The Major League Baseball season is supposed to be two weeks old at this point.
Some random team will inexplicably be off to a ridiculously fast start before its season derails – see last season’s Seattle Mariners who started 13-2 and finished the year with a 68-94 record – while another club would splutter early in the season’s infancy before finding its footing – look no further than the 2019 World Series champions, the Washington Nationals, who were a game under .500 after 15 games and in fourth place in the NL East.
Two weeks into the season, as well, there’s bound to be a number of players who are playing much better than the backs of their baseball card would indicate before they come crashing back down to earth.
After 14 games of the 2019 season, career .275 hitter Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers was batting .414, while current Cincinnati Reds shortstop Freddy Galvis, a career .248 hitter with a .384 slugging percentage – the 10th lowest of the 117 active players with at least 3,000 plate appearances – was batting .375 while slugging .708.
While two weeks is a relatively small sample size in terms of the baseball season as all hitters go on hot streaks and endure slumps – even 2019 AL MVP Mike Trout had a .217/.368/.348 slash line with a home run and six RBI over a 13-game stretch from April 23-May 8 last season – two months is not considered a small portion of the season.
Two months, however, is how long it appears the start of the MLB season will be pushed back by after the coronavirus pandemic put a halt on sports and everyday life.
At this point, it’s really anyone’s guess how the 2020 season will look in terms of when it starts, how late it goes, how many games will be played and if games will be played in empty stadiums.
Assuming the 2020 season goes ahead, whatever format is concocted will undoubtedly produce several unique storylines with the potential of expanded rosters, numerous doubleheaders and a condensed schedule.
A season not starting until June or July will certainly have an effect on a number of hitters. Some players routinely get off to slow starts and need some time to find their groove. In the event of a 100-game schedule, those potential slow starters who don’t get comfortable until they get 150 at-bats could be in trouble.
On the flip side, some hitters have their greatest success in April and May before their seasons tails off, and now they won’t have the benefit of playing in the months where they’ve historically thrived.
The weather will also play an interesting role in the season. Players in the cold-weather cities won’t have to get started wearing ski masks under their batting helmets and parkas on the bench.
Here’s a look at some possible situations and how they could benefit or hurt specific hitters.
Hitter-Friendly Coors Field? The Friendly Confines?
One thing that is unlikely to be seen this regular season is the grounds crew at Coors Field shovelling snow off the Colorado Rockies’ playing field – unless, of course, the season is scheduled to go until December.
Regardless of the weather in Denver in April and May, Colorado All-Stars Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are probably going to be okay not playing early season home games.
Arenado homered just once in 61 at-bats in his first 15 home games last season, while Story averaged a home run every 15.8 at-bats through his first 20 games played in Colorado in 2019. The two then took advantage of the thin air in Colorado, as Arenado hit 20 homes in 62 home games the rest of the way and Story slashed .336/.411/.691, while averaging a homer every 11.4 at-bats in the rest of the Rockies’ home games.
Another NL All-Star who plays in a cold-weather city, the Chicago Cubs and Las Vegas native Kris Bryant, probably isn’t going to do much complaining about not playing games at Wrigley Field in April. In 43 career April games at Wrigley, Bryant is batting .252 while slugging .429 with four home runs.
Leave your long underwear and hand warmers at home
The Atlanta Braves were scheduled to play at the New York Mets next week and Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud probably wasn’t looking forward to a Citi Field homecoming if cold weather was in the forecast.
In games with temperatures 10 degrees Celsius or less, d’Arnaud is batting .132 in 53 at-bats, and his .344 OPS in such games is the lowest among active players with at least 50 career plate appearances in temperatures so cold.
Chicago White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez had a solid MLB debut in 2019, hitting 31 home runs – third most by a rookie in franchise history – but not one of those longballs came in the cold weather.
Jimenez had a .348 OPS in games with temperatures 10 degrees Celsius or less, and among hitters with at least 25 plate appearances in such games last season, only the Toronto Blue Jays’ Brandon Drury had a lower OPS at .316.
As the weather warmed, though, Jimenez found success at the plate, compiling an .865 OPS in games when the temperature was 10 degrees Celsius or more. That improvement of .517 in OPS from cold-weather games to warm-weather games was the largest in baseball last season among hitters with at least 25 at-bats with temperatures 10 degrees Celsius or less.
Good news for Jimenez is that it should be warmer than 10 degrees Celsius in Chicago come the summer months.
