LeMahieu, Soto batting champs in shortest season in century

Sports

New York Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu hits a two-run double during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins at Yankee Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Corey Sipkin)

NEW YORK (AP) — DJ LeMahieu became the first player to win undisputed batting titles in both leagues and Juan Soto the youngest NL champion as Major League Baseball’s shortest regular season since 1878 ended Sunday.

Home runs were down from last year’s record level in a mini-season of diminished offense. The .245 big league batting average was the the lowest since .237 in 1968 and down from .252 last year.

Indians ace Shane Bieber finished with a 1.63 ERA, the lowest figure to lead the American League since Luis Tiant’s 1.60 for Cleveland in 1968, a year of pitching dominance that caused baseball officials to lower the mound the following year.

The average time of a nine-inning game set another new high, at 3 hours, 7 minutes, 46 seconds, up from 3:05:35 last year. While a three-batter minimum was instituted, active rosters expanded from 25 to 28 for the 60-game season and gave managers more pitching options.

LeMahieu hit .364 for the New York Yankees, the highest for an AL batting champion since Minnesota’s Joe Mauer hit .365 in 2009 and well ahead of 2019 AL batting champion Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox, who finished second at .322. LeMahieu won the NL batting title with Colorado in 2016.

“I wish it were over 162 games. I wish there were fans in the stands but it is what it is,” LeMahieu said. “I’m definitely proud of it.”

He became just the fourth Yankees player to lead the majors in batting average after Lou Gehrig in 1934, Joe DiMaggio in 1939 and Mickey Mantle in 1956. Despite the shorter schedule, no one approached becoming the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams batted . 406 in 1941.

Ed Delahanty hit .410 for the Philadelphia Phillies to win the NL batting championship in 1899 and is credited by some researchers with the 1902 AL crown at .376, while others accept Nap Lajoie as winning that title at .378 despite lacking the plate appearances required in more modern times.

Luke Voit joined Babe Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Roger Maris and Alex Rodriguez as New York Yankees to top the majors in home runs. Voit’s total of 22 was the fewest for a major league leader since 1918 at the end of the dead ball era but extrapolates to 59 over a full season.

LeMahieu and Voit became the first teammates to win batting and home run titles in the same season since the Milwaukee Braves’ Hank Aaron (.355) and Eddie Mathews (46) in 1959. They are just the fifth pair of teammates to do it, a group that includes Cincinnati’s Cy Seymour and Fred Odell in 1905, Philadelphia’s Billy Hamilton and Delahanty in 1893 and the Chicago White Stockings’ Cap Anson and Jimmy Ryan in 1888.

“Obviously, everybody wishes this year wouldn’t have been so weird,” Voit said. “You’ve got to just roll with it.”

Soto batted .351 for Washington and at 21 years, 11 months, 2 days became the youngest NL batting champion. He surpassed Pete Reiser, who was 22 years, 195 days when he won for Brooklyn in 1941. Al Kaline is the youngest batting champion, winning the 1955 AL title for Detroit at 20 years, 9 months, 6 days. Soto walked and singled Sunday, then came out of the game with a lead over Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, who finished second at .341.

“It’s a little different, because we just played 60 games — and I didn’t get to play all the 60 games,” said Soto, who tested positive for the coronavirus on opening day. “You just feel good about it, because you see how consistent you’ve got to be to win it. It means you’ve got to be consistent the whole two months. So it just feels good. I’ve never won one in 162 games, so I can’t tell you if it feels the same.”

Atlanta’s Marcell Ozuna led the NL with 18 homers and 56 RBIs. José Abreu of the Chicago White Sox led the major leagues with 60 RBIs after topping the AL last year with 123.

After strikeouts set a record for the 12th straight season last year at an average of 8.81 per team per game, they declined slightly to 8.68.

But the gap between hits and strikeouts got even wider despite the short season. Strikeouts had a 189 advantage when they exceeded hits for the first time in 2018, the gap grew to 783 last year and to 1,147 this year despite only 37% of a normal season’s games.

With no fans in ballparks and a revised schedule that restricted teams to their geographic regions — East vs. East, Central vs. Central and West vs. West — home teams had a bigger advantage than usual. Home teams went 500-398 for a .557 winning percentage, the highest since .559 in 2010, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Bieber and the Chicago Cubs’ Yu Darvish tied for the major league lead in wins with eight. The previous low of 14 was set in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer led the NL with a 1.73 ERA.

Bieber topped the AL with 122 strikeouts, the fewest to lead since Lefty Grove’s 116 in 1925. With 104, Jacob deGrom topped the NL for the second straight year and had the lowest total for an NL leader, 18 fewer than Louisville’s Jim Devlin during the league’s first season in 1876.

Bauer, the Yankees’ Gerrit Cole, Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola and St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright had two complete games each, matching the lowest total for a leader set two years ago. Bauer was the only pitcher with two shutouts; the record-low leader was set when 19 pitchers had one each in 2018.

Cleveland closer Brad Hand led the major leagues with 16 saves and Milwaukee lefty Josh Hader topped the NL with 13, both lows since saves became an official statistic in 1969.

Kansas City’s Adalberto Mondesi had 24 stolen bases, the lowest total for a major league leader since Luis Aparacio swiped 21 for the Chicago White Sox in 1956. Trevor Story’s 15 for Colorado was an all-time low for an NL leader.

There were 45 games postponed for COVID-19-related reasons but just two were not made up, between St. Louis and Detroit. In order to accomplish that, there were 56 doubleheaders, the most since 76 in 1984. About 12% of games were part of doubleheaders, the highest percentage since 13.6 in 1978.

Twenty games were played on Sept. 4, including five doubleheaders, the most since 20 were played on Aug. 4, 1974, when there were nine doubleheaders.

Playoffs were expanded from 10 teams to 16, and Milwaukee and Houston (29-31) both had the lowest winning percentage for a playoff team at .483. The previous low was the 2005 San Diego Padres at 82-80 (.506). While Kansas City reached the playoffs in 1981, it was based on the Royals’ 30-23 record in the second half of the season, not their 50-53 record overall.

There were 78 extra-inning games, and in the first season in which each extra inning started with a runner on second base, the longest by innings were a pair of 13-inning contests at Houston, won by the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 29 and by Oakland on Aug. 7. Every previous season since 1901 had at least one game of 15 innings or longer.

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