A hot first 60 games typically does not guarantee anything for an MLB team, or for individual players. That’s just 37% of a normal schedule, leaving loads of time for injuries and slumps to take their toll. Regression to the mean can be a nasty business.
Now, in 2020, the first 60 games represent the entirety of the regular-season schedule. That certainly increases the chances for extreme results. So much can happen in such a short period.
Here is a look at some notable recent examples of impressive statistical feats that occurred within a team’s first 60 games, going back to the start of the 30-team era (1998). Obviously, these circumstances were different than what baseball is facing today. But they still provide a sense of what might be possible in 2020.
2018: Red Sox and Yankees both go 41-19
Only 11 teams in the past 22 seasons have won at least 41 of their first 60 games, and two were in the same division in the same year. Even better, those teams have one of the fiercest rivalries in sports. Both Boston and New York came out of the gates strong in 2018, splitting their six meetings over the first 60 games while steamrolling the rest of their competition. Ultimately, the 108-win Red Sox ran away with the AL East, defeated the Yankees in the AL Division Series and cruised all the way to a championship. But those first 60 games were as tight as it gets.
2011: José Bautista posts a 1.226 OPS
After years of bouncing around, Joey Bats emerged from obscurity to become an All-Star with the Blue Jays in 2010, leading the Majors in homers and total bases. His ferocious hitting carried over into the next season, when Bautista went 3-for-4 with a homer on Opening Day and didn’t relent. Though he missed eight of Toronto’s first 60 games, he more than made up for it by producing a .346/.496/.730 line with 20 homers and a 53-to-31 walk-to-strikeout ratio. Bautista’s OPS in that stretch was higher than what any hitter other than Barry Bonds has done in a full, qualifying season since Ted Williams in 1957. His park-adjusted wRC+ was 225 -- well over double the league average -- and wound up at a career-high 181.
2010: Ubaldo Jiménez posts a 0.93 ERA
Not since Dutch Leonard of the 1914 Red Sox had a pitcher produced a lower ERA through his first 12 starts in a season. That it was a Rockies pitcher who managed that feat is extra special. It likely helped that Jiménez made eight of those starts on the road, but he also allowed just four runs over 28 innings (1.29 ERA) at Coors Field. Jiménez did not surrender more than two runs in any of his first 12 outings -- including a no-hitter on April 17 at Atlanta -- and permitted just a .176/.257/.254 batting line. That July, he started the All-Star Game for the NL and later finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting with a 2.88 ERA.
2009: Raúl Ibañez launches 22 homers
Barry Bonds went deep 32 times in the Giants’ first 60 games of his 73-homer 2001 campaign, and Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, and Albert Pujols also have exceeded 22 in recent years. But all of those guys were superstar sluggers at the time. Ibañez was a late-blooming journeyman with all of 14 MLB homers through his age-28 season. He eventually became a solid big league regular, but through 2008 he had put together just one full season with more than 24 big flies. In December ‘08, Ibañez signed as a free agent with the Phillies. Through June 13 (11 days after his 37th birthday), he had started each of Philly’s first 60 games, slashing .322/.380/.678 with 22 homers (tied for the MLB lead with Adrián González) and 59 RBIs. Ibañez would cool off, but not before starting the only All-Star Game of his career. He finished with 34 long balls and eventually cracked the 300-homer mark.
2008: Chipper Jones bats .409
This would be impressive no matter what, but it’s especially astonishing given that the switch-hitter turned 36 on April 24 that year. While Jones had batted .331 over the previous two seasons, his start in 2008 was on another level entirely. Playing in 55 of the Braves’ first 60 contests, he racked up 85 hits and slashed .409/.492/.649 with 11 doubles and 13 home runs. Jones would keep his average at .400 or above through the Braves’ 73rd game on June 18 and eventually won his only career batting title (.364).
