A 60-game season creates an environment where a hot streak or cold streak can alter the destiny of an entire team. Superstar talent like Cody Bellinger, Nolan Arenado, and Juan Soto are all expected to reach their typical level of dominance, but in a short sample, anything is possible.

Last season, in 60-games, George Springer had already smashed 17 HR w/ a .389 OBP for the defending champion Astros. In 2016, newly signed free agent Daniel Murphy was batting .374 for the Washington Nationals during the year’s first 60 contests.

Throw in a chaotic late start that will launch this season during the searing summer sun, and we may see some interesting narratives play out. Will someone hit .400? Will someone take a step forward and use this as an opportunity to drag their team across the finish line? As Cubs manager David Ross said, “If they are giving out a trophy, I want it.” Well, they are giving out MVP trophies too and the RotoFanatic team made our “Dark Horse” picks that may surprise this season and take the hardware.

 

Kyle Schwarber, OF/DH, Chicago Cubs

Matt Williams’ (@MattWi77iams) pick

 

Kyle Schwarber is someone that is not going to surprise if he leads the NL in HRs over 60-games. At least he shouldn’t. The Cubs slugger is well known for his bat and should get an everyday opportunity with the addition of the DH in the NL for 2020.

Last year was a tale of two seasons for Schwarber:

1st Half: .227/.320/.457 28.3 K% .322 wOBA 97 wRC+

2nd Half: .280/.366/.631 21.8 K% .404 wOBA 151 wRC+

Imagine jumping off the bandwagon in the first half. Yikes. The thing to notice here though is not the obvious changes in surface stats, but what remained the same. He hit 18 HR in the first half while belting 20 in the 2nd half. The same with Runs (45/37) and RBI (43/49). Schwarber had vastly better results, but without the typical “Roto Bump” you would be looking for. So what changed?

Schwarber was definitely looking to elevate the ball in the 2nd half, pulling from both his GB/LD% in order to do it. His launch angle rose from 14.9 degrees to 15.5, but more importantly, his FB/LD EV took a bigger leap (97.7 mph to 98.6). He did this by making better overall contact, raising his wOBAcon from .415 to.474 and hitting the baseball to all fields:

Pull% 41.6/38.2

Cent% 30.1/31.8

Opp% 28.2/30.0

Schwarber, a traditional pull hitter, was able to drop his Pull rate 3.4% and divide it equally across the field. This is good, especially for someone MLB shifted against 69.3% of the time. But he also appeared to ditch the “new” batting stance he was trying out to start 2019…

 

Schwarber entered the 2019 season w/ a new (actually old) compact stance w/ his arms out in front of his body. Seen in the photo above.

 

But he abandoned this for a more traditional upright stance w/ the bat on his shoulder.

Stop reading this and extend your arms out in front of you, and hold them there. Are you loose? Not really. You actually use muscle to stay this way, keeping you tight and tense. Now, hold your hands together and gently rest them freely on your chest. How does that feel? Are you loose now?

This adjustment loosened up Schwarber’s hands allowing for free motion and MORE bat speed. Quick hands equals a quick bat.

This adjustment may have (finally) helped Schwarber improve vs LHP as well.

Career vs LHP: .198/.302/.356 .289 wOBA 76 wRC+

2nd Half: .240/.309/.500 .336 wOBA 106 wRC+

Not “amazing,” but a vast improvement. Schwarber’s O-Swing% (swings outside of the strike zone) remains impressive for HR hitter, 5.2% better than MLB average (26.4%).

This begs the question: Will the adjustments stick? Schwarber started hitting inside pitches up the middle & outside pitches to the opposite field through the aid of mechanical change.

Top 6% Barrel Rate

Top 3% EV

2nd Half (.280/.366/.631)

2nd Half .404 wOBA

2nd Half 151 wRC+

All Fields Approach

Improved Plate Discipline

We know he can hit the ball hard. But now there’s reason to believe he has made the next step to add some batting average to his stellar power and above-average plate discipline. Let’s see what this dark horse can do in 60-games.

 

Shohei Ohtani, SP/DH, Los Angeles Angels

Jeff Zimmerman’s (@jeffwzimmerman) pick

 

If there is anyone who could run away with the MVP award it’s Ohtani. It seems like some fantasy owners are wishing he’d just hit. It’s not going to happen with the Angels needing all the pitching they can get. While there is some apprehension about this post-Tommy John production, he’s had ample time to prepare and I expect him to come out throwing bullets on that first Sunday.

