At this point in the offseason, we have plenty of time to reflect on the past year.
With the calendar flipped to 2021, let’s recount some of the history that happened on the field last season. In an unprecedented year, there were crazy stat lines, some of which involved historic marks, like National League Rookie of the Year Devin Williams’ strikeout prowess.
While there were plenty of noteworthy performances this year, here are 10 that we may still admire in the years to come.
Shane Bieber set records in practically every start
The Indians’ ace blossomed in 2020, winning American League Cy Young honors in his third season in the Majors. And he didn’t just win, he won unanimously, the ninth time a pitcher has done so since 2000 and the first time in Indians history it's happened. He won a Major League Triple Crown, the first one in baseball since Johan Santana in 2006.
It felt like every time he went to the mound there was another historic note to prepare for. First, he struck out 14 batters on Opening Day, tying Randy Johnson (twice) and Don Drysdale for second most in a team’s opener ever, behind only Camilo Pascual’s 15. From there, he continued to soar. Bieber had 27 strikeouts in his first two starts, tied with Karl Spooner for the most by a pitcher in his first two games of a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He struck out 82 batters in his first 50 innings of the season, the most by a starting pitcher through 50 innings in history.
Trevor Bauer put together an otherworldly contract year
Bauer became the first pitcher in Reds history to win a Cy Young Award, leaving the Rangers, Rockies and Marlins as the only teams to not have one. He did it in dominant fashion, leading the NL with a 1.73 ERA and an 0.79 WHIP. That’s a great season as it is, and winning a Cy Young is no small feat. But to do it heading into free agency? That's the next level.
He became the eighth pitcher to be a free agent after a Cy Young Award win. Of the prior seven, only three changed teams, while the other four re-signed with the team with which they won the award. Four of those also set a record of some sort for a pitcher’s contract -- either by average annual value, total value or for a one-year deal.
Bieber and Bauer did something historic as a duo, too
It wasn’t just that each pitcher won a Cy Young Award with plenty of history attached, they were also connected in three notable ways. They were teammates on the Indians in 2018-19, each pitched on teams from Ohio in 2020 and they're both from California. Bauer and Bieber became the first pair of pitchers to each win Cy Young honors in the year immediately after being teammates, according to Elias. Overall, they were the third pair of former teammates to do so, regardless of how long ago, joining 2016 Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello (2010-14, Tigers) and 1992 Greg Maddux and Dennis Eckersley (1986, Cubs).
They were also the second set of pitchers to win the Cy Young Award pitching for teams in the same state, joining Catfish Hunter and Mike Marshall, who did so for the A’s and Dodgers, respectively, in 1974. And the fact that each was born in the state of California made them the fifth duo to win the Cy Young Award in the same year with the same birth state.
Lucas Giolito’s storybook turnaround gained another chapter
Speaking of pitching, the first no-hitter of the year was thrown by White Sox ace Lucas Giolito. It was yet another encouraging development for the righty who had a Major League-worst 6.13 ERA in 2018 in 32 starts. In 2019, he began the turnaround, with a 3.41 ERA and an All-Star selection. In 2020, it continued as he threw the 19th no-hitter in White Sox history, the most by any AL team and second-most overall behind the Dodgers.
Giolito’s 6.13 ERA from 2018 is the highest by a pitcher in a qualified season who went on to throw a no-hitter in a future year, according to Elias. And what did Giolito do in his postseason debut in AL Wild Card Series Game 1? He came out with six perfect innings to start the game, one of just five perfect bids of at least that many innings in postseason history (including Don Larsen’s, which he completed).
José Abreu crushed, especially against crosstown rivals
Staying on the South Side, Abreu’s MVP-winning campaign had all the glitz and glamor you’d expect. He led the Majors with 60 RBIs, played in all 60 games for the White Sox and slugged a cool .617 to lead the AL. Abreu became the third Cuban-born player to win MVP honors, joining Jose Canseco (1988) and Zoilo Versalles (1965).
Much of the success of his 2020 season can be summed up by three games on Aug 21-23 at Wrigley Field. He hit five home runs across the first two games, becoming the first White Sox player to do so, according to Elias, including homering in four straight at-bats to tie that record. Abreu hit six home runs in the series, the most by a White Sox player in a series of any length in franchise history, and he tied for the most by a player in any three-game series since at least 1913.
