation about changing that requirement with pitcher workloads decreasing, but we can worry about that another day. Here are the various rate stat leaders among pitchers who've thrown at least 162 innings the last two seasons.
1. Trevor Bauer: 2.24
1. Trevor Bauer: 193
1. Brandon Woodruff: 0.90
1. Clayton: Kershaw: 7.00
2. Brandon Woodruff: 2.48
2. Shane Bieber: 182
2. Trevor Bauer: 0.92
2. Gerrit Cole: 6.05
3. Shane Bieber: 2.52
3. Brandon Woodruff: 175
3. Walker Buehler: 0.92
3. Nathan Eovaldi: 5.93
4. Lance Lynn: 2.54
4. Lance Lynn: 173
4. Clayton Kershaw: 0.93
4. Yu Darvish: 5.54
5. Walker Buehler: 2.56
5. Zack Wheeler: 161
5. Gerrit Cole: 0.97
5. Zach Eflin: 5.45
No Jacob deGrom? No Jacob deGrom. The best pitcher in baseball has a 1.63 ERA (247 ERA+) with a 0.73 WHIP and an 8.62 K/BB ratio the last two season. He's be No. 1 on each leaderboard by a mile ... if he'd thrown two more innings. DeGrom as thrown 160 innings across 2020-21, so he's two innings short of qualifying. Blame this year's nagging injuries. Too bad.
I would not have guessed Woodruff is top three in ERA and ERA+ the last two years. I know he's excellent. I didn't realize he was that high up on the leaderboards, however. And shoutout to Eflin for cracking the K/BB ratio leaderboard. He's emerged as a rock solid mid-rotation starter with the Phillies the last two years. You don't land on one of these leaderboards by accident.
Now let's look at some pitching counting stats. We've removed the 162 innings requirement here, so all are welcome.
1. Kyle Hendricks: 18
1. Mark Melancon: 41
1. Gerrit Cole: 260
1. Zack Wheeler: 7.8
2. Gerrit Cole: 17
2. Liam Hendriks: 38
2. Shane Bieber: 252
2. Jacob deGrom: 7.0
3. Lance Lynn: 16
3. Brad Hand: 36
3. Jacob deGrom: 250
3. Brandon Woodruff: 6.9
Many tied with 15
4. Josh Hader: 34
4. Trevor Bauer: 237
4. Gerrit Cole: 6.8
5. Kenley Jansen: 33
5. Brandon Woodruff: 237
5. Lance Lynn: 6.3
No 20-game winner, eh? No 19-game winner either. DeGrom is third in strikeouts despite being 38th in innings the last two years. He is truly incredible. Speaking of innings, only three pitchers have thrown 200 innings since Opening Day 2020: Germán Márquez (206 1/3), Wheeler (203 2/3), and Hendricks (203). You can partly blame that on the pandemic because teams have handled their pitchers carefully given the weird start-stop-start again last year, but yeah, pitching workloads are very much on the decline.
Wheeler has been outstanding since joining the Phillies. Best pitcher in baseball according to WAR. I'd still take deGrom over literally any other pitcher in the game, but there aren't many I'd take over Wheeler. On the other end of the spectrum, the worst pitcher in baseball (and worst player in baseball overall) since Opening Day 2020 has been Carlos Martínez at minus-2.5 WAR. Ouch.
Last season was bizarre and I hope we never have to experience something like that again. This season still feels a bit weird, I'd say, though when you combine last year and this year into one big 162-game season, it all looks ... pretty normal? The standings are about what I'd expect and the league leaders are about what I'd expect. Even amid a global pandemic, 162 games of baseball are oddly reliable.