A pandemic and the dawdling of MLB ownership have conspired to give us a measly 60-game regular season for 2020. While less baseball is necessarily unwelcome news, we can console ourselves with the chaos that so often accompanies the smaller sample size in a sport such as this one.
Along those lines, let’s have a look at the “record book” for a season such as this one. That is, let’s have a look at the single-season records put up by players who played in no more than 60 games in a season and by pitchers who worked no more than what’s befitting a 60-game season. For the most part, you won’t find legends of the sport populating this list, but you will find some interesting statistical targets for the best players as the 2020 season (one hopes) makes its way toward us. Forthwith!
Hits: 81, Reb Russell, Pirates, 1922
In the early teens and beyond, Russell was a promising lefty hurler for the White Sox, but an arm injury ended his career as a moundsman not long after he turned 30. Russell tried a succession of comebacks, but those efforts came to grief. While attempting to revive his pitching career in the minors, Russell spent occasional time in the outfield. Eventually he resigned himself to a career as an auto assembler in Indianapolis, but the visiting Minneapolis Millers tabbed Russell to be an emergency fill-in for one game. Impressed by what they saw in Russell, they signed him for the remainder of the season. Russell thrived for Minneapolis the rest of the way and was even better across a full season in 1921. Another hot start for the Millers in 1922 prompted the Pirates to call him up in July as the primary half of a right field platoon. The 33-year-old Russell played 60 games for the Pirates in ’22, and in addition to those 81 hits he batted .368/.423/.668 in 60 games. Russell was again solid enough for the Pirates in 1923 but was eventually released. He persisted in the minors and remained a productive hitter at that level well into his late thirties. No doubt motivating Russell’s doggedness was the possibility that he would make this very list almost a century later. Happy to help.
Tied for second on the list with 68 hits apiece are Jose Reyes in 2016 and Hall of Famer Willie McCovey in 1959.
Most likely to break it in 2020: We’ll go with Jose Altuve of the Astros, given that he racked up 103 hits over a 60-game span during the 2017 season.
Batting average: .374, Earle Brucker, Athletics, 1938
For rate stats with hitters, we’re stipulating no more than 60 games played and a minimum of 186 plate appearances during the season in question (i.e., qualifying status for a 60-game season). Nicknamed “Canyon Pants” (note: not true), Brucker was a catcher for Connie Mack’s squadron and a backup to Frankie Hayes. He’d had a long minor-league career and missed almost three full seasons because of arm trouble. That explains why Brucker in 1937 was a 36-year-old rookie. The following year, he batted .374/.437/.561 in 53 games. Despite the limited playing time, he wound up near the back end of one voter’s AL MVP ballot.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Christian Yelich of the Brewers.
OPS+: 188, Willie McCovey, Giants, 1959
The luminous McCovey was a 21-year-old rookie for the Giants in ’59. In late July he landed in the majors for good, and in 53 games that season he batted .354/.429/.656 with 13 home runs and that robust OPS+ you see above. Although McCovey came to the plate just 219 times, he still claimed unanimous NL Rookie of the Year honors.
Most likely to break it in 2020: No need to get cute. We’ll go with Mike Trout of the Angels.
Home runs: 24, Matt Olson, Athletics, 2017
Yep, here’s a current star who graces our list. Olson was a 23-year-old rookie in 2017, and his 59 games played were spaced across multiple call-ups before he settled in for good as a permanent big leaguer in early August. Over those 59 games, Olson batted .259/.352/.651 with, as noted, 24 home runs. He racked up those 24 home runs in just 310 at-bats.
Know who’s the leader in home runs in exactly 60 games played in a season? That would be Tony Clark with 13 in 2000. Clark, of course, is the current head of the Players Association and a name that’s been firmly lodged in the news cycle of late.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Trout again.
Doubles: 18, Bubba Trammel, Devil Rays, 1998; Bo Bichette, Blue Jays, 2019
The wondrously named and chronically useful Bubba Trammell tallied his 18 doubles in 59 games that year. Bichette, of course, made a rookie splash for the Jays last season, and he got to 18 doubles in just 46 games and 196 at-bats. Soon after his late July call-up, Bichette doubled in nine straight games.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Venerable doubles machine Nick Castellanos of the Reds is the choice here.
Triples: 8, Reb Russell, Pirates, 1922
Indeed, Russell makes his second appearance on this ledger. Overall, just 28 players have managed to record more than one triple in a season in which they played 60 games or fewer.
Most likely to break it in 2020: This is hardly a triples era, so consider this one a longshot to be broken. That said, we’ll go with Ozzie Albies of the Braves.
RBI: 75, Reb Russell, Pirates, 1922
Russell’s 75 ribbies leads this category by cavernous proportions. Second on the list is Karim Garcia (2002) all the way back at 52 RBI. Remember Aristides Acquino and his 2019 bust-out? The Reds’ slugger is fourth on the RBI list with 47 in 56 games played.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Let’s say Cody Bellinger, the cleanup hitter for perhaps the best offense in baseball.
