- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Dave Martinez threw out a number. The Washington Nationals manager was chatting with Trea Turner when he pushed the shortstop to lead the upcoming season in stolen bases. But with only 60 games on the schedule instead of the normal 162, Martinez didn’t have any idea of how many steals it would actually take to do it.

So, he guessed.

“I said, ‘Hey, you could lead the league in stolen bases with … 30,’” Martinez said. “Who knows what could happen?”

Thirty might seem like a stretch considering Turner finished last season with 35, the fifth most in MLB and second in the National League. But Martinez’s guess hits a larger point — even those closest to the game are eager to see how a shortened season will ultimately impact the sport’s stats.

As the season gets underway Thursday with an opening day matchup between the Nationals and the New York Yankees at Nationals Park, Martinez said he and his club have spent time pondering just what the final stat lines will look like at the end of the year. How many home runs will it take to lead the majors? 17? 20? Could someone realistically hit .400?

In baseball, players, coaches and executives stress “small sample size” as frequently as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” can be heard. So what happens when the whole year is a small sample size?

“It’s going to be interesting,” Martinez said.

A different kind of Cy Young

Stephen Strasburg had a theory. Asked how the end of the year awards might be affected in a 60-game slate, the Nationals ace shifted the focus to the Cy Young and wondered if a starter would even qualify for it at all this year.

“From a pitching standpoint, maybe it’ll give some relievers an opportunity to win one,” Strasburg said. “I’m sure there are some guys out there who might be lobbying to pitch in all 60 games.”

There have only been nine instances of a reliever winning the Cy Young in MLB history — and it hasn’t been done since former Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne did it in 2003.

Starting pitchers, too, won’t see nearly the same amount of playing time. Through the first 60 games last season, Strasburg made 13 starts — a number that was matched by 23 other starting pitchers, including Washington’s Max Scherzer. Only two starters — Tampa Bay’s Ryne Stanek (17) and Colorado’s German Marquez (14) — made more appearances. Marquez led MLB in innings pitched with 90½.

Because of the reduced schedule, there are streaks that are going to be broken. ESPN noted last week that Scherzer has eight-straight seasons of at least 200 strikeouts — a feat that will be likely impossible to replicate. Even when Scherzer had a career-high 300 strikeouts in 2018, he still “only” had 133 strikeouts through Washington’s first 60 games in 13 starts, according to Baseball-Reference. That mark led the majors, but it’s far short of 200.

The bigger question facing the shortened calendar is if there are going to be any records broken and how MLB will go about recognizing them. Bob Gibson, for instance, is the only qualified starter pitcher in the last 100 years to have thrown a sub-1.50 ERA when the Hall of Famer finished the 1968 season with an absurd 1.12 ERA. (Under baseball’s qualifying formula, a pitcher must throw at least 1 inning per games played by a team. So in a 60 game season, a qualified pitcher would need to throw at least 60 innings.)

According to Baseball-Reference, there would have been seven qualified pitchers to post a sub-1.50 ERA since 2000 through 60 games: Hyun-Jin Ryu (2019), Justin Verlander (2018), Clayton Kershaw (2016), Ubaldo Jimenez (2010), Edison Volquez (2008), Pedro Martinez (2000) and Randy Johnson (2000).

Of that group, just two — Jimenez with a 0.93 ERA and Martinez with a 0.95 — would have broken Gibson’s record.

Going deep

Throughout the summer of 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire captivated baseball audiences as they sent ball after ball into the stands as they chased Roger Maris’ home run record. The race was thrilling in the moment, but over time, it lost some appeal due to the concerns whether the players’ performance was tainted. Sosa has denied using steroids but the New York Times reported in 2009 that he was one of 104 players who tested positive in 2003, during an anonymous study, while McGwire admitted to using them in 2010.

This season might not be tainted by drug use, but it could carry a similar asterisk.

A player hasn’t hit .400 since Ted Williams’ .406 average for the Boston Red Sox in 1941. But others around baseball wonder if this will be the year when it finally happens due to the smaller sample size.

“You might,” Nationals starter Patrick Corbin said. “Last year, (Los Angeles Dodgers star Cody) Bellinger was close to that.”

Over the Dodgers’ first 60 games in 2019, Bellinger did indeed come close — hitting .376 in 249 plate appearances. Bellinger’s batting average in that span, too, is the highest mark for qualified hitters since 2010. A qualified batter for the 2020 season will need at least 186 plate appearances (3.1 PA per game for every game played.)

But in the last 20 years, only one qualified player — Hall of Fame third baseman Chipper Jones — hit greater than .400 through a team’s first 60 games, according to Baseball-Reference. Jones hit a remarkable .409 for the Braves in 2008 during that stretch, and finished the year hitting .364.

As for the home run race, well, in examining data from 2010 to 2019, recent history tells us that the leader in dingers through 60 games has usually 20 home runs per season.

In 2019, three players reached the 20+ home run mark, while Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich led with 22.

“We’ve got over-and-under on who’s going to win the home run race this year,” Martinez said. “We’re constantly talking about things like that.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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