He’s put up insane numbers as a pitcher and hitter to get MVP consideration. In the last two months of 2018, he hit .356/.446/.782 with 10 HR. Over the first two months of 2018, he had 4-1 record, a 3.18 ERA, and 11.3 K/9. If he pulls off similar (or better) stats, he’ll be the story 2020 wants and needs. Ohtani will hit the double jackpot at some point. Why not in this year when he only has two months to pull it off.

One of the other reasons I’m rooting for Ohtani is that I want hosting sites to get off their butts and find a way for his greatness to be counted. Both of the two current solutions (hitter/pitcher combo or two separate players) are a complete disaster for weekly leagues.

Because Ohtani will need days off around the day he pitches every seven days, he’ll never be elite as a hitter or pitcher. He’ll get 75% of the way there with both. It would be great for a single owner to occur all the stats from a single player.

 

Giancarlo Stanton, OF, New York Yankees

Chris Clegg’s (@RotoClegg) pick

 

Many are quick to label Giancarlo Stanton as an “injury-prone” player. The reality is that Stanton did not miss a game due to injury in either 2017 or 2018. While he has had a variety of injuries throughout his career, he has never had a repeat injury. He had a rough season in 2019 thanks to a left bicep strain and a right knee sprain that kept him out for most of the season. The 2019 injuries have soured most people on Stanton heading into 2020.

For Fantasy owners, now is the perfect time to buy! Stanton is ready to go and be the everyday designated hitter for the Yankees. He has some of the best raw power in baseball that was put on full display in 2017 when he won the NL MVP award. After hitting 59 home runs, many Yankees fans were disappointed when we only hit 38 after being traded to them in the offseason before 2018. The good news is that Stanton hit the ball harder on average and equally as hard on fly-balls and line drives in 2018.
The interesting thing that happened with Stanton in 2018 was he hit the ball the opposite field more. Yankee stadium is great for left-handed hitters, so I wonder if Stanton tried to hit that power alley and hit more opposite-field home runs. Stanton hit 35 balls to the opposite field at least to the warning track or beyond that did not end up home runs. If he can get back to pulling the ball more, Stanton may run away as the home runs leader in a shortened 2020 season. Couple that power with the counting stats that he will provide from being in a great Yankees lineup, and you have your dark horse MVP candidate Giancarlo Stanton.

 

Matt Olson, 1B, Oakland Athletics

Cory Ott’s (@Cory5Ott) pick

 

Matt Olson is arguably one of the most feared left-handed hitters in the league now, especially when he is going to be playing in both American League and National League West ballparks. In 2019, he flashed a .267 AVG, .351 OBP, .545 SLG, and .896 OPS line in his second season of eclipsing 500 plate appearances.

Every park that he will play in this summer is an upgrade for his left-handed pull power with the lone exception of his home park, Oakland Coliseum. Matt Olson hitting at Coors Field for a few games? Sign me up. While touting a 14.5 percent barrel rate, 50.3 percent Hard Hit rate, and 96.9 MPH EV FBLD, it is clear that Olson has risen to the top and has separated himself from the rest of the first basemen in the league in quality of contact.

Olson was only fourth in the MLB in Hard Hit rate (50.3 percent), while only falling behind elite hitters like Nelson Cruz, Kyle Schwarber, and Franmil Reyes. That is an MVP caliber group of players right there. He has consistently raised his launch angle and barrel rate over the past three seasons, which lead to a healthy thirty-six home runs, 91 runs batted in, and a total of 129 hits across 483 at bats in 2019.

 

 

The most beautiful part about Olson’s profile is that he is still underperforming his expected statistics, as can be observed in the table below. In 2019, Matt sported a .463 wOBAcon in congruence with a .486 xwOBAcon, which clearly shows that the quality of contact he makes should actually be yielding better results than we are seeing. If he can hit a few more outfield fly balls by increasing his oFB% against fastballs (39.8%) and sliders (23.4%), then we
will see a simultaneous increase of his 31.4% HR/oFB rate. Olson is going to play every day, provide Gold Glove defense, and win an offensive title this season while dominating the AL and NL West Divisions.

The talent is there to produce first-round type fantasy production if the players surrounding him in that Oakland lineup can also produce in a short season. These are just a few of the many reasons that Matt Olson could very well come out of the gates blazing hot this year and take home the MVP award for a very wonky 2020 season.

