The Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2020 MLB Season
Somehow, some way, Major League Baseball actually had a season in 2020. It won't soon be forgotten, and not just because it was unlike any other that had come before.
As we wait for the offseason to get into gear, let's take a moment to pump our fists for the season's biggest winners and look at what went wrong for its biggest losers.
This list runs the gamut, from players and teams that did or didn't make out well in 2020 to surprising and disappointing trends to who, ultimately, benefited from or was hurt by it all.
We have 12—six from each category—to get to.
Winners: Los Angeles Dodgers
Everyone, give it up for your 2020 World Series champions: the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Dodgers' run through the playoffs was in peril in several instances. There was that time they fell into a 3-1 hole against Atlanta in the National League Championship Series. Then there was Game 4 of the World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, which ended in catastrophe for L.A.
And yet the Dodgers rallied both times. They dispatched Atlanta to get to their third World Series in four years and, unlike in the other two, clinched a victory with a 3-1 win over the Rays in Game 6 on Tuesday. Nobody seemed happier than ace Clayton Kershaw, who finally shed his reputation as an October choker.
"You wanna talk about a narrative?" manager Dave Roberts said, according to ESPN's Alden Gonzalez. "How about being a champion? He's a champion forever."
Of course, the catch is that the Dodgers weren't tested by a normal 162-game season. But they're obviously not about to—and shouldn't—apologize for celebrating their first World Series title since 1988. Especially not since their trophy and their 43-17 regular-season record cement the 2020 club as an all-time great.
Loser: MLB's COVID Winning Streak
If the Dodgers should apologize for anything, it's for the considerably less wholesome story that unfolded during their championship celebration Tuesday night.
The Dodgers found out during Game 6 that star third baseman Justin Turner had tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting his removal before the eighth inning and immediate isolation. Yet after the game was over, there he was on the field living it up with his teammates, with "the support of at least some club officials," per The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal—and not always with a mask on.
Hence a frightening possibility: The Dodgers' World Series victory could be swiftly followed by an outbreak of a virus that's killed over 225,000 people just in the United States.
The league was able to breathe easier for a while there, as more than 50 days passed without any positive tests. But in the context of Juan Soto's positive test in July and subsequent outbreaks on the Miami Marlins (here) and St. Louis Cardinals (here), the 2020 season ended in the same scary, unconscionable manner in which it began.
Winners: Tampa Bay Rays
They may not have won the World Series, but the Rays should walk away from the 2020 season with their heads held high.
Like the Dodgers, they also had a brilliant regular season, having topped the American League with a 40-20 record. Between this and their 96-win campaign in 2019, the Rays are tied for the third-most wins in baseball over the last two seasons.
That they nonetheless finished ahead of the New York Yankees (first in payroll) and put up a good fight against the Dodgers (second) in the World Series is a testament to the ingenuity of their front office and manager Kevin Cash, not to mention the skill and versatility of their players.
The Rays won't be going anywhere, as almost their entire roster is slated to return in 2021. That includes budding superstar Randy Arozarena, who hit .328 with 17 home runs in 43 games between the regular season and his record-breaking run through the postseason.
Losers: Boston Red Sox and Washington Nationals
Before the Dodgers claimed the mantle of World Series champions, it belonged to the Boston Red Sox after 2018 and to the Washington Nationals after 2019.
At the outset of 2020, both clubs had potential paths back to the Fall Classic. Instead, neither ever really came close to getting into the season's expanded playoff field. The Nationals flopped with a 26-34 record and the Red Sox flopped even harder at 24-36.
Despite the strong initial impression, the Red Sox's chances quickly unraveled in January and February. External and internal sign-stealing scandals eventually forced them to oust manager Alex Cora. Then they traded 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts. On purpose. For some reason.
For its part, Washington's 2020 season may have been doomed as soon as the club lost star third baseman Anthony Rendon to free agency in December 2019. That thinned their margin for error, and it only got thinner as their vaunted rotation trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin fell from grace.
From here, there's no easy way forward for either the Sox or the Nats. Both will surely look to retool this winter, but rebuilds may be necessary if neither club can escape its lingering issues in 2021.
Winners: San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins
As the Red Sox and Nationals fell, the San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins rose in 2020.
The Padres began the year as perennial also-rans whose recent attempts to become relevant had fizzled for one reason or another. But this year was different, as shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. achieved superstardom and numerous other pieces fell into place amid an impressive 37-23 showing.
The White Sox entered a rebuild when they traded Chris Sale, Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana in a span of a few months in 2016 and 2017. The fruits of those trades plus several high-priced free agents helped spearhead a 35-25 run through the 2020 season.
The Marlins, meanwhile, still seemed to have a long way to go with their own rebuild when 2020 began. But the next thing anyone knew, they had a rotation full of exciting young hurlers and were on their way to a 31-29 campaign.
Thus did the Padres (since 2006), White Sox (2008) and Marlins (2003) snap postseason droughts that had been going for more than a decade. And rest assured, all three clubs are only getting started as contenders.
Losers: Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates
If the Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates have anything in common, it's that both came into 2020 hoping against hope to avoid having to rebuild.
The Rangers had a better shot at a winning season. They had, after all, won a respectable 78 games in 2019. They subsequently added two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to a starting rotation that was already headlined by co-aces Mike Minor and Lance Lynn.
Following a 93-loss dud in 2019, the Pirates faced longer odds of contending in 2020. But with new leaders in charge and young players such as Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Mitch Keller poised for improvement, they had "sleeper" written all over them.
When it came time to play the actual games, however, pretty much everything went wrong for the Rangers and Pirates. The former got only one start out of Kluber, while the latter received disappointing performances from the aforementioned trio and, well, basically everyone else.
