Black swan events are a defining feature of each baseball season. Like any good sport, the contours of the game and its season elicit a comfortable and familiar warmth. But also like any good sport, the details that make up the fabric of a particular contest or campaign are essentially unpredictable. It’s the round ball, round bat game: Weird stuff happens all the time.
Once they happen though, unexpected events have a way of enmeshing themselves in the game’s broader narrative as if they were just another ad on the outfield wall. Our brains struggle to handle surprises, and so we rationalize them. For a time, it was very weird that Lucas Giolito suddenly looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball; by the time the Cy Young ballots were tallied, his breakout season was just another event from 2019, a feel-good moment and a developmental win, but no longer a curiosity. Lucas Giolito is now good and we accept this for what it is.
But there’s so much more fun to be had with unexpected events. They’re worth celebrating on their own merits. In one form or another, they happen every day and to every team and we should remember the most notable of those surprises. More to the point, one of these is coming for your team in 2020. Like a birthday present waiting to be unwrapped, each team is just a month or so away from discovering something weird about itself. Today, we’re going to use recent history as a guide to imagining what that will look like.
Below, I’ve recounted the most unexpected thing that happened to each team from last year — with a twist. Instead of simply reflecting on what happened, I’ve assigned that very same outcome to a different, random team in 2020. For example, the Cleveland Indians saw one of their cornerstones play like Triple-A flotsam for three months, for no apparent reason. What would that look like if it happened to the Rays?
This is the longest article I’ve ever written for FanGraphs, so Meg (sensibly) made me break it into two pieces. Today, you get the American League teams; the NL will follow early next week.
One final thought: These comparisons are meant in fun and good cheer. It’s worth pointing out that the seemingly ridiculous is actually very possible — as evinced by it literally happening last season — but we’re going to try to keep this relatively light. You won’t find any allusions to the real tragedies or heinous crimes from the past season listed here, unexpected as they may have been.
Baltimore: Your best player is about to get traded, à la Boston
The Mookie Betts trade is official, and it still feels a little surreal. Don’t look at me like that: I know this trade happened a week ago, firmly in 2020, and I’m still using it as a moment in an exercise meant to dissect surprising happenings from 2019. The deal took place before the 2020 season and that’s all we care about here. You can’t argue; the piece has already gone through editing. The Mookie trade wins.
Sorry, Orioles fans. It does seem a bit odd that management would trade, I don’t know, John Means or Trey Mancini in a year like this. But is it really stranger than one of the game’s richest franchises cashing out on a generational superstar because he wouldn’t settle for a $300 million extension? I think not; Mancini goes.
Boston: The backup catcher is now Babe Ruth, à la Minnesota
Prior to 2019, Mitch Garver had played 125 games and batted 387 times. He’d hit seven homers and was a tick over replacement level in that time. In 2019, he played 93 games, batted 359 times and… hit 31 homers with a 155 wRC+ while racking up 3.9 WAR. Totally normal thing to happen to your backup catcher.
But, this particular flavor of breakout is contagious and the Red Sox are in luck: They need someone to fill Mookie Betts’ shoes in the order, and there’s nobody better positioned to do so than Kevin Plawecki. He’s six weeks younger than Garver, has no offensive pedigree, and doesn’t project as the starter; in other words, a perfect match.
New York: Your most consistent player is now bad, à la Oakland
For years, Khris Davis hit .247 with 40-plus homers and a 120-130 wRC+. Whatever metaphor or expression you have for dependability, he had it. Unfortunately for the A’s, something obstructed the delicate balance his world needed last season, because he hit a paltry .220 with half as many homers as usual and an ugly 81 wRC+.
Players are consistent until they’re not, and it’s a lesson that every club learns sooner or later. For the Yankees, 2020 is the “sooner,” which is too bad for Brett Gardner. The dugout-thumping outfielder may not have weird statistical quirks like Davis’s .247 average or Adam Dunn’s knack for landing on 40 homers come season’s end. But he’s produced 2.5 WAR in each of the last seven seasons and 10 of the past 11, with his trademark blend of competent defense, good on-base skills, and more dingers than you’d have guessed. That all ends in 2020. At least the Yanks are well-positioned to cushion the blow.
Tampa Bay: One of your cornerstones hits like a wet noodle for three months and scares everyone, à la Cleveland
For three months, José Ramírez stunk. Entering July, he was barely off the interstate, with only five home runs to his name. On the heels of 6.5 and 8 WAR seasons, his replacement level production was one of the biggest stories in baseball and a significant factor in Cleveland’s sleepy start to 2019.