Nelson Cruz continued to defy his age
The Boomstick turned 40 on July 1 before the season started, but his season’s output was youthful as ever. Cruz hit 16 homers -- he’s now up to 417 for his career -- and slugged .595 for the Twins in 2020. Entering Aug. 30, Cruz was tied with 21-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. for the most homers in the Majors. Cruz was also the first 40-year-old to have a share of the MLB lead in homers since 1958, according to Elias (min. five HRs). Hank Sauer, who was 40 years old at the time, led the Majors with seven homers through April 29, 1958.
How did he rack up the dingers? Homering in two games on one day. Cruz homered in both ends of a doubleheader three times in 2020, which had more doubleheaders than usual. He was just the third 40-year-old player to homer in both ends of a doubleheader in the modern era, joining Carlton Fisk (1990) and Stan Musial (1962), and the only one to do so multiple times. He was the first player with three such multihomer doubleheader games regardless of age since 1964, when Harmon Killebrew and Johnny Romano did it, according to Elias.
Freddie Freeman had an MV-Free season, led Braves in postseason
Freeman won the Braves’ first MVP Award since Chipper Jones in 1999 with his standout 2020 season where he hit .341 with a 1.102 OPS. One of his feats included finally hitting his first career grand slam. When he went yard with the bases loaded on Sept. 4, the slam was the 233rd home run of his career. His 232 home runs before that were the second most before a player’s first career grand slam, behind only Sammy Sosa’s 246, according to Elias. And because baseball is unpredictable, Freeman’s next home run on Sept. 6? A grand slam, of course.
The Braves' unofficial team captain turned it up in the postseason, too, including hitting a walk-off single in the team’s first postseason game of the year -- in the 13th inning. It was the Braves’ first walk-off RBI in the postseason since 2004. The next day, Atlanta won to clinch the two-game NL Wild Card Series, the team’s first postseason round victory since the 2001 NLDS, snapping a losing streak of 10 straight rounds, tied for the longest in history. The Braves won the NLDS before losing in the NLCS, but Freeman hit .360 in the series with two homers.
The Childish Bambino continued to amaze
There was plenty of power in the NL East in 2020, and Juan Soto provided a ton in just 47 games played. He hit .351 with a .490 on-base percentage and .695 slugging percentage. He won the NL batting title, and the latter two percentages led the Majors. And he did it all at just 21 years old. At 21 years and 338 days old on the final day of the season, he became the fifth-youngest to win a batting title in the modern era (since 1900), behind only Alex Rodriguez (1996), Al Kaline (1955) and Ty Cobb (1907-08).
It’s worth acknowledging up front that rate stats from a season with such a small sample size require a grain of salt, but Soto was a qualified hitter and will be inscribed in the annals as such. His .695 slugging percentage was the highest by a qualified hitter in his age-21 season or younger in the modern era, and his .351 average ranked fourth among that same group. Soto finished fifth for NL MVP, joining Tatis Jr. as the second 21-year-old to finish top-five in the NL in 2020.
We were introduced to Slam Diego
The Padres had an epic August, hitting six grand slams, including in four straight games from Aug. 17-20. They became the first team in Major League history with a grand slam in four straight games and the first with five in a six-game span, when they hit another on Aug. 22, according to Elias. The team's six grand slams in August were tied for the most grand slams in a calendar month in MLB history.
Let’s look into a few of those grand slam hitters. The first came from Tatis on Aug. 17. It was in a 3-0 count, as you may or may not have heard. Speaking of Tatis' home run feats, he joined fellow member of Slam Diego Wil Myers by both having multihomer outputs in NL Wild Card Series Game 2. They were the second set of teammates with multihomer efforts in the same postseason game, joining Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in 1932 World Series Game 3. Another of the team’s August grand slam heroes was Manny Machado. His grand slam contribution? None other than a walk-off grand slam to extend the streak to three straight.
The Dodgers -- and Kershaw and Kenley -- finally won that next World Series
We all knew the running theme: The Dodgers had won the NL West title each season since 2013, but hadn’t won a World Series since 1988. That all changed in '20, when they finally broke through and won it all in six games against the Rays. For two Dodgers who’d been on the team the longest, it was sweet victory at long last.
Clayton Kershaw played in 19 postseason series before the 2020 World Series, the most postseason rounds played for a player before winning his first title. Part of that is the sheer number of postseason series that exist these days -- but it also illustrates how much Kershaw went through before finally winning it all. Teammate Kenley Jansen is second on that list with 16 rounds prior to the ‘20 Fall Classic.