Thus did Texas (22-38) and Pittsburgh (19-41) sink to the bottom of the barrel, from where they'll have to take the long roads back to contention.
Winners: Trevor Bauer and Marcell Ozuna's Free-Agency Bids
Even if they weren't the year's best players—we see you, Betts, Tatis, Freddie Freeman, Shane Bieber, Jose Ramirez and Jose Abreu—nobody is set to benefit more from the 2020 season than right-hander Trevor Bauer and slugger Marcell Ozuna.
This was Bauer's final season under club control, while Ozuna was with Atlanta on a one-year contract after failing to find a better deal in free agency. Following down years in 2019—Bauer had a mere 106 ERA+, while Ozuna mustered only a 109 OPS+—both had much to prove.
For both players, even the phrase "mission accomplished" doesn't cut it.
Bauer made 11 starts and ripped off an NL-best 276 ERA+ with 100 strikeouts and only 17 walks in 73 innings. Ozuna, meanwhile, authored a 175 OPS+ and NL-high marks with 18 homers and 145 total bases.
On top of these numbers is the reality that both Bauer and Ozuna will enter the offseason short of the age-30 plateau. Even in the face of MLB's damaged finances (more on that later), each should be in the market for a nine-figure contract this winter.
Losers: Marcus Semien, Robbie Ray and Kirby Yates' Free-Agency Bids
On the flip side of Bauer and Ozuna in 2020 were shortstop Marcus Semien, left-hander Robbie Ray and closer Kirby Yates.
Way back in February, Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors ranked Semien and Ray as the Nos. 4 and 6 players in the 2020-21 offseason's prospective free-agent class. Yates didn't merit a top-10 ranking, but he did get an honorable mention.
Semien was coming off a star-making turn with the Oakland Athletics that saw him become an MVP finalist. Ray had capped a third straight season with a strikeouts-per-nine rate north of 12 for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Yates earned an All-Star nod and Cy Young Award votes with a 41-save effort for the Padres.
But rather than build on their stardom in 2020, all three players had issues. Yates made only six appearances before undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. Ray finished with nearly as many walks (45) as innings pitched (51.2). Semien's OPS+ fell from 139 to a below-average 91.
As a result, a one-year deal may be both the best and only way forward for all three on the open market.
Winner: Universal Designated Hitter
Not long after MLB suspended operations in March, it started becoming apparent that the only way there would be a season at all in 2020 was if it was shorter and played by different rules.
Enter, among other things, the universal designated hitter.
MLB didn't have much choice but to add the DH to the National League after it existed solely in the American League since 1973. It would protect pitchers from harm during a year in which health was already a paramount concern. It would also even the playing field for a schedule in which one-third of all games would be interleague contests.
It's fair to say the resulting experiment was a success. National League clubs reversed a long-standing status quo by outscoring their AL counterparts, 4.7 runs per game to 4.6 per game. Not coincidentally, the NL achieved a rare .500 record in interleague play.
Whether the universal DH will return in 2021 is up in the air. But don't be surprised if it does, as the results speak for themselves and seemingly nobody within MLB misses pitchers hitting for themselves.
Loser: Other Rule Changes and Pace of Play
The latter was part of the effort to curtail injuries, yet both it and the three-batter minimum also had another common objective: to keep up the pace and halt the ever-increasing average time per game.
To this end, said average actually did decrease from three hours and 10 minutes in 2019 to "only" three hours and six minutes in 2020. That's good, right?
Yes, but that's also the misleading part. Though fewer games (7.6 percent, compared to 8.6 percent) went into extra innings and only four games lasted longer than 12 innings, it actually took longer to play nine innings. For that, the average time increased by two minutes from 2019.
It didn't help that, despite the new three-batter minimum, the average number of pitchers used per game also increased in 2020. Clearly, commissioner Rob Manfred still has work to do in his pace-of-play crusade.
Winners: Baseball Fans
It might seem odd to hear that this season was good for baseball fans, but we'll say it anyway: This season was good for baseball fans.
Up until limited-capacity crowds were allowed into Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, for the National League Championship Series and World Series, fans could only watch or listen to games from home. Alas, the joy of actually going out to the ol' ballgame was sorely missed.
And yet we propose that fans should be grateful that there even was a baseball season in 2020.
Manfred threatened to call off the 2020 season first in June, when negotiations with the MLB Players Association were at their most heated. He issued the same threat in July, this time in response to early failures on the part of players to abide by the league's pandemic protocols.
Yet the season happened and persisted, and the initial shock of fanless stadiums wore off as the experience's charms—think cardboard fans and audible on-field commentary—became the new normal. So while the question of whether the season should have happened remains a good one, at least it was an effective distraction amid an otherwise difficult year.
Loser: MLB's Treatment of Its Employees
To wrap this thing up, we considered whether Manfred or MLB's owners should be the final loser.
Manfred began his year by making a fool of himself with his handling of the Houston Astros' sign-stealing scandal, and he then came off as a bully as MLB and the MLBPA were negotiating the league's return. The league's owners, meanwhile, reportedly suffered billions in operational losses.
However, don't weep for the owners. They took a loss this year, sure, but it's nothing they can't make up for later by acting like the Wilpons and selling their clubs for billions. For his part, Manfred hasn't and won't be losing his job despite his bungling.
If only the same could be said of the hundreds of MLB employees who have already been laid off, according to Evan Drellich of The Athletic. And even if the league's finances make a comeback, the lost jobs might not.
This, as one scout put it to Drellich, is "incredibly shortsighted." Because as much as MLB depends on its players, they traditionally account for a relatively small percentage of people who rely on the league for their livelihoods.