When this happens to Austin Meadows, Rays fans, try not to be alarmed. Ramírez ultimately figured things out, batting .321/.356/.722 from July 1 on, salvaging a nightmare start with a respectable four-win season. Meadows will return to form too, though in a competitive playoff race, those three cold months may well loom large.
Toronto: From 19-31 to the playoffs, à la Washington
Through 50 games, the Nationals were the second-worst team in the National League and the fifth-worst in baseball. Every team below them lost 100 games; the Nats, of course, won the World Series.
This isn’t the first time a team has gone from worst to first: The 1914 Boston Braves won the World Series after being mired in last place more than halfway through the season, and just last decade, the Marlins pulled out of a tailspin nearly as bad as Washington’s. These things, wild as they look now, can happen where we least expect them. We’ll stop short of predicting a World Series title for the Blue Jays, but you can sketch a reasonable narrative here. This is a team that very much has the combustibility to stagger out of the gate, and enough talent to plausibly go on a run if their young talent materializes. So why not? Jays for playoffs 2020.
Chicago: You’ll suffer a remarkable number of injuries, à la New York
Point: The Yankees, with their financial resources, are better prepared to survive the onslaught of injuries they suffered last season than pretty much any team in baseball. Counterpoint: They got more than nine wins out of Mike Ford, Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, and Luke Voit. Baseball is weird sometimes.
The White Sox cannot afford to see Tim Anderson miss 80 games, nor have Yoán Moncada play in only 12, nor have Edwin Encarnación miss almost the entire season, nor… You get the point. Injuries rashes can happen to anyone; if it happens to the White Sox, they won’t be competing for the playoffs, but instead with the Royals and Tigers to escape the AL Central basement.
Cleveland: Your savvy and nifty free agent signings flop spectacularly, à la Los Angeles
Hard as it is to believe now, after Trevor Cahill threw up a 6 ERA with worse peripherals and Matt Harvey somehow pitched worse, both pitchers were seen as savvy additions to a rotation that lacked depth and impact. That happens. Anyone can win the offseason; the games themselves are harder.
The Indians may seem like a strange pair here. “Don’t you need to have a free agent signing at all before you can have a bad one?” you might say over your evening brandy. That’s not quite fair. The Indians did sign César Hernández to play second base, and also inked Sandy León to a one-year deal, along with a few other minor league moves. I’m here to tell you they won’t help; Hernández will be terrible and the other guys may not see the field at all.
Detroit: The top of your rotation is magically a whole lot better, à la Texas
Texas put together an all-veteran, almost entirely new rotation for 2019, importing the likes of Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Drew Smyly, and Edinson Vólquez to join Mike Minor. Expectations were not high: Vinnie Duber of NBC Sports called it a “bizarre hodgepodge of one-time promising pitchers that the Rangers will be calling a starting staff.”
Most of it wasn’t very good. Lynn and Minor though? Very good. Each earned Cy Young votes, and Lance Lynn’s 3.67 ERA/3.13 FIP combination made him a trendy dark horse pick for the award until Houston’s pair of aces steamrolled the competition down the stretch.
A combination of unlikely breakthroughs would be very welcome news for the Tigers, who don’t have much to root for on paper. If you squint though, Detroit has a number of starters who showed signs of life in difficult circumstances last year. Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd each posted the best years of their career, and Spencer Turnbull turned in a (barely) sub-4.00 FIP season in 30 starts. Additionally, Michael Fulmer will be back after missing 2019 with Tommy John surgery, and Iván Nova is in town. I don’t know which of those two you’d peg to contend for a Cy Young, but crazier things have happened.
Kansas City: You’re sitting on an MVP candidate; you just don’t know it yet and it’s not the guy you’d think, à la Arizona
If you looked at the 2018 Diamondbacks, at least the ones who were still in Phoenix last season, you’d have been hard pressed to pick the guy who was about to rip off seven wins and finish fourth in the MVP balloting. Had I a guess, I’d have tentatively answered “… Greeeeinke?” drawing it out as if I knew I’d be wrong. And wrong I would have been, as 2019’s foremost breakout came from Ketel Marte.
Perhaps the Royals too are sitting on a player primed to blossom into one of the league’s stars. Jorge Soler is too obvious of a choice, as is Adalberto Mondesi, really. Hunter Dozier though? Perfect. Former prospect of some renown? Check. Rough start to big league life? Check. Quietly solid post-hype campaign already on the resume? Check. Clearly he’s the guy.
