The 2020 baseball season will be unlike any other season in MLB history. It will be only 60 games because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there will be a universal DH, and extra innings will start with a runner on second base to speed things along. Opening Day is scheduled for July 23. This will be the shortest season in baseball history and it's not even close.
What will happen when the season begins? No one knows, really. The hitters might be ahead of the pitchers and thus a lot of runs will be scored, or maybe it'll be the opposite, with runs hard to come by because pitchers are ahead of the hitters. Baseball shut down for more than three months not long after spring training started. What happens next is anyone's guess.
What we do know is some players perform differently at different times of the year. We've all seen players with a history of starting slowly before getting hot late, and vice versa. With that in mind, let's look at three hitters who have excelled in August and September in recent years. In theory, these are the players with the best chance to put up big numbers in 2020. Next week we'll tackle pitchers.
In his relatively brief time as a big leaguer Matt Olson has emerged as an impact all-around player for the Athletics. He's a two-time Gold Glover -- Olson leads all first basemen with 31 defensive runs saved the last two years -- and he's slugged 89 home runs in 359 big-league games. Olson's a true difference-maker.
The 26-year-old Olson has always shown a tendency to start the season a little slowly (relatively speaking) before getting locked in and putting up big numbers later in the season. Here are his career numbers:
- August and September: .271/.359/.552 in 621 plate appearances
- All other months: .241/.331/.482 in 830 plate appearances
Olson has been very good March through July in his career. That .241/.331/.482 batting line is approximately 20 percent better than league average when adjusted to ballpark. August and September is when Olson has his most success though. His .271/.359/.552 batting line is roughly 43 percent better than average those two months.
"I have a better understanding of what (pitchers) are trying to do," Olson told NBC Sports Bay Area's Ben Ross last September. "I've known that I've always had this kind of consistency in the tank but it's been something that I've never fully tapped into. I feel like I'm just starting to do it and hopefully can continue it as long as possible."
Olson has admitted it can take him some time to get locked in with his swing, leading to those slow -- "slow" -- starts. That leads me to believe his great August and September numbers will not automatically result in big production during the 60-game season. Then again, I doubt Olson has been sitting on his couch these last three months. His swing may be locked in already.
It's taken a little longer than I think most expected when he signed out of Cuba in 2012, but Cubs-turned-Royals slugger Jorge Soler broke out as a bonafide star last season. He became the first Royals player ever to lead the league in home runs, when he slugged 48 homers and appeared in all 162 games.
Injuries and minor-league demotions have been a theme throughout Soler's career. So too has immense production during the final two months of the season. That dates back to his time with Chicago too. This isn't a one-year blip. Look at Soler's career numbers:
- August and September: .282/.370/.579 in 544 plate appearances
- All other months: .243/.322/.435 in 1,267 plate appearances
Even after adjusting for ballpark, Soler has been a perfectly league-average hitter in the first four months of the season throughout his career. And because he's a poor defensive outfielder who now spends most of his time at DH, league average won't cut it offensively, hence all the trips to Triple-A earlier in his career.
The final two months is when Soler typically hits his stride. The .282/.370/.579 batting line is tremendous regardless of position and is approximately 49 percent better than league average when factoring in ballpark. Soler was an important part of the 2016 World Series champion Cubs thanks to his .258/.348/.515 batting line in August and September last year. Those are his months.
"He's still improving," Royals bench coach Pedro Grifol told Lynn Worthy of the Kansas City Star in February. "Obviously, he had a great season home run wise and he put consistent at-bats together, but he's still improving. He's still learning the strike zone. There's adjustments that he still needs to make. So I'm looking forward to this season, just watching him continue to improve and build on what he did last year."
Unlike the other two players in this post, Soler does not play for a team expected to contend in 2020. He is only a year away from free agency, however, and he'll hit the market at age 29. Even as a most-of-the-time DH, there will be a big market for his power. Being able to carry that August and September production over into the other four months of the season is the single best thing Soler can do to improve his stock between now and free agency.
Can you believe 2020 will be Justin Turner's seventh season with the Dodgers? It feels like he was non-tendered by the Mets just last week. Turner revamped his swing after being cut loose by the Mets in December 2013 and the Dodgers have reaped the rewards. He's been excellent -- and clutch -- since arriving in Los Angeles.
Now 35, Turner has settled into a bit of a pattern of starting slow before heating up late the last few seasons. Perhaps that can be attributed to age. Bat speed slips with age, it's inevitable, and Turner needs some time to see what he has and make the necessary adjustments. I'm just speculating though. Here are his numbers from 2018-19, the cold hard facts:
- August and September: .334/.420/.610 in 374 plate appearances
- All other months: .278/.366/.453 in 601 plate appearances
From March through July, Turner has produced at an All-Star level, with a slash line that is roughly 21 percent better than league average once adjusted for ballpark. Fast forward to August and September, and Turner produces like an MVP candidate. That .334/.420/.610 batting line is a whopping 75 percent better than the league average.
The Dodgers, maybe moreso than any other team, are built to withstand a slow start by one of their stars. They have enviable depth and more than enough players to pick up the slack. Turner has never really been bad with Los Angeles, though there are times he plays like Superman, and lately they've been late in the season. Sixty games of August and September Turner in 2020 would be pretty exciting for the Dodgers.