Because the People of Baseball do not appreciate breezy introductions, let us be hasty and succinct: The 2020 regular season is roughly one-third of the way over, so let’s talk about some things that have surprised us so far. Yes, surprises. Let’s talk about that. 

1. Five of the biggest losers of 2019 are in 2020 playoff position

Obviously, the expansion of the postseason from 10 to 16 teams, which means the majority of MLB teams will pass playoff muster, has much to do with this. Even in that context, it’s a bit jarring in 2020 to survey the current standings and find that the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Miami Marlins, Colorado Rockies, and San Diego Padres are presently in line to make the playoffs. While the Padres were widely expected to take the next step thanks to their young talent base and the Rockies still have the roster makings of the team that made the playoffs in 2017 and 2018, the success of the remainder — and in that light, the totality — of these teams makes for a surprising early turn of events. Also of note is that the owners of the top three picks of the 2020 draft — the Tigers, Orioles, and Marlins — are in this group. 

Last season these five squads finished a combined 211 games under .500, which — just verified this — is a lot. The average win percentage of these five teams in 2019 was a paltry .369. In 2020, that figure has risen to .605. Now to put a finer point on things, let’s see how each team’s SportsLine playoff odds have improved since Opening Day:

Orioles

0.9 percent

18.0 percent

Tigers

2.1 percent

17.8 percent

Marlins

7.9 percent

21.4 percent

Rockies

17.5 percent

64.8 percent

Padres

27.7 percent

70.0 percent

As you would expect, every team’s chances have bettered dramatically in just a little more than a fortnight. The Rockies and Padres are now playoff favorites, and the Orioles, Tigers, and Marlins all have something like a one-in-five shot. Even given the idiosyncrasies of such a short season, few would have expected to see numbers like that for teams like this. Yet here those numbers are, looking back at you in mute disapproval because of your hasty assumptions.

2. The Cardinals have played just five games

On one level, it’s not surprising that the 2020 season would be compromised by COVID-19. The Marlins endured a cluster that saw 18 players test positive for the virus, but no team has had their schedule torn to ribbons like the Cardinals. At this writing the Cardinals have played five of their scheduled 60 games. In contrast, the Braves have played 20. St. Louis hasn’t played a game since July 29, and it’s not certain when the Cards will be able to take the field again. Maybe it’s by Friday, but nothing’s certain. 

The wheels came off on July 31, when the Cardinals’ scheduled game against the Brewers was postponed because two St. Louis players tested positive. By the next day, the number of positives increased — eventually to seven players and six staff members — which led to the entire series in Milwaukee being postponed. Shortly thereafter the opener of the series in Detroit was banged and then the entire series. The team remained quarantined in their Milwaukee hotel until Aug. 4, when they were cleared to travel to Chicago for a series against the Cubs. Then, however, an additional three positive tests within the Cardinals caused that series to be put on ice. A subsequent additional positive test caused postponement of the Busch Stadium series against the Pirates, which was to begin on Aug. 10. Then a makeup doubleheader against the Tigers — an attempt to play the games originally scheduled for Aug. 4 and 5 — was likewise postponed. 

At present, that’s 13 straight postponements for St. Louis and counting. Even if the team is able to return to action against the White Sox in Chicago starting Friday, making up those games within a compressed calendar will be an impossibly heavy lift. Commissioner Rob Manfred has already hinted that heavily afflicted teams may not be able to make it to 60 games, and that certainly describes the Cardinals right about now. Even 50 games may be ambitious for St. Louis. If the Cardinals claim one of the eight playoff berths in the NL while playing significantly fewer games, it could undermine the already dubious legitimacy of the 2020 season. Again, it’s not surprising that the pandemic made its presence acutely felt during this season, but the extent to which it’s waylaid the Cardinals is unexpected. 

3. Charlie Blackmon is batting .472

MLB has not had a .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941. But Blackmon of the Rockies is poised to give it a go in 2020. To be sure, a .400 season across just 60 games will have appended to it an asterisk the size of a gluttonous asteroid, and that’s rightly so. But after almost 80 years, we’ll take our .400 seasons in whatever form they assume. 

When it comes to maintaining lofty paces in this peculiar and beautiful sport, always bet against it happening, and this instance is no different. He probably won’t do it. That said, a couple of things suggest that Blackmon’s chase for .400 still merits your attention the rest of the way. 