 

J.D. Martinez, DH/OF, Boston Red Sox

Brad Johnson’s (@BaseballATeam) pick

 

As a rule, I don’t over-exert myself with MVP predictions and the like. Mostly, I view it as an opportunity to have an interesting conversation about a player I like. For the purposes of our wee-little 2020 season, I really like J.D. Martinez. And it’s all about one very unsophisticated observation – he’s going to face a metric butt-ton of left-handed starting pitchers.

 

 

That is, at a minimum, eight left-handed starting pitchers. Three of these clubs, the Rays, Orioles, and Yankees will have left-handed relievers in prominent roles. The Red Sox lineup skews heavily left- handed. Savvy lineup construction would sandwich Martinez between Rafael Devers and another lefty. Don’t forget the three-batter minimum rule!

For his career, Martinez has hit .316/.387/.608 in 1099 plate appearances with the platoon advantage. He was even better in 2019, posting a monumental .404/.494/.887 in 170 plate appearances. If there’s a downside, it’s that the rival NL East has a relative paucity of southpaw pitching. And they’ll account for a third of the Red Sox games.

 

Marcus Semien, SS, Oakland Athletics

Michael Govier’s (@mjgovier) pick

 

2019 ended in a third-place finish in the AL MVP voting, so maybe this isn’t such a darkhorse pick after all. Semien snuck up the charts in the second half with 19 HR in 70 games. Semantics aside, Semien has continually improved over the last few seasons.

Scoring 123 runs and only grounding into 2 double plays in the second half after grounding into 9 in the first, Semien slowly revealed the complete promise that once made him the jewel of the Jeff Samardzija trade with the White Sox in 2014. He teased unique power at SS with 27 HRs in 2016 before he hit 33 last season. The difference being that now Semien was the total package.

Semien’s 2019/2016 comparison looks like this: wRC+ 137/98, XBA .275/.230, K% 22.4/13.7. Mr. Semien has clearly learned a lot. He’s also fine-tuned his defense with the reliance of having one of the best in the business in Matt Chapman at the hot corner to watch his back. Semien also walks at an 11.6% clip and owns five consecutive seasons of double-digit steals. With the depth of stats at SS in fantasy this year, you can load up on the other more scarce positions early and wait to take the possible 2020 MVP in round 8 or later.

 

Josh Bell, 1B, Pittsburgh Pirates

Joe Barbuto’s (@RotoJ03) pick

 

In order to deem oneself “Most Valuable” in just 60 games, one will have to possess the ability to get hot, to stay hot, and maybe most importantly – to stay healthy. We are dealing with unprecedented circumstances this year.  The most direct, logical thinking is to compare Apples to Apples.

Having a great 60 games is much different than having a great 162 games. We need to look at a hot/cold, or maybe
even “streaky” player who we believe will get off to a good start and possesses the talent to produce at an elite level, at a quick clip. A player whom I think that could very well embark on a sustained 2-Month Hot Streak is none other than Pittsburgh first baseman Josh Bell.

Recent history supports the dream of Bell enjoying a scorching hot two month period. He’s recently shown that he can have this surge early on in the season. Whether it’s preparation, fitness, or habit, Bell has had strong early months in recent years.

Do his March-May Numbers from 2019 appear MVP-esque to you? .343 BA/.405 OBP/.704 SLG/18 HR/42 R/52 RBI/178 wRC+.

Thought so.

Focusing the microscope further, he had a 15-Game stretch in early May that yielded a .426 average, 6 HRs, 21 RBIs, and an eye-popping 1.338 OPS.

The man can get on a serious heater.

We’ve seen Bell come out of the gates mashing. This is not a new narrative. He has done it before and can do it again. The chances of a repeat performance 2020 are very real and if so, we can easily be looking at the National League MVP in what will be a very interesting 2020 season.

 

 

 

Josh Donaldson, 3B, Minnesota Twins

Dave Swan’s (@davithius) pick

 

It’s been nearly five years since Donaldson won his only MVP award.  His dominance was cut short due to injury. Last year was the first time Donaldson played over 150 games since 2016. He put up a massive power season with 37 HRs and 94 RBI. The question, is he slowing down?

The answer, quite frankly, is not at all. Donaldson’s 15.7 barrel% set a new career-high mark. His entire Statcast page lights up with red across the board-98th percentile in exit velocity, 97th percentile in hard-hit rate,  and 94th percentile in xwOBA. If that wasn’t good enough, he’s projected to bat in the middle of the Twins loaded batting order.

