A 60-game season may have changed some awards

July 1st, 2020

The 2020 season, weird as it should be, will still in all likelihood yield some award winners. The strike-shortened 1994 and ‘95 MVP seasons featured the full gamut of Baseball Writers' Association of America awards, as did the abbreviated ‘81 campaign.

But this summer’s 60-game sprint will be shorter than any season in the Modern Era, so if you thought predicting award winners for a normal 162-game slate was difficult, 2020 could be truly as unpredictable as it gets. The front-runners -- Mike Trout, Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, etc. -- should all be in the mix, health permitting, but the lead-horse status in awards races usually changes hands several times over a six-month marathon. This year, voters will only get a two-month snapshot of the sport’s “best players.”

To illustrate how much awards races can fluctuate in a season, we’ve looked back at the last decade of baseball and pulled out the 10 that would have looked the most different had the season simply ended after the first 60 games. To do so, we identified the calendar date in which all 30 teams had completed at least 60 contests (all of the dates fell on either the first or second week in June). Here are who the MVP or Cy Young Award winners might have been with circumstances similar to this year, along with one player you might have totally forgotten was in the running after 60 games.

2018 National League MVP

The 60-game front-runners: Freddie Freeman, Braves; Nolan Arenado, Rockies
Eventual winner: Christian Yelich, Brewers
MLB.com’s poll of 37 reporters and editors positioned Freeman (.336/.430/.560, NL-best 161 wRC+) and Arenado (.324/.416/.566), the NL’s top two leaders in fWAR, at the top of the race through early June, but Yelich didn’t receive a single vote for any of the top three spots. The outfielder was hitting a perfectly respectable .303/.373/.488, but he had only eight home runs at the time. From that point forward, roughly 44% of Yelich’s fly balls cleared the fence for dingers, more than enough to make him the runaway MVP.

Remember that? Scooter Gennett, Reds
Days removed from his out-of-nowhere four-homer game for Cincinnati at this point in time, Gennett’s OPS sat at .951 and he ranked third in the NL in WAR. He fell off to a .779 OPS the rest of the way.

2018 AL Cy Young

The 60-game front-runners: Justin Verlander, Astros; Corey Kluber, Indians
Eventual winner: Blake Snell, Rays
Snell was also shut out of MLB.com’s early June Cy Young poll, understandable considering the pedigree of names like Verlander, Kluber and Gerrit Cole on the top of observers’ minds at that point. But Snell, pitching for the smaller-market Rays, was certainly already in the mix as he ranked among the league’s top 10 in wins, ERA and strikeouts. A torrid stretch run (14-2, 1.55 ERA, 133 K’s in 104 1/3 IP) helped Snell upset Verlander on the final ballot.

Remember that? Luis Severino, Yankees
Here’s a reminder that when Severino is healthy -- an unfortunate rarity over the last two years -- he has extreme potential. New York’s emerging fireballer was 9-1 with a 2.20 ERA and 102 strikeouts across his first 13 starts.

2017 AL Cy Young

The 60-game front-runner: Chris Sale, Red Sox
Eventual winner: Corey Kluber, Indians
It was getting late early as Sale (8-2, 2.97 ERA, 126 K’s in 91 IP) was more than 1 WAR clear of the rest of the AL field and looked like the runaway pick for his first career Cy Young Award in his debut season for Boston. But that was before the Klubot activated one of the most dominant stretch runs of the decade. Kluber went 13-2 with a 1.57 ERA and 206 strikeouts in 154 1/3 innings from this point forward, using that late kick to claim his second AL Cy Young Award.

Remember that? Jason Vargas, Royals
There was some down-ballot support at the time for the 34-year-old Vargas -- he of the mid-80s fastball -- who was painting corners brilliantly while starting the year 8-3 with a 2.18 ERA for Kansas City. While the league caught up to him, Vargas still finished 2017 with an AL-most 18 wins.

2017 NL MVP

The 60-game front-runners: Bryce Harper, Nationals; Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals; Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs
Eventual winner: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
No NL player had accumulated 3 WAR through the 60-team game mark, and it ultimately ended with one of the closest finishes in MVP history. It was a race desperate for a narrative to break through, and what could be better than a player chasing the Great Bambino? Stanton was a down-ballot contender at this spot on the calendar, days before he began his best Babe Ruth impersonation and ripped off the best slugging stretch of the decade with 43 homers over his last 98 games. His year-end total of 59 dingers was enough to squeak past Joey Votto and Goldschmidt in the final tally.

Remember that? Zack Cozart, Reds
Perhaps you remember the donkey more than anything, but Cozart deserved his spot on the NL All-Star roster. The shortstop sat just behind Goldschmidt atop the NL WAR rankings at the 60-game pole as his OPS hovered near 1.000.

2016 AL Cy Young

The 60-game front-runners: Chris Sale, White Sox
Eventual winner: Rick Porcello, Red Sox
Sale earned a win in each of his first nine starts, becoming just the fourth pitcher since 1950 to pull off that feat. By the 60-team game mark, he led the league with 10 wins and appeared to be the slight favorite in a crowded field. But pitcher wins would also help Sale’s future Red Sox teammate, Porcello, come out of relative obscurity to claim the Cy Young with a sterling 22-4 record by season’s end.

Remember that? Steven Wright, Red Sox
Wright was the more likely Red Sox pick in early June. The knuckleballer was in the midst of a career year that he has yet to repeat for Boston, sitting 7-4 with a 2.09 ERA at this point of the 2016 season.

2015 NL Cy Young

The 60-game front-runners: Max Scherzer, Nationals; Gerrit Cole, Pirates; Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Eventual winner: Jake Arrieta, Cubs
Arrieta was pitching well at the 60-game mark, but he had some giant marquee names to overcome at the top of the race. Scherzer was more than 1 WAR clear of Kershaw, the reigning Cy Young winner, at the top, and Cole stood 10-2 with a 1.71 ERA in a breakout season for the Pirates. It would take a sterling stretch run for Arrieta to rise victorious, and that’s just what the right-hander did, ripping off a second half (16-1, 0.86 ERA over his last 20 starts) reminiscent of Bob Gibson’s 1968 season, with a Sunday night no-hitter at Dodger Stadium for good measure.

Remember that? A.J. Burnett, Pirates
After 60 team games, the NL ERA standings featured a pair of Bucs at the top: Cole and Burnett, who started 6-2 with a 1.89 ERA across his first 13 starts. The 38-year-old would earn his lone All-Star selection in his 17th and final season.

2014 NL MVP Award

The 60-game front-runner: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Eventual winner: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Oh, for the days when peak Tulo reigned supreme. This would be a star-crossed season for the Colorado superstar, who topped the NL in average (.354), OBP (.444), slugging (.675) and WAR (4.1) and shared the homer lead with Stanton at the 60-team game marker. Tulowitzki would put up 5.1 WAR across just 91 games -- one of the best seasons of 100 games or fewer in history -- before needing season-ending surgery on his left hip.

Meanwhile, Kershaw also went on the injured list (for the first time in his career) in April with back pain, but he came back to win 16 of his last 17 decisions, including a no-hitter against Tulo’s Rockies on June 18. It was enough to net Kershaw both his third career NL Cy Young Award and the NL MVP Award.

Remember that? Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
Kershaw was not the talk of Los Angeles in the early going. Instead it was Puig, who built upon a strong debut the previous summer and smashed out of the gate with a 189 wRC+, second only to Tulowitzki. Though Puig would cool off as the summer wore on, his cult-hero status was cemented in this stretch.

2013 NL MVP Award

The 60-game front-runners: Yadier Molina, Cardinals; Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies; Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs
Eventual winner: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Molina, once considered a defense-only catcher, was hitting .354. Tulowitzki was slugging .654 and trailed only Rockies teammate Carlos Gonzalez in the homer department. And Goldschmidt was breaking out into the perennial MVP candidate to which fans would soon become accustomed. McCutchen wasn’t terribly far behind, but as the face of a Pirates franchise that hadn’t made the postseason in 20 years, he had some work to do. Cutch got to work, batting .338, posting a .982 OPS, pacing the NL in WAR and leading Pittsburgh back into October.

Remember that? Carlos Gómez, Brewers
After a tepid start, Gómez ripped off a torrid .352/.398/.653 stretch from April 14 through June 10 to position himself right behind Molina in NL WAR at the 60-game mark. He finished 2013 with career-best totals in homers (24), steals (40), OPS (.843) and WAR (6.7).

2012 NL MVP Award

The 60-game front-runners: Carlos Beltrán, Cardinals; Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies; David Wright, Mets; Joey Votto, Reds
Eventual winner: Buster Posey, Giants
The former NL Rookie of the Year Award winner was off to a strong start, but the San Francisco catcher was competing with some gaudy numbers put up by Beltrán (19 homers), Gonzalez (.616 SLG), Wright (1.028 OPS) and Votto (1.131 OPS). So, Posey went and put up his own big number: a Major-League best .336 average that made him the NL’s first batting champ behind the plate in 70 years. Throw in terrific defense and an NL West division title for the Giants, and Posey walked away with the MVP.

Remember that? Michael Bourn, Braves
Stolen base king? Sure, Bourn was coming off three straight NL steal titles, averaging 58 per season from 2009-11. But MVP candidate? After a red-hot start to 2012 (.319/.368/.459), Bourn ranked fourth in NL WAR at the 60-team game mark.

2010 AL Cy Young Award

The 60-game front-runners: David Price, Rays; Jon Lester, Red Sox; Francisco Liriano, Twins
Eventual winner: Félix Hernández, Mariners
Fans familiar with the mythology of King Félix know the history he set in 2010, when the Mariners ace claimed his only Cy Young Award despite a 13-12 record. After 60 team games, Hernández’s chances seemed pretty remote as he had a losing record (3-5) and a pedestrian 3.77 ERA. He had to be special the rest of the way to impress voters, and he was, posting a 1.48 ERA, 2.69 FIP and a 153-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio across his last 21 starts.

Remember that? Phil Hughes, Yankees
Hughes was fresh off an accomplished season as Mariano Rivera’s setup man for the 2009 World Series champion Yankees, but New York moved him back to the rotation for '10. The move paid off big, at least for one year, as Hughes won eight of his first nine decisions and would finish the year with 18 victories.