In the world of baseball fandom, the bullpen is a stressor. Though some may have more confidence in their relief arms than others, there’s always a little voice in the back of one’s head going, “God, his only job is to not blow this lead. I hope we score more runs.” And since humans are imperfect, leads are blown. In 2019, there were 687 blown saves. It happens. But, in 2020, those blown saves are each 2.7 times more important — through just four days of the season, it’s pretty evident that the middle reliever-induced stress has been heightened substantially.
That raises some interesting questions. Does the bullpen become more important this season? If so, does it impact every team equally? How can we attempt to understand the impact of the bullpen in a 60-game season? Will teams with better bullpens be at a more significant advantage than normal?
Baseball returns this week, and if nothing else, it’s going to be a wild year. A 60-game season means that we’re starting in the thick of the pennant race, one in which pretty much every team has a shot at playing in October. There are 22 teams this year that I would not be surprised to see make the playoffs, meaning that these predictions could become garbage in just a few weeks.
Regardless, I took a stab at predicting the standings, postseason and major award winners. I will not be predicting Comeback Player of the Year because that award is just a backhanded compliment.
Here we go…
The designated hitter is coming to the National League this season, marking the first time baseball’s Senior Circuit will fail to see pitchers put up their collective .120/.120/.120 line. That should tell you where my opinion stands on the matter.
Because this rule change was rather abrupt (and may only be for the 2020 season regardless), teams in the National League did not get the opportunity to construct their roster accordingly. They did not go into an offseason where they could target specific free agents to serve as their DH. Rather, they have to deal with the players currently on their roster, unless they want to make a last-ditch effort to fill this role now that transactions are unfrozen. Either way, as a result, they are left at a significant disadvantage when compared to their American League counterparts.
At a minimum, this quirk gives NL teams some options. For a team like the Dodgers, which seemingly has an entire roster full of starting-caliber bats, flexibility is added. For the Nationals, Howie Kendrick has an opportunity to play more often. For the Mets, this could mean a return of Yoenis Cespedes for the first time since 2018.
When each team sits down to consider plans for their DH slot in 2020, one important question will need to be asked: Should we make the DH position a permanent starting spot, à la J.D. Martinez and the Red Sox, or should we rotate the position to allow players de facto “days off” while keeping their bats in the lineup?
Considering what I said above about NL teams’ inability to plan for this shift in the rules, the general answer is pretty clearly the latter: Use the DH as a rest spot. But that’s not the end of the story. Let’s consider what exactly makes this the obvious answer.
Baseball is going to look different this year for a host of reasons, but one change that was coming — pandemic or not — was the three-batter minimum rule for pitchers.
Officially implemented at last year’s Winter Meetings in San Diego, pitchers who enter games this season will be required to face a minimum of three batters or pitch to the end of a half-inning, with exceptions due to injury or illness. The rationale behind this change is to limit the number of mid-inning pitching changes, in hopes of shortening the length of games. Critics ripped the rule change for eliminating strategy, while others pointed out that baseball’s strategy would be merely different.
“I think it’s good for baseball,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo told Forbes in February. “It’ll keep the game moving. It’ll possibly create a little more offense. You’re going to be able to stack your lineup a certain way to get the matchup you want to get. There’s more creativity and strategy to it and I always like that.”
Part of the new creativity is to evaluate relievers’ performance against batters of both handedness. Dominant pitchers such as Kirby Yates will hardly be impacted — Yates allowed a .245 wOBA against lefties versus a .208 wOBA against righties — but left-handed one out guys (LOOGYs) could become a thing of the past. Unless, of course, they can actually get out batters of both handedness.
Soon after Mike Trout broke into the league, he put up the best 60-game stretch of his career thus far. On Aug. 6, 2012, Trout completed a 60-game stretch that saw him produce a whopping 5.6 WAR, a figure that would have ranked as the 17th-highest full-season total in 2019. From May 28 to Aug. 6, Trout hit .368/.431/.644, homered 15 times, stole 28 bases and played his usually-solid defense in center field.
The WAR leaders during that roughly two-month stretch looked like this:
Trout was more than two wins better than the player who produced the fourth-most WAR during this period, one in which the Angels went 35-26, a record that would likely earn them a postseason spot in 2020. (Note: In this time, the Angels played 61 games, but Trout only appeared in 60.)
It’s not just Trout, either. In 2015, Bryce Harper had a 60-game stretch where he produced 4.9 WAR. In 2018, Mookie Betts had a 60-game stretch of 5.1 WAR. Last year, Cody Bellinger put up a 60-game stretch where he was worth 4.4 WAR. Christian Yelich, too, can join in on this party — he had a 60-game stretch from the end of 2018 through the beginning of 2019 that saw him produce 5.8 WAR.
All of this is to say one thing: The 2020 baseball season is going to be unlike any other. But we already knew this. What we don’t know, however, is which players (if any) are going to put the team on their back by putting up scorching numbers in such a short period of time.