 

 

Donaldson is going to rake in the Central with plenty of subpar pitching staff. Outside of stolen bases, he is going could easily be a top-finisher in HR, Runs, and RBI. It will be a fun year to own Donaldson, even if it’s only for a 60 game season.

 

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Toronto Blue Jays

Dave Funnel’s (@sportz_nutt51) pick

 

Here’s a guy that had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Proclaimed by many to be the best MiLB prospect since Mike Trout, he was destined to disappoint. Only time will tell if people were right, though some argue that there were too many unrealistic expectations placed on him.

That being said, a perfect way to start the redemption tour is with a successful 2020 bounce back, after a disappointing 2019 year. While the numbers above aren’t necessarily bad, they underwhelmed in that people expected game-changing stats right out of the gate. Ultimately, that probably would have never happened, given the state of the game today.

Watching him play, I saw him try and do too much at the plate. He was going after pitches well out of the strike zone, especially down and away, and ultimately found himself batting well under .250 by the end of May. Fast forward to the end of the year, and he started to figure things out. In fact, in August, he batted a nice .341 with four home runs and 16 runs batted in.

This year, he comes into the season with an actual offseason of preparation, where he lifted weights for the first time in his life. He and the Blue Jays did a lot of strength training this offseason (sled pushing, skipping rope, and bodyweight training) and committed himself to be better. Now that he has only 60 games to work through, not 162, he can go all out and push himself to the limit instead of preserving energy over the long haul. Give me a leveled up Vladimir Guerrero Jr. proving the naysayers wrong and giving us MVP-type numbers.

 

Ramon Laureano, OF, Oakland Athletics

Justin Johnson’s (@JJ_JetFlyin) pick

 

To put it simply, Ramon Laureano is just a really freaking good baseball player. Already well known for his highlight plays in the outfield, Laureano broke out in a major way in 2019 with his bat. While he did struggle the first month of the season, the last 327 plate appearances we saw from the soon to be 26-year-old were borderline elite. Across those 327 plate appearances, Laureano’s numbers were impressive. His stats are shown below:

 

 

Laureano’s best month was in July. In 22 games, he hit .392, eight home runs, and stole three bases. An injury to his shin hampered him in August, possibly slowing down even more of a breakout, as he returned in September, and continued to hit well. If Laureano picks up where he left off in the last half of 2019, he should vault himself into the AL MVP discussion.

 

 

Nick Castellanos, OF/DH, Cincinatti Reds

Mike Carter aka Mr. Doctor’s (@mdrc0508) pick

 

Castellanos was unbelievably good for the Chicago Cubs late last summer. Castellanos sizzled in Chicago: in 51 games, he hit 16 home runs, with 36 RBI and a .321 batting average, nearly carrying the Cubs to a playoff berth.

All told, he had career highs in home runs (27), runs scored (100) and doubles (a whopping 58). He’s durable, having played over 150 games the last three seasons, and these are the players who will provide value in an abbreviated 2020 season. Were you aware that the quiet performances of Castellanos allowed him to be a top-100 player in the last three years in the fantasy world?

He moves to a great hitter’s park in Cincinnati this year, inserted into what should be a powerful lineup with the likes of Mike Moustakas, Eugenio Suarez, and just maybe a rejuvenated Joey Votto. Castellanos should just be coming into his prime at 28. Add in that he will likely also get some at-bats in the designated hitter role, and the recipe is there for a terrific season.

If he puts up anything similar to what he did in the sample size with the Cubs, Castellanos is a sleeper pick for NL MVP.

 

Castellanos is also Rob Cocuzzo’s (@RobCocuzzo) pick

 

Nick Castellanos has been one of the most underrated hitters in all of baseball over the last few seasons. Playing in the spacious Comerica Park for the bottom-feeding Detroit Tigers has done very little to promote his skillset. In the second half of last year, we saw the excellence of Castellanos in the spotlight at Wrigley Field. Castellanos absolutely incinerated opposing pitchers hitting .321 and clubbing 16 home runs in 51 games for the Cubbies.

In his first full season with a team that actually has the chance to compete and some protection around him in the lineup, Castellanos should thrive in his new home. Not to mention half of his games being played in the extremely hitter-friendly ballpark that is Great American.

 

 

Also playing in arguably the weakest region, Castellanos should be able to take advantage of opposing pitchers in the Central. I would not be surprised to see the former doubles leader become the home run leader in 2020.