Extend spring training through May – maybe June
Free agent outfielder Yasiel Puig can’t use the weather as an excuse for his slow starts in recent seasons seeing as he’s spent much of that time calling Southern California home. Of major league players with a minimum of 1,200 plate appearances since 2016, Puig’s .672 OPS through the end of May ranks 222nd. From June through the end of the season over the past four years, he has an .878 OPS. That difference in OPS from pre-June to June and after of .206 is the largest increase in the majors.
Perhaps his mid-season surge is the reason he still remains unsigned as teams are simply waiting for the calendar to turn to June to maximise his production.
One of Puig’s team-mates last season with the Cleveland Indians, Jose Ramirez, had a disastrous first three months of 2019 before finding his stroke.
Coming off a 2018 season in which he finished third in the AL MVP voting, Ramirez stumbled out of the gate in 2019 – and well up to the season’s mid-point – hitting .214 with five home runs and a .634 OPS through the end of June. Out of 135 batting qualifiers his OPS ranked 131st.
He then started to hit like the player who made a run for MVP the previous season, batting.321 with 18 homers and a 1.078 OPS from July on – fourth highest OPS in baseball among batting qualifiers. The improvement in OPS of .444 since the start of July was the largest in baseball among qualifiers in a single season since 1985, when Cleveland’s Andre Thornton had an improvement in OPS of .471 after July 1.
While Ramirez’s 2019 season was a bit of an outlier compared to his previous few seasons, the Houston Astros’ Yuli Gurriel has notoriously been a slow starter who doesn’t heat up at the plate until July.
Gurriel had eight home runs through the end of June last season before nearly tripling that production the rest of the way, clubbing 23 in the season’s final three months.
In his career, Gurriel has a .736 OPS with 20 homers in 211 games before July compared to a .905 OPS with 42 home runs in 208 games in July and later. Since 2017, he’s averaging a homer once every 41.7 at-bats before July and one every 18.9 at-bats after July 1, and that difference of 22.8 at-bats per homer is the biggest improvement in baseball among the 130 major leaguers with at least 50 homers in that time frame.
With the season not expected to start until the middle of summer, will Gurriel immediately start off swinging a hot bat or will he still need more time?
On the flip side, the 2020 season cannot start soon enough for some
While Gurriel entered June of last season with all of four homers and a .712 OPS – good enough for 111th out of 135 qualifying batters – the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Josh Bell was making a strong case for the NL MVP.
Bell entered last June batting .343 with 18 homers and a 1.109 OPS, while leading the majors with 40 extra-base hits and 52 RBI. His production fell off dramatically over the next four months, as he hit .232 with 19 home runs, 37 extra-base hits and 64 RBI with an .818 OPS.
All-in-all, Bell still had a terrific season in 2019, but without those astounding first two months, his season totals would certainly take a big hit. Last season, though, may have been an aberration for Bell as his performance at the plate in his first two full big-league seasons were consistent across all months.
Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jean Segura, however, year after year is his most productive at the plate in the season’s first two months before experiencing a sharp decline.
Segura routinely comes out of spring training feasting on opposing pitchers, owning a .343 batting average through 10 games played in the seven major league seasons that he’s broken camp on the big-league roster.
He continues to roll through the end of May, having compiled a .315 pre-June career batting average. Among the active players with at least 3,000 plate appearances, only the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera has a higher pre-June batting average at .322.
Once the calendar flips to June, though, Segura begins to struggle mightily. His .259 career batting average in June is .061 lower than his May average of .320 and that is the third-largest drop-off from May to June in the live-ball era among hitters with at least 3,000 plate appearances.
Things don’t get a lot better for Segura at the plate in July, August and September either, as he’s hitting .271 in his career from June through the end of the season. His .044 drop-off in batting average, as well as his .112 decline in OPS from pre-June (.808) to June through the end of the season (.696), are the largest in baseball among active players with at least 3,000 plate appearances.
Can Segura still get off to his normal hot start at the plate, or because the calendar won’t read April or May will he begin with his regular June struggles?
The state of the 2020 season is still a mystery. Once it’s determined it’s safe to play games, the league will devise what will surely be an unprecedented schedule.
And once the schedule is set, then it will be all about how players adapt and how they’ll perform under different circumstances from situations and scenarios not previously seen. The 2020 season will be unlike any other and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
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