2004: Danny Graves saves 26 games
Two pitchers in history have managed to record a save in 26 of their team’s first 60 games, and they did it in the same season. One was the first person you would expect: Mariano Rivera, for a 2004 Yankees squad that finished with 101 wins. The other is, shall we say, a surprise. Graves pitched 11 seasons in the Majors and saved 182 games, all for the Reds -- making him the franchise’s all-time leader in that category. But in 2004, he was coming off a largely unsuccessful one-year experiment as a starter (5.33 ERA), and pitching for a Cincinnati club that would finish 76-86. The team did start 34-26, however, and Graves saved a whopping 76.5% of those victories. But while Rivera went 26-for-27 with a 1.01 ERA, Graves actually was not supremely efficient. He also blew five save chances and took three losses, while allowing nine homers in 34 innings. Still, he would make his second All-Star team and finish with a career-high 41 saves.
2001: Mariners go 47-13
That’s a 127-win pace over 162 games (.783), and this sensational Seattle squad came pretty close to maintaining it, ultimately matching a Major League record with 116 victories. After winning 91 games in 2000, the Mariners traded one superstar (Ken Griffey Jr.) and lost another to free agency (Álex Rodríguez). Yet they didn’t miss a beat. Ichiro Suzuki arrived from Japan and was an immediate sensation, batting .356 in the team’s first 60 games. In the same span, Edgar Martinez posted an OPS over 1.000, Bret Boone drove in 66 runs, Aaron Sele went 8-0 with a sub-3.00 ERA and Kazuhiro Sasaki nailed down 24 saves. After playing game No. 60 on June 9, Seattle led the AL West by a whopping 17 games over the Angels.
2000: Darin Erstad racks up 99 hits
No other player -- not even Ichiro -- has managed this many hits in his team’s first 60 games since 1934. The performance came more or less out of nowhere. While Erstad had batted a solid .295 over his first three MLB seasons, his average sank to .253 in 1999. In 2000, Erstrad went 3-for-4 on Opening Day, one of his 15 games with at least three knocks out of the Angels’ first 60. He was batting .449 at the end of April and .384 at the 60-game mark. He finished at .355 and joined Wade Boggs as the only players since 1930 with 240 hits in a season (Ichiro would later get there twice).
1999: Randy Johnson and Pedro Martínez both strike out 143
On June 9, Johnson struck out 14 Cubs in the D-backs’ 60th game of the season, while Martínez racked up 10 K’s against Montreal in Boston’s 58th contest. With that, the Big Unit tied Pedro for the Major League lead -- albeit in one additional start (14 to 13) and 13 additional innings (108 2/3 to 95 2/3). No pitcher before or since has struck out so many batters this early in a season. Indeed, these were two superstar pitchers at the tops of their games, with Johnson beginning a run of four straight NL Cy Young Awards after signing with Arizona, and Martínez authoring the first of back-to-back campaigns that could both be considered the best ever produced by a pitcher. In a terrifying offensive environment, Johnson (364) and Martínez (313) would finish with two of the 20 highest strikeout totals of the live ball era.
1999: José Lima wins 11 games
Over the first four seasons in which he appeared in the Majors (1994-97), Lima went 9-22 with a 5.92 ERA while working mostly in relief. He finally broke out for the Astros in ‘98 (16-8, 3.70), but ‘99 was the right-hander’s best season. After taking a tough-luck loss in his first outing, Lima reeled off 11 wins out of his next 12, working at least eight innings in seven of those games. (No pitcher since has notched more wins at that early of a point in a season.) Through 60 team games, Lima owned a 2.68 ERA while averaging 7.5 innings every time he took the mound. He would go on to make his lone All-Star appearance and finish 21-10, helping Houston edge Cincinnati by one game for the NL Central title.
1998: Juan González drives in 76 runs
While the chase for Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs captivated the nation’s attention in 1998, Juan Gone was making a spirited push toward Hack Wilson’s 1930 mark of 191 RBIs. The Rangers slugger was an RBI machine, having collected 275 over the previous two years. Batting cleanup in a high-powered Texas lineup, González drove in at least four runs in eight of the first 60 games, and his total of 76 in that span remains the highest since Jimmie Foxx in 1938. On pace for 205 RBIs at that point, González piled up 101 by the All-Star break and finished with 157 while claiming his second AL MVP Award in three years.