Minnesota: After three months of bad play, a torrid streak resets the season right before the deadline, à la San Francisco
On July 1, the Giants woke up to a 36-47 record, the second worst mark in the National League, just 3.5 games ahead of the Marlins. By July 24, they had surged to 52-50 and crept within two games of a Wild Card spot. That dizzying 16-3 run reset their season and altered any plans they may have had to sell at the deadline. Ultimately, the run was, as we all suspected a mirage; The Giants finished eight games below .500.
This isn’t quite a worst-case scenario for the Twins. It would be far worse to belly flop, like the 2018 edition of the club, than to show up fashionably late to the divisional race. Particularly in a year that their rivals in the AL Central look more competent than excellent, a 16-3 run back into contention would seem to be just the tonic — and a reminder that baseball is a marathon, not a sprint.
Houston: You get the 1-8 start and subsequent pythag under-performance, à la Cincinnati
It would probably be too much to call the Reds one of the darlings of the previous offseason, but they did earn kudos for reworking their team in a competitive direction. Unfortunately, trades for Yasiel Puig and Sonny Gray did little to insulate the club from a dreadful start: 1-8 to begin the year, en route to a disappointing 75-win campaign and a five-game underperformance based on their run differential.
I’m sure everyone throughout the league will be very, very sad when the same thing happens to the Astros this April. Perhaps Trevor Bauer will post a gloating video after each April defeat.
Los Angeles: No, really: “Who is that playing second base?” à la Chicago
It’s not often that I turn on a game, look at the lineup, and discover that I have never heard of the second baseman. In my defense, Robel Garcia’s career path is practically unprecedented for a modern position player. At the start of the decade, Garcia toiled away in the anonymity of the lower rungs of Cleveland’s minor league system. He was released at age 20, and didn’t surface again for another four years — when he was playing for Bologna in the Italian League. That he made it from Italy to Wrigley in less than a year is perhaps the most remarkable part of Garcia’s inconceivable journey.
Picking the exact player who will head across the pond and into LA’s lineup is a fool’s errand, so let’s go with Matthew Denau. Not only did he play in the French League last season, but according to his own Twitter account, he’s previously hit a home run and thrown a knuckleball. So when Tommy La Stella banjaxes his hand, David Fletcher gets sick, Anthony Rendon drives to the wrong ballpark, and the Angels desperately need someone to man the keystone, just know that Denau has it covered.
Oakland: You get a scorching start fueled by more homers than you can count, à la Seattle
It’s somewhat forgotten now because they were dreadful for five and a half months, but the Mariners rocketed out of the gates in 2019. They started 13-2, averaged 6.5 runs per game over the first three weeks of the season, and set a record by homering in each of their first 20 games. The less said about the rest of the year the better, but at least April was interesting.
It’s not hard to imagine the Athletics dominating the league early. Better yet for Oakland fans, they could do so while being more than just a flash in the pan. The A’s hit 257 homers last year, fifth most in the league, and could goose that total further with full seasons from Matt Olson and Ramón Laureano, or a return to form from Khris Davis. Five of the club’s first six series come against Boston, New York, Houston, and Minnesota, which suggests caution might be warranted. We’re not here for caution though: We’re here for dingers, and the A’s will not disappoint.
Seattle: Everything went more or less according to plan and the team was largely what we thought it was, à la Los Angels
Sometimes the surprise is a lack of surprises. For the 2019 Dodgers, that was excellent news. For the 2020 Mariners, less so. At least the farm will still look good.
Texas: Your busted former top prospect is now actually great, à la Chicago
Lucas Giolito was as good as cooked. When he debuted in 2016, he looked nothing like the pitcher who had topped prospect lists for years; by 2018 he was the worst full-time starter in the game. Baseball’s weird though, and when a delivery adjustment unlocked latent velocity, Giolito started missing bats, stopped getting whacked around the park, and turned in a 5 WAR campaign.
This kind of thing happens occasionally, and it looks like the Rangers will be the beneficiary in 2020. Texas fans, get ready to welcome Kolby Allard: Ace to your consciousness. Allard, a southpaw who launched onto top prospects lists almost as soon as the Braves drafted him, reached the majors at the age of 20 but with tons of red flags. His fastball had dipped into the 80s, his dynamite curve practically limped on its way to the plate, and he got bashed around in his first cup of coffee.
But the gas came back after a midseason trade to Texas last season, and he notched a tidy 4.01 FIP across nine starts in Arlington. Is that the kind of performance that portends stardom? Usually, no; today, definitely.
The fates of the National League will follow early next week.