First, Blackmon right now has a .397 expected batting average, which is what his average should be based on quality of contact. So while he’s been lucky to run that .472 mark, he’s in spitting distance of .400 when it comes to his “deserved” average. In matters related, the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) forecasts Blackmon over the remainder of the 2020 season to bat .344 in 160 at-bats. Should that come to pass, then Blackmon will wind up with a batting average of .390. That, coincidentally, is what George Brett batted in 1980 when he made a run at the vaunted mark of note. 

An even more elusive goal for Blackmon would be to break the record for highest batting average across 60 games. That belongs to Rogers Hornsby, who from June 21 through August 29, 1924, batted .466 for the Cardinals.  

4. The Astros are struggling

The Astros over the last three regular seasons (2017-19) racked up 311 regular season wins. That span also included a pair of pennants and one World Series title in 2017. Thus far in 2020, though, the Astros are just 8-10 — that includes an 0-5 mark against teams that have a winning record — and out of playoff position. Sure, it’s early in terms of total games played, but it’s not particularly early in terms of the 60-game regular season. 

Houston’s positive run differential suggests the club has been a bit unlucky to date, and the expanded playoff field significantly lowers the bar for relevance. That said, there’s pressure on the Astros to perform this season. They’re coming off the sign-stealing scandal that rocked baseball back in those pre-coronavirus days (and thus have something to prove), and they’re performing under a first-year manager in Dusty Baker and first-year GM in James Click. 

Unfortunately for Houston, the pitching situation may lower their ceiling in 2020. Depth in the rotation was a concern coming in, what with the loss of Gerrit Cole to free agency (and to a lesser extent the losses of Wade Miley and Collin McHugh). Then ace Justin Verlander went down with a forearm strain, and it’s possible he won’t pitch again this season. That leaves a void behind 36-year-old Zack Greinke, one that’s even more concerning given the Astros’ general inability to develop young starting pitchers (and they’re leaning on a number of young starting pitchers right about now). 

Things in the bullpen may be even more grim. Lockdown closer Roberto Osuna (elbow) may not be able to return even in time for the playoffs. Fellow relievers Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski, and Joe Biagini are also on the IL, and fill-in closer Ryan Pressly dealt with elbow soreness earlier this season and recently struggled in his first attempt to pitch on back-to-back days in 2020. Little wonder that the Astros are presently tied for the MLB lead in blown saves. Things are such that they recently took a flyer on 41-year-old Fernando Rodney, he of the 5.66 ERA last season. 

Again, it says here the Astros will likely rebound and notch a winning record, but injuries and owner Jim Crane’s unwillingness to invest in payroll at levels befitting the team’s market and status as a World Series contender mean the Astros this season likely won’t reach the aforementioned heights of 2017-19.

5. We’re on pace to have the lowest league batting average ever

Coming into Wednesday’s slate of games, hitters across all of MLB had combined for a 2020 batting average of just .235. While the league batting average has generally been trending downward since 2006 or so, this mark represents heretofore unseen depths. In 2018, for instance, the MLB batting average was .248, which meant it dipped into the .240s for the first time since 1974. The present figure, however, is something else altogether. 

Here’s the current list of lowest league batting averages in major league history: 

  • .237, 1968
  • .239, 1888
  • .239, 1908
  • .242, 1967
  • .243, 1884

As you’ve already surmised from high atop Mt. Sports Wisdom, the 2020 season is on pace to set the all-time “record” for lowest batting average, assuming you’re willing to acknowledge records set during a 60-game season. You’ll note the other fellow travelers are either from the 19th century, the Deadball Era, or the late 1960s, during which offenses crated to such an extent that the pitcher’s mound was lowered. In contrast, runs scored, walks, home runs, and strikeouts are all on the high end of the historical continuum right now. As has been the case in recent seasons, MLB has a “balls in play” issue, in which we’re simply not seeing the defense involved enough. To an extent, that’s reflected in the league .235 batting average. In 2020 the sport has more pressing concerns, but this is a long-term worry when it comes to the structure of the contemporary game. 

Speaking of “lowest batting average of all time,” Cleveland right now is batting .195 for 2020. To find a team batting average that low across a full season at the highest level, you must go all the way back to the 1884 St. Paul White Caps of the Union Association. Given that modern baseball dates back to the American League and National League agreement prior to the 1903 season, you can say Cleveland is on pace to register the worst team batting average in MLB history. As detailed above, consider Cleveland’s current sub-.200 batting average to be a symptom of a larger disease. 

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