Photo by Abbie Parr
The 2020 MLB season will be a season like no other, as teams will have to maneuver for a playoff spot with only 60 games on the menu.
With 60 games making up 37% of a usual 162-game MLB slate, the common theme for the season might not be how you finish, but how you start. Due to 40 of the 60 games being within the division, a cold stretch or slow start could quickly bury a team with little hope of digging their way out.
While all teams will have to deal with adversity from the season, what team could be better equipped to tackle the regular season bull by the horns and come out victorious? On the other side of the coin, what team is most likely to scuffle under the shortened format?
To best determine a key winner and loser, it is best to look at the team’s track record in past seasons through the first 60 games, along with overall roster depth. Without further ado, let’s look at the winner and loser.
The winner: New York Yankees
Division: AL East
2019 Record: 103-59 (1st AL East)
This is a pretty chalk selection to go with here, but there is legitimate reason to select the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers over the past three seasons have been known to come out of the gates swinging, literally and figuratively. Through their first 60 games in the last three seasons (2017, 2018 and 2019), New York’s record has been 37-23, 41-19, and 38-22. The team OPS up to that point was .827, .800 and .781, respectively. While the .781 OPS for 2019 might not seem attractive, it ranked eighth among all MLB teams through June 5 last season. The offense was even more impressive considering that during the span, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton combined to collect only 172 plate appearances due to injuries. The collective depth of the lineup from top to bottom has shown the capability of the club to excel when healthy and still be productive when not at full strength.
The pitching side of the equation for New York paints a similar picture. When looking at the combined ERA totals of the starters and relievers, the Yankees through the first 60 games over the past three seasons collectively pitched to a 3.60, 3.61 and 3.83 ERA, respectively. When splitting up the starter and reliever ERA during the 2019 season, New York was even more impressive. New York’s 3.89 starter ERA through June 5 last season ranked ninth in all of baseball. Additionally, the starter’s 9.00 collective strikeouts per nine (K/9) ranked eighth. When coupled with 2.76 walks per nine (BB/9), which ranked seventh, the starting staff for New York was able to produce.
The relievers for New York were also above average, as their collective 3.74 ERA through June 5 ranked sixth in the majors. Their 10.35 K/9 ranked second, while their 3.70 BB/9 ranked 11th. However, their 1.04 homeruns per nine (HR/9) was arguably the most shocking of the statistics, as it ranked fifth in the majors. Given the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium and the increased homerun-oriented offenses today, this highlighted upon the overall filth New York relievers were able to muster together.
Even with Luis Severino out of action (Tommy John Surgery), the big-ticket offseason acquisition in Gerrit Cole will anchor a staff that should be put together solid production once more. When coupled with the return of Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton to the back end, the Yankees should be able to shoot out of the gates with intense ferocity that will prove to be helpful in a shortened season.
The loser: Cleveland Indians
Division: AL Central
2019 Record: 93-69 (2nd AL Central)
This pick might seem like a shock. However, when looking at their past three seasons, the Tribe have been close to the complete opposite of New York. How so? Simple. They have been a slow team coming out of the gate. Cleveland’s record through 60 games over the last three seasons has been 31-29, 32-28 and 30-30. When looking into the numbers on offense, their OPS of .738, .764 and .685 during those three seasons begins to exacerbate the problem even further. Last year’s .685 OPS, in particular, ranked 26th in the majors up to that point. While Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana were excellent (both had an OPS north of .900), there was weak protection around the duo, as the next best batters by OPS in that span were Jordan Luplow (.799) and Roberto Perez (.745). While they have depth on the offensive side (including that of Jose Ramirez, Franmil Reyes and Domingo Santana, among others), it is uncertain when compared to the more well-rounded Minnesota Twins, who inhabit their division.
Collectively, Cleveland pitched to a 3.97, 4.24 and 3.90 ERA, respectively, in their last three seasons through the first 60 games. In 2019, Cleveland’s starter 4.28 ERA ranked a pedestrian 15th in the majors, due in large part to underperformance from Carlos Carrasco (4.98 ERA in 12 games started) and a strained upper back muscle from Mike Clevinger (only two games started in that 60-game span). Even still, their starter K/9 of 9.95 ranked fourth through June 4 (when they completed their 60th game), while their 3.01 BB/9 ranked 11th.
Their relievers, meanwhile, possessed the second-best ERA through June 4 (3.24). While its 9.03 K/9 ranked 19th, its BB/9 of 2.55 ranked first and its HR/9 of 1.08 ranked seventh. The duo of Brad Hand and Nick Wittgren provided the bulk of the positive production in the late innings, as they pitched to a 1.09 and 2.14 ERA, respectively.
On the pitching side, it seems as if there is not that much of a problem. If that is the case, why is Cleveland a loser in the shortened season format aside from the relatively slow starts?
It has to do with who they are up against in the division. In particular, Minnesota. The Twins, who won the AL Central last season due in part to an electric offense that vaulted them to 101 wins, have more depth on offense than Cleveland. Even if Cleveland collects excellent starts from Clevinger and Shane Bieber, the offense cannot contend with the gauntlet of Minnesota, which includes Eddie Rosario, Nelson Cruz, Jorge Polanco and Josh Donaldson, among others. When adding in the mediocre 10-9 record against Minnesota last year and a resurging Chicago White Sox, Cleveland does not possess the overall depth to swiftly come out of the gates against a tougher division than it is used to.
While New York also has to contend with a deep division, they possess more depth on both sides of the ball and have been a more productive team through the first 60 games. Cleveland, meanwhile, has relied on strong pushes in the later months of the season as the games hit the 110 and 120 mark. Cleveland simply does not have the luxury of waiting this year.
The conclusions could, in fact, prove to be wrong. Perhaps the tandem of Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston proves to be more of a challenge for New York than predicted. Maybe a couple stars on offense emerge for Cleveland. Maybe COVID-19 infects a star on either team (as it has done with New York already in DJ LeMahieu) and veers the club into a downward spiral. Then again, maybe another COVID-19 outbreak derails the MLB season entirely. However, when looking at the grand picture of the track record and roster puzzles, New York looks to thrive, while Cleveland looks to scuffle and eventually falter.