This article originally appeared in the May 27 issue of USA TODAY Sports Weekly.
To win a fantasy league title this year, it’s going to take a little more imagination and outside-the-box thinking than in the past. Since many pro athletes have said it helps to construct a mental picture of themselves accomplishing their goals, I’m going to see if I can imagine what an 82-game season might look like.
Please … Gaze into my crystal bubble, where the season I began in early spring using the Dynasty League Baseball online simulation has now reached the 82-game mark.
Each of these games has been played out batter-by-batter by the computer engine based on the original Pursue the Pennant board game.
How do the results compare to the real thing? The simulated 2020 players hit .256/.320/.431 over their half-season sample, pretty close to their real-life counterparts a year ago (.252/.323/435). They were on pace for more doubles and triples than the 2019 hitters produced, but not as many home runs. Scoring was up ever so slightly (+0.12 runs per game per team).
That’s not an unreasonable scenario. If both leagues employ a designated hitter and the season is played during the summer months, it’s easy to see an overall increase in offense. It’s also possible that the baseball isn’t as lively as it was last year, when the number of home runs increased 21% from 2018.
Again, this isn’t so much analysis of what should happen in this abbreviated 2020 season, but what could happen.
With MLB leaning toward a three-division, AL/NL combination, the traditional standings we have in the simulated half-season don’t apply. But it can still be helpful to see which teams performed best.
The Twins (55-27) and Yankees (53-29) were the best teams in the American League, while the A’s (51-31) edged the Astros (49-32) for first place in the West.
In the National League, the Dodgers (57-25) had the best overall record with the 47-win Cardinals three games ahead of the Brewers in the Central and the 45-37 Nationals a game up on the Braves in the East.
And now, the most interesting part: Who’s dominating? Who are the surprises and disappointments?
Batting average: Freddie Freeman (.360), Tim Anderson (.358), Christian Yelich (.354). No real surprises unless you count a repeat performance from Anderson. One interesting note: utilityman Tommy Edman of the Cardinals hit .361, but didn’t quite reach the number of plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.
Runs scored: Yelich and Mike Trout (79), Trea Turner (67). The reigning league MVPs are way ahead of the pack. Yelich is having another monster season, also leading the sim leagues in on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. Trout is right behind him at .296/.411/.648.
Home runs: Nelson Cruz (31), Trout (29), Teoscar Hernandez (27). Cruz continues to amaze, fueling the Twins’ top-scoring offense. Can he hit 60 in a full season? Meanwhile, Hernandez has blossomed in the simulation with everyday playing time. He’s still striking out once every three plate appearances, but it’s been worth it with a .279 average and .601 slugging percentage to go along with the 27 homers.
RBI: Trout (92), Cruz (82), Josh Bell (75). It’s fun to imagine what Trout could accomplish if we haven’t seen his peak. How about a full season pushing 180 RBI? Bell was amazing in the first half last season; what if we saw a repeat – without the second-half slump?
Stolen bases: Mallex Smith (27), Adalberto Mondesi (25), Yelich (24). Here’s the biggest difference between the computer simulation and reality: Stolen base attempts are down 50% from the actual 2019 numbers, but the success rate is higher (80% vs. 73%). Perhaps the computer is way ahead of MLB managers in learning that trying to steal a base usually isn’t worth the risk.
Hitting notes: One prominent name missing from the simulation’s statistical leaders is arguably the No. 1 overall player in fantasy baseball for 2020, Ronald Acuña Jr. He’s been solid, but far from spectacular (.247/.318/.440 with 17 homers and 15 steals) … Likewise, Mookie Betts hasn’t really lived up to the expectations in L.A., hitting .260 with 11 homers, 47 runs and 48 RBI … Fernando Tatis Jr. has played in every game so far, leading the Padres with 17 home runs and 47 RBI … White Sox rookie outfielder Luis Robert is hitting .281 with five homers and three steals in a part-time role … The simulation pegs the Rangers’ Willie Calhoun (.277, 19 HR, 60 RBI) and Mets’ Michael Conforto (.292, 19 HR, 56 runs, 57 RBI) as this year’s big breakout hitters.
Pitching wins: Mike Clevinger (14), Charlie Morton and Sonny Gray (13). Wins are going to be a challenge to manage with this year’s abbreviated spring training and shortened schedule. But this reminds us a healthy Clevinger can be a dominant Clevinger.
ERA: Jacob deGrom (2.26), Clevinger (2.28), Morton (2.37). Perhaps more interesting are the appearance of up-and-comers Mike Soroka (2.79) and Frankie Montas (2.87) in the top 10.
WHIP: Justin Verlander (0.71), Gerrit Cole (0.86), Clevinger (0.95). Verlander and Cole are also first and second in lowest opponent’s batting average, along with the three wins leaders and (breakout alert!) the Dodgers’ Julio Urias.
Strikeouts: Cole (224), Verlander (200), Lance Lynn (197). Whiffs may be down in the NL, but these AL stalwarts would have been on pace to top Nolan Ryan’s modern record of 383 strikeouts in a season. Clevinger is up there too, with 195.
Saves: Liam Hendriks and Josh Hader (19), Aroldis Chapman and Hector Neris (18). Meanwhile, Nick Anderson has 68 strikeouts in 35 innings and 11 of the Rays’ 12 saves.
Youth movement: Hard-throwing Blue Jays rookie Nate Pearson has 108 strikeouts in 94 1/3 innings, but a 5.15 ERA over 17 starts … In addition to Montas, the A’s are getting great starting pitching from young lefties A.J. Puk (2.10 ERA, 10.5 K/9 in 60 IP) and Jesus Luzardo (10-3, 3.96 ERA, 168 K in 111 1/3 IP) … Rookie MacKenzie Gore is thriving as the Padres’ No. 5 starter with a 3.20 ERA, 11.9 K/9 rate and .196 opponents’ batting average in 70 1/3 innings.
Just as we know we shouldn’t take spring training stats seriously, they can give us clues to how players might perform. These simulated stats can do the same thing. The most important thing is to open our eyes to the possibilities.
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