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Want to know how weird a 60-game season can get? Ask Sandy León

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An excuse to look back at one of my favorite memories from last decade.

Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Indians - Game One Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Baseball is coming back. Or, let’s back up. Baseball is attempting to come back. Time will tell if this actually works, but they are going to give it a shot. There are reasonable arguments on both sides as to whether or not that is a good idea, and that’s not the discussion I’m going to have here today. Instead, I want to focus on what the season is going to look like, because if they do play it’ll be unlike anything we’ve ever seen. There may be no fans. There will be a universal DH. Teams are staying in region. Players can’t spit. Extra innings will start with a runner on second base. It’s going to be madness.

Most mad of all is that the season is only going to be 60 games. That is just barely over a third of a normal season. The baseball season is a marathon as we all know, but there is so much noise in this game that it takes a long time for things to stabalize. There’s a famous saying about the baseball season that everyone will win a third of their games and lose a third of their games. It’s the middle third that matters. Well, we’re eliminating two thirds of the season! Things are going to get weird, especially considering all of the other weird things about this season.

It’s impossible to predict what any given player will do during a normal season unless that player is Mike Trout, and it’s doubly impossible to predict what any player will do in a 60-game stretch unless that player is Mike Trout. Next week I’m going to take a look at some of the best and worst 60-game stretches of Red Sox players’ careers to get some sense of a possible range of outcomes. I haven’t done the research on that yet, but my suspicion is that we’re going to learn that a whole lot possibilities are open. There’s basically no result for the Red Sox that would surprise me over 60 games.

While I’m excited to do that research and write those posts because I’m a tremendous dork, I will also acknowledge that we don’t have to look at a huge sample of players to know that weird things can happen over the span of a couple of months. We can just look at the former backup catcher for the Red Sox.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “Self, is he just doing this so he can once again relive Sandy León’s 2016?” If that’s the case, you know me too well and we should get a beer in 2023 when that seems like it’ll be safe to do again. In the meantime, let’s enjoy the fruits of my broken brain that immediately thought of Mr. León when I thought about weird small sample size results.

I really don’t have a whole lot to say here beyond what the heck actually happened that year. In maybe the most magical and improbable single-player run I can remember, León came out of nowhere to be a legitimate stud for more than 60 games. To illustrate my point, though, let’s take his best stretch that covered 60 games for the team. That would be from June 11 through August 18. In that stretch, León played in 43 games and got 152 plate appearances. In that time, he hit an absolutely absurd .378/.433/.644.

FanGraphs doesn’t measure WAR over splits, which is probably for the best given defensive components, but even just looking purely at offense León’s 186 wRC+ was tied with Edwin Encarnación for the second best over that stretch among players with at least 100 plate appearances. Only Joey Votto was a better hitter over that stretch. Now, pretty much everyone else on this leaderboard had more plate appearances than León, but they also weren’t plus defensive catchers. If you cancel out the playing time with the defensive value, León was arguably one of the best overall players in baseball over that stretch of baseball.

Let me put that another way for you. If there was a global pandemic in 2016 that forced the league to play 60 games and that was the 60-game stretch, Sandy León would have been a legitimate MVP candidate. Again, I don’t really know what to take from this, but I feel like it needed to be said. Given any individual player I would guess their final line to be close to what I see their true talent being for obvious reasons. But there are going to be some weird, weird seasons. I’m not sure they’ll be as weird as Sandy León: MVP candidate, but history tells us it’s possible.