MLB's 2020 regular season is about to enter the final week. While the crescendo of the playoffs is still ahead of us, this occasions an opportunity to look back upon said regular season and highlight some notable surprises. The toppling of expectations isn't always a welcome thing, depending upon your rooting interests, but it's always a compelling thing.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the five things that surprised the most about this strange and harried regular season -- one that spanned just 60 games -- that's drawing to a close.
1. That we made this far in the first place
Thanks to the trundling negotiating pace on the part of ownership and what appeared to be some bad-faith tactics by those same actors, it seemed for a while that the 2020 season might never get underway. Then, of course, there's the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Conducting 900 regular season games involving 30 teams outside of a bubble seemed like wish-casting given the state of things. Early on, MLB was hit with clusters of cases on the Marlins and Cardinals that caused postponement of a wide swath of schedule. Back in early August, you could be forgiven for thinking the season might be snuffed out as COVID would surely march through roster after roster. That didn't happen, though, and against all expectations even the Cardinals -- who didn't play a game from July 30 through Aug. 14 because of their outbreak -- are poised to play all 60 of their scheduled contests, depending on how a postponed doubleheader against the Tigers is rescheduled.
Obviously, it remains to be seen whether 16 teams can make it through the postseason as most of them wander outside their regional slates. That we made it this far, though, is a pleasant surprise. That's thanks in part to the safety protocols agreed upon, and it's also thanks to the players, who by and large acted responsibly and collaboratively throughout the entire uncertain process.
2. That the White Sox and Padres have been this good
The White Sox and Padres each have a deeply impressive young core. We knew that coming in. The Padres in recent years have been active in complementing the roster with veteran free agents, and the White Sox this past offseason were among the most active of teams. Each team was expected to take a step forward in 2020, but this?
Right now, the White Sox are atop the standings in the tough AL Central, and were this a 162-game season then they'd be on pace for 106 wins. The Padres, meantime, have the NL's second-best record and boast a plus-81 run differential. They'd be on a 101-win pace in a standard season. Not so long ago in this space we noted that the 2020 Padres and White Sox were on target to post two of the biggest winning percentage improvements in MLB history. Indeed, the Pads and ChiSox -- coming off respective 92- and 89-loss seasons in 2019 -- have truly exceeded even the loftiest of expectations this year.
3. That these guys have been the Cubs' biggest bats
The Cubs will almost certainly win the NL Central by a comfortable margin in their first season under manager David Ross. Not surprisingly, they're once again an above-average offensive team -- they've ranked in the top of the NL in runs scored in each of the last six seasons. How they're getting it done in 2020, though, is a bit of a shocker.
If been asked to predict the Cubs three most productive hitters coming into the 2020 season, you likely would have said, in some order, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant. And that would've been an eminently sensible prediction. Alas and alack, here's how those three core players have fared at the plate this year:
- Rizzo: 51 games, .211/.333/.389, 9 HR
- Baez: 51 games, .209/.246/.372, 7 HR
- Bryant: 30 games, .195/.286/.305, 2 HR
Suffice it to say, that's not what you expect from these three established performers who have been main characters on the Cubs' good-to-great teams of recent vintage. If you'd been shown these numbers and knew nothing else about the Cubs' 2020 season, then you probably would've tabbed them for fourth place. Instead, they'll soon clinch the flag. That's partly because the rotation has been mostly excellent, but it's also because the unlikely three names below have stepped into the void left by the three names above:
- Jason Heyward: 44 games, .297/.414/.516, 6 HR
- Ian Happ: 51 games, .269/.373/.549, 12 HR
- Jason Kipnis: 36 games, .255/.357/.447, 3 HR
Yes, that troika has in defiance of all forecasts done the heavy lifting for the Cubs' offense in 2020 (with some help from Willson Contreras). Heyward has long been a standout fielder in right, but high-level offensive production has eluded him since signing with the Cubs -- until this year. Heyward's 26 walks against 29 strikeouts is particularly impressive.
Happ has been a quality hitter at the major-league level, but he hadn't approached these heights before. Coming into 2020, he had a career OPS+ of 111. This year he's got an OPS+ of 150. As for Kipnis, Cleveland declined its option on the veteran second baseman for 2020, which led to his signing a one-year pact with his hometown Cubs. At age 33, he's having one of his strongest offensive seasons, and he's pinned down a position that was a real uncertainty for the Cubs coming into the year. Not bad for a roster afterthought.
4. That the Giants, Blue Jays, and Marlins are possibly going to the playoffs
The Giants last season lost 85 games and finished in third place in the NL West in Bruce Bochy's final season. The expectation was that 2020 would be a transition year for the rebuilding franchise and perhaps seem them fall deeper into the standings. The free agent departure of ace Madison Bumgarner and the opt-out of franchise legend catcher Buster Posey further lowered expectations, and the Giants became a near-consensus pick for last place in the division. The Giants, however, have methodically defied those forecasts. Right now, the Giants are near .500 despite having played one of the toughest schedules in all of MLB, and they're very much in the mix for one of the last two playoff spots in the NL.
As for the Blue Jays, they lost a whopping 95 games a season ago, yet at this writing they're .500 and in playoff position despite not getting all that much from phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr. The young talent base is impressive, yes, but they've arrived ahead of schedule. Sure, it's thanks in part to the fact that the AL isn't all that competitive after the top eight, but the Jays prior to Saturday's loss to the Phillies were better than 90 percent to make the postseason according to the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter). They'll almost certainly make it.
All of that, though, doesn't compare to the shock of the 2020 Marlins. A season ago, they lost 105 games, but at this writing they've improved their win percentage from .352 to .529. At three games above .500, they're solid bets to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2003 and for just the third time in franchise history. Unlike, say, the Padres, White Sox, and Blue Jays, this time a year ago the Marlins' rebuilding process didn't seem to be going all that well. In 2020, however, a number of young Miami arms appear to have leveled up in a big way.
To be sure, none of this would be possible without the expanded 16-team playoff field, but even free of that context San Fran, Toronto, and Miami would stand as pleasant surprises in 2020.
5. That the Nationals and Astros have been major disappointments
Last World Series, the Nats prevailed over the Astros in a taut seven games, and in related matters these two teams combined for 200 wins during the 2019 regular season. This season, though, baseball events have been less kind to the reigning AL and NL champs. The Nationals at this writing are 12 games below .500 and in last place in the NL East. The Astros are .500 and in playoff position, but bear in mind this team won a combined 311 games from 2017-19. They'll be heavy underdogs in the AL bracket. That's a swift decline for both squads, and it runs directly counter to what we all thought would happen.
Each has been stung by a notable free agent loss (Anthony Rendon for the Nats, Gerrit Cole for the Astros), and each has endured significant injuries this season. Even in that context, though, the results have been unexpected. In terms of winning percentage decline, the Nats look like the worst defending champs since 1998 Marlins, who cut the roster to ribbons as a cost-saving measure. To Washington's credit, the club aimed to contend in 2020; the Nats just did a poor job of it. As for Houston, owner Jim Crane, despite years of wild profitability, didn't invest in the roster at levels befitting a World Series contender. So here they are, costumed in disappointment instead of another set of rings.