Runs scored: 51, Reb Russell, Pirates, 1922
The Reb Russell Invitational continues apace. As for players of a more recent vintage, Andrew McCutchen’s 2019 season with the Phillies was cut short because of a torn ACL after just 59 games. Over those 59 productive games, he racked up 45 RBI, which is tied for third on this particular list.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Mookie Betts, newly of the Dodgers, it is.
Stolen bases: 16, Eric Davis, Reds, 1985
Absent injuries, Davis would’ve been a Hall of Famer. Reality as it was, he stands as a highly productive player and one of the most exciting players of his era during his prime seasons. The 1985 season occasioned Davis’ second straight partial season in the majors, and he set the mood above by pilfering second base and third base on consecutive pitches against the Expos on Opening Day. Struggles at the plate, however, landed Davis back in the minors. Upon being recalled when the rosters expanded in September, Davis thoroughly abused the ball the rest of the way.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Mallex Smith of the Mariners.
Strikeouts: 96, Javier Baez, Cubs, 2014
No surprise to see a contemporary player leading this category, as strikeout rates have vaulted in recent years. Baez was called up in early August of his rookie campaign and needed just 52 games to approach 100 strikeouts. Baez’s contact issues have persisted to this day, but thanks to his power, value on the bases, and excellent defense he remains a standout performer despite the swing and miss.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Keep it simple and go with Eugenio Suarez, the MLB strikeout leader for 2019.
WAR: 3.3, Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays, 2011
Thanks to a slash line of .293/.373/.580, no GIDPs, strong baserunning, and excellent fielding at the hot corner, Lawrie in his rookie season of 2011 was able to author a WAR of 3.3 in just 43 games played. Also of note is that Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez checks in fourth with a WAR of 3.0 in 53 games in 2016.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Trout, natch.
On the pitching front, we need to tweak our parameters a bit. For starters, we’ll limit our pool of eligibles to those with no more than 12 starts in a season (and for rate-based metrics, at least 60 IP — the qualifying figure for 2020). For relievers, we’ll limit it to those with no more than 25 appearances in a season.
Wins: 9, Ken Holtzman, Cubs, 1967
The underappreciated lefty Holtzman was healthy in ’67, but he missed significant time that season because of National Guard duty that commenced after his first eight starts of the season. He was able to make four more starts for the Cubs down the stretch while on weekend passes. In the end, Holtzman pitched to a 2.53 ERA in 12 starts with a 9-0 record.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Predicting pitcher wins is a fool’s errand, but we’ll give it to Walker Buehler of the Dodgers.
Strikeouts: 92, Stephen Strasburg, Nationals, 2010
Among pitchers to pitch in no more than 12 games in a season, Strasburg leads all comers with 92 strikeouts in 68 innings as a rookie. Those numbers include his June 8, 2010 MLB debut, when he struck out 14 Pirates in seven innings with no walks.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Gerrit Cole, new Yankees ace.
Home runs allowed: 18, Jerad Eickhoff, Phillies, 2019
When the subject is power — provided or permitted — we expect to see a current player, and so it is with home runs allowed. Last season, Eickhoff in just 58 1/3 innings (10 starts and a pair of relief appearances) managed to allow, yes, 18 home runs. Amazingly, all 18 of those home runs came over his last 28 1/3 innings.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Justin Verlander of the Astros.
Saves: 13, Ryan Kohlmeier, Orioles, 2000
Kohlmeier last just two seasons in the majors, but his rookie effort was such that he cracks this list. In 2000, he pitched 25 games (the maximum allowed for these purposes) and registered a 2.39 ERA. Along the way, he converted 13 of 14 save opportunities.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees.
ERA: 1.64, Josh Johnson, Marlins, 2011
Among those with no more than 12 appearances and least 60 innings in a season (to keep the focus on starters), Johnson leads all comers in ERA. Johnson’s 2011 season was over by mid-May because of shoulder woes, but he had time to make nine mostly dominating starts for Florida. Alex Reyes of the Cardinals would’ve been the leader in this category (1.57 ERA in 2016 across five starts and seven relief appearances), but his 46 1/3 innings fall short of qualifying status.
Most likely to break it in 2020: Jacob deGrom of the Mets.
WAR: 3.8, Cliff Curtis, Doves (Braves), 1909
A journeyman right-hander who didn’t crack the majors until he was 27, Curtis racked up that 3.8 WAR despite not being called up until late August. In nine starts and one relief appearance, Curtis worked 83 innings with a 1.41 ERA and one home run allowed (assist: the Deadball Era). The following season, Curtis lost 24 games for the Doves. On the upside, that same year he married a woman named Flo Van Sickle.
Most likely to break it in 2020: deGrom.