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.
In a traditional baseball season, this isn’t really possible. Even in Trout’s best years, when he was consistently putting up 10 WAR, that might’ve only moved the needle for the Angels from a 61- to a 71-win team. The reason why Trout only has one playoff hit isn’t his own fault — it’s that baseball is a team sport, and you need 24 (now 25) other guys to produce in order to play in October.
What makes 2020 different, though, is that one red-hot stretch could change that. If anyone was somehow worth 5.5 WAR in a 60-game season — demonstrated as doable, despite its improbability — that’d be practically Ruthian. Indeed, a little bit of extrapolation shows that 5.5 WAR in 60 games is roughly equivalent to 14.9 WAR in 162, a figure that would rank as the second-best season in baseball history, behind only the Babe himself.
That might be somewhat far-fetched for this thought exercise, but even a 5 WAR season over 60 games is much more in play than a 13 WAR season over 162. That’s part of the beauty of a shortened season — we’ve basically turned the “randomness setting” all the way up. Who knows what will happen in actuality; that’s why we still have to play the games.
The 66-day, 60-game regular season is bound to be weird. How weird, though, still remains to be seen — does this mean someone like Kole Calhoun, given enough luck, could put up 5 WAR in 60 games? I don’t know. But if we look at the first 66 days of the 2019 season, taking us from Opening Day on March 28 through games on June 1, this is what the WAR leaderboard looked like:
While it’s not a perfect measure, five of the top 10 WAR leaders 66 days into the 2019 regular season remained inside the top 10 by the end of the year. Chapman finished the year in 11th, and Arenado rounded out in 13th. So, for as much as we’d like to think 60 games is random, there’s still some comfort to be taken in the fact that our WAR leaderboard looked like this at a similar point last season.
What does all of this mean? Barring unforeseen circumstances, if there is going to be a guy who single handedly carries his team to the postseason, it’s probably not going to be someone we’ve never heard about. There are too many games; it will almost certainly be an established star. But, on the flip side, there are a small enough number of games to invite this possibility in the first place. The error bars are large; a Ruthian-style 2020 season may not be out of the question. If someone manages to put one up, their team will likely be postseason bound.
A guess on a pick like this? In order of how likely I see it happening, here are my picks for potential 2020 team-carriers: