Before the 2020 season began, the baseball world wondered what sorts of amazing stats the 60-game schedule might produce. The smaller the sample size, the greater the chance for extreme results.
In the end, no qualified batter hit .400, and no qualified pitcher bested Bob Gibson’s legendary 1.12 ERA from 1968.
But that doesn’t mean this out-of-the-ordinary season didn’t deliver some eye-popping numbers -- whether they were record-breaking or just plain strange. Here are nine wild stat lines that deserve another look before the calendar flips to 2021.
Juan Soto gets Ruthian
Line: .351/.490/.695 (212 OPS+)
An obvious caveat, which applies to all of these players: A 60-game season does not make for an apples-to-apples comparison with a typical one. Beyond that, Soto also missed some time, playing a total of 47 games, and so none of this is to say that his 2020 campaign should actually be considered next to some of the great offensive seasons in baseball history.
Now, with that out of the way, just look at that slash line. At age 21, Soto led the National League in batting average, OBP and slugging and also finished first in MLB in the latter two categories. (Only DJ LeMahieu topped him in average, at .364). The only other hitters in the Modern Era (since 1900) to have a qualified season in which they reached all three of those numbers? Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Rogers Hornsby.
And what about that OPS+, which adjusts for ballpark and the league’s offensive environment, with 100 as average? Since Ruth’s day, only Williams, Mickey Mantle, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire and Bonds have reached 212. (No wonder Soto got a Teddy Ballgame comp for 2021).
José Iglesias hits and hits and hits
Line: .373/.400/.556 with three walks
Iglesias entered the season with a .273 career average, so beating that by 100 points -- albeit in just 150 plate appearances -- is notable enough. Then you factor in that he was actually hit by a pitch more times (four) than he walked, with free passes accounting for a miniscule 5% of the times he reached base safely.
One might think we’ve never seen a season quite like that -- an average above .370, with an OBP less than 40 points higher. In fact, a Hall of Famer did something similar 23 years earlier.
José Iglesias, 2020: 150 PA, .373/.400/.556 (.956 OPS)
Tony Gwynn, 1997: 651 PA, .372/.409/.547 (.957 OPS)
Carlos Santana walks and walks and walks
Line: .199/.349/.350 with 47 walks
The perfect complement to Iglesias, Santana led the American League in walks while notching just 41 hits. In the past 30 years, the only other player to have a qualified season in which at least 52% of his times on base came from free passes was Bonds -- back when teams almost entirely stopped pitching to him in the early 2000s.
The result here was an odd sight: an average below the Mendoza Line but an OBP near .350. No qualified player had done that since 1913, and the last before Santana to do it in at least 250 plate appearances was Oakland’s Lance Blankenship in 1993 (.190 BA, .363 OBP).
Ronald Acuña Jr. is way above average
Line: .250/.406/.581 (155 OPS+)
The idea that batting average isn’t everything -- and in fact can be quite misleading -- has permeated the sport for a while now. (“Moneyball,” the book, is 17 years old, after all). That’s fortunate, because it means we can fully appreciate how good Acuña was in 2020, when he ranked 89th among qualifiers in average (tied with Tommy Edman) but ninth in OPS (tied with AL MVP José Abreu).
Previously, no player in the Modern Era had gone to the plate at least 200 times in a season, batted .250 or below and yet posted a slugging percentage, OPS or OPS+ as high as Acuña.
Byron Buxton puts the ‘S’ in ‘OPS’
Line: .254/.267/.577 with two walks
Buxton finished with a stellar 124 OPS+ over 135 plate appearances, but how he got there was … unorthodox. This was pretty much the definition of “all or nothing.” Buxton struck out 36 times against his two walks, and 13 of his 33 hits were homers.
Never before had a player posted an OBP below .280 and a slugging percentage above .550 in a season with at least 100 PA. Buxton also set a record by having 35% of his total times reaching base safely come via the home run ball.
Nick Madrigal's 3-peat
Line: .340/.376/.369 with three extra-base hits
If Buxton was all or nothing, Madrigal was the opposite. Some or ... some? (We need a better term for that). In any case, the White Sox rookie was a breath of fresh air in the context of 2020 baseball -- a throwback player.
Of the more than 300 hitters who came to the plate 100-plus times, Madrigal had the second-lowest strikeout rate, the 13th-lowest walk rate and the second-lowest isolated power figure, while 78% of his total times on base came via singles. (MLB average was about 42%). As MLB.com’s Sarah Langs noted, only one qualified player since 1956 -- the Marlins’ Luis Castillo in 2000 -- has batted at least .330 with an OBP higher than his SLG.
Shane Bieber dominates
Line: 1.63 ERA, .494 opponents' OPS, 41.1% strikeout rate
It was clear that the shortened season would create opportunities for pitching excellence, and the Cleveland ace capitalized to take home AL Cy Young Award honors. In half of his 12 starts, Bieber didn’t allow an earned run, producing an ERA that no qualified pitcher has beaten since Hall of Famer Greg Maddux in 1994. The last to best the .167/.229/.265 slash line against him was Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez in 2000, when he produced arguably the greatest pitching season of all time.
Meanwhile, Bieber racked up double-digit strikeouts eight times, finishing with 122 K’s in 77 1/3 innings. That gave him a K-rate more than 1 percentage point higher than the single-season record set by Gerrit Cole the year before (39.9%).
Devin Williams is a K machine
Line: 0.33 ERA, .086 FIP, 53.0% strikeout rate
How overwhelming was the NL Rookie of the Year and his “Airbender” changeup? The Brewers reliever faced 100 batters in 2020, and 53 struck out. Just 18 reached base safely. No pitcher had previously faced that many batters in a season while producing a higher K-rate, as Williams edged flamethrowing closer Aroldis Chapman (52.5% in 2014, albeit in twice as many opportunities).
Among that group, Williams’ FIP was surpassed only by Craig Kimbrel in 2012, and his ERA was the lowest since Earl Moore threw 26 scoreless innings for the 1908 Phillies. (This is an excuse to report that Moore was nicknamed “Crossfire,” for his unorthodox delivery, while also spectacularly dubbing himself “Steam Engine in Boots.”)
Robbie Ray embraces the ‘true outcomes’
Line: 11.8 K/9, 7.8 BB/9, 2.3 HR/9
We often talk about the “three true outcomes” (strikeouts, walks and home runs) in terms of hitters. (Think Joey Gallo, or in the previous generation, Adam Dunn). But what about pitchers? The ever-confounding Ray faced 251 batters in 2020, and just over half of them did one of those three things, with the lefty managing to issue 11 more walks than any other pitcher without even throwing enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. (For the sake of one comparison, Kyle Hendricks had a three true outcomes rate of 26%).
Not only had no pitcher with at least 50 innings previously matched Ray’s 2020 numbers, but none had even come close. Even lowering the thresholds to 10 K/9, 6 BB/9 and 2 HR/9, Ray stands all alone in baseball history.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.