Historic seasons, by definition, are unique. They’re not supposed to happen again the following year.
But look around at the current state of the game. Players are likely faster and more specialized than ever before, and the game is bent to some serious extremes in areas like strikeouts (MLB players have set a record in 11 straight years) and home runs. It’s a time ripe for new standards, and with advanced training and technology now at every player’s disposal, the extraordinary just might become more routine.
So perhaps we can suspend regression to the mean, if only for a moment, and dream about some incredible stat lines we’d be thrilled to see again in 2019. Here are nine such performances that come to mind:
Chris Sale and Max Scherzer: Six straight top-five finishes in Cy Young Award voting
If you’re beginning to feel like Sale and Scherzer are always in the Cy Young Award conversations, that’s because they have been; R.A. Dickey, Jered Weaver and Rays-era Fernando Rodney were some of the names near the top of the ballots the last time Sale and Scherzer weren’t seriously involved. Scherzer has racked up more strikeouts than anyone since 2013, and Sale is right there behind him.
We take the dominance of these two pitchers for granted, but they’re actually on the verge of something big. Plenty of Hall of Famers have dominated Cy Young Award voting in the past, but almost no one has matched this kind of consistency.
Most consecutive top-five finishes in league Cy Young Award voting
1 (tie). Greg Maddux: 7 (1992-98)
1 (tie). Clayton Kershaw: 7 (2011-17)
3 (tie). Sale: 6 (2013-18)
3 (tie). Scherzer: 6 (2013-18)
3 (tie). Roy Halladay: 6 (2006-11)
It’s so difficult for a pitcher to stay on top for more than half a decade, especially considering how hard Sale and Scherzer throw every time they take the hill. But here they are, tied with the late Halladay and just behind two more of the greatest hurlers ever. And this list makes it all the more incredible that Sale still hasn't taken home the hardware.
Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez: 80+ extra-base hits, 15+ stolen bases
There’s a seemingly endless amount of 20-homer hitters right now, while stolen bases are dwindling. Few players are still combining speed and power like this duo in Cleveland, and it’s time to pay attention to how rare this accomplishment is historically. You might not have noticed, but Lindor and Ramirez already expanded an exclusive group of three players to five in 2018.
Players with back-to-back seasons of 80+ extra-base hits and 15+ steals
Jeff Bagwell (1996-97)
Ken Griffey Jr. (1997-98)
Alfonso Soriano (2005-07)
As you can see, both Lindor and Ramirez have a chance to join Soriano as the only players to go 80/15 three straight times. If both of them reach that bar, it’s hard to envision the Tribe not taking home the American League Central crown again.
Mike Trout: 10.2 bWAR
Two of Trout’s most apparent goals entering 2018 were to improve his center-field defense and to simply avoid the fluke injuries that took him out of games the previous year. He did that, by and large, and Trout’s talent is so all-encompassing that he’s able to amass season WAR totals most players could never dream of, simply by taking the field and being Mike Trout.
Trout’s 10.2 WAR total in 2018, by Baseball-Reference’s measurement, marked his third 10-WAR season already in eight seasons. While Babe Ruth’s record of nine 10-WAR seasons is still off in the distance, Trout is keeping pace with the Bambino: Another 10-WAR season would tie him with Ruth and Rogers Hornsby with the most by any player before his age-30 season. And oh, by the way, Trout won’t turn 28 until early August -- meaning he's got three more seasons before hitting 30 in baseball terms.
*Most seasons with 10+ bWAR before age-30 campaign
*1 (tie). Rogers Hornsby: 4
1 (tie). Babe Ruth: 4
*3 (tie). Trout: 3
*3 (tie). Mickey Mantle: 3
3 (tie): Ted Williams: 3
Alex Bregman: 31 HR, 51 2B, 96 BB
No primary third baseman -- not Mike Schmidt, not George Brett, not Chipper Jones -- had ever combined 30 homers with 50 doubles … until Bregman achieved the feat in his age-24 season.
So Bregman already owns history at his position, but all those walks raised the Astros’ star into a second stratosphere. Only seven players had ever put up 30 homers, 50 doubles and 90 walks in a season before Bregman: Lance Berkman, Carlos Delgado, Lou Gehrig, Hank Greenberg, Todd Helton, Stan Musial and David Ortiz. Helton is the only one to post that combination twice -- going back-to-back in 2000 and ’01. It would be amazing to see Bregman do the same.
Juan Soto: 4 percent K-BB rate, .517 SLG
Soto had already risen two levels by the time he celebrated his 19th birthday in May with Double-A Harrisburg, and he finished 2018 with perhaps the greatest offensive season by any teen in Major League history. Soto’s 22 homers (many of them hit to the opposite field) and .517 slugging would have been impressive enough, but his most jaw-dropping skill was probably his batter’s eye. Lower numbers are better when looking at strikeout minus walk rates for hitters, and few rookies around Soto’s age have ever shown a better mix of power and discipline.
Lowest K-BB% by 21-or-under rookies with a .500+ SLG% (Min. 450 PAs)
1. Ted Williams (1939): -6.3%
2. Hal Trosky (1934): -1.3%
3. Joe DiMaggio (1936): 2.2%
4. Albert Pujols (2001): 3.6%
5. Soto (2018): 4.0%
That’s unbelievable company for a teenager to keep, showing that Soto is already elite at a skill that most young players need years to develop. With five walks compared to six strikeouts and a .423 OBP in Grapefruit League action through Sunday, it looks like Soto’s patience is here to stay.
Walker Buehler: 137.1 IP, 0.96 WHIP
Buehler entered last season with as much hype as any prospect arm, and he managed to exceed it while becoming the Dodgers’ 1-A ace. Command, aggression and premium heat helped Buehler stifle opposing offenses down to a microscopic -- and downright historic -- number of walks and hits per inning.
Live-ball era rookie starters with a sub-1.00 WHIP (Min. 120 IP)
1. Dick Hughes (1967): 0.95
2. Buehler (2018): 0.96
3. Jose Fernandez (2013): 0.98
Hughes helped the Cardinals win the 1967 World Series, then tore his rotator cuff and was done as a Major Leaguer the following season. The late Fernandez underwent Tommy John surgery after his incredible National League Rookie of the Year Award campaign. The Dodgers, meanwhile, need Buehler to buck that trend and be both healthy and dominant again for another pennant run.
Jack Flaherty: 151 IP, 29.6 percent strikeout rate
Flaherty didn’t have the cache of Buehler’s postseason spotlight, but he was just as impressive during the regular season. The righty’s hard fastball, dastardly slider and sneaky curve racked up whiffs and placed him among some bona-fide stars.
Highest strikeout rates among rookies (Min. 150 IP)
1. Kerry Wood (1998): 33.3%
2. Dwight Gooden (1984): 31.4%
3. Hideo Nomo (1995): 30.3%
4. Flaherty (2018): 29.6%
5 (tie). Fernandez (2013): 27.5%
5 (tie). Noah Syndergaard (2015): 27.5%
Those are six of the most renowned rookie pitching seasons ever. Yes, some of Flaherty’s percentage can be attributed to the rising strikeouts across baseball these days. But, as he showed in his first Spring Training start this year, the Cardinals youngster has a preternatural ability to miss bats.
No pitcher has matched Flaherty’s marks in his first and second big league seasons, so there’s a target for the right-hander. In fact, only five pitchers have even put up a 25 percent strikeout rate with 150 innings in Years 1 and 2: Yu Darvish, Gooden, Nomo, Herb Score and Syndergaard.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.