The Cubs Are Winning Without Their Offensive Stars

If I told you at the start of the 2020 season that the Cubs would win the division by a comfortable margin, you probably would rightly make some assumptions about the events that led to this result. Probably the most obvious is that a National League Central victory would involve big years from the three biggest names in the lineup: 2016 MVP Kris Bryant, 2018 MVP runner-up Javier Báez, and three-time All-Star and Gold Glover Anthony Rizzo. But that most obvious of assumptions would be wrong in this case. Through Tuesday’s games, these key contributors to the team’s success over the last five years have combined for just 1.1 WAR in 581 combined plate appearances, about the same WAR as players such as Kevin Pillar and Victor Reyes. In 2016, the year the Cubs won the World Series, this trio combined for 15 WAR, or 4.8 WAR per 581 plate appearances.

All three are eligible for free agency no later than the end of the 2021 season and their poor performances have changed their outlooks enough to potentially have consequences for both their career trajectories and future contracts. With their performance this year, the Cubs have gotten a taste of what the team’s future might hold if all three depart Chicago. There are mitigating factors all over the place — the shortened, odd 2020, Bryant’s plethora of injuries — but the fact remains is that for stars, the risk is fairly one-sided. What this means is that for the best players in baseball, it’s far more likely that events will reduce their value than increase their value; I can think of a lot of scenarios that would cause Mike Trout to underperform his WAR projection by five wins, but very few in which he’d exceed it by the same margin. Poor baseball is one thing, but uncertainty is also a problem for a superstar. How have the outlooks for these three changed over 2020? Let us count the ways. Read the rest of this entry »

Who Should Finish Second for AL Cy Young?

Even though he’s still got one start to go and several other pitchers will also see playing time over the next few days, the American League Cy Young race is all but over. Last year, it was a two-horse race between Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. This year, Shane Bieber has been so dominant that no other AL pitcher can come close to his accomplishments with less than a week remaining. He leads the league in strikeouts by 25 through Monday’s games, with the distance between first and second the same as the distance between second and 18th. His 41% strikeout rate is the best in baseball, and his 2.13 FIP and 1.74 ERA pace the league as well. There isn’t a credible argument against Bieber winning the award and he should even garner support for MVP. As for second place, there are a ton of candidates.

To try to wade through the potential two-through-five slots on voters’ ballots, let’s take a quick look at pitcher WAR through Tuesday night’s games:

AL Pitching WAR Leaders
Shane Bieber 72.1 13.9 2.2 0.9 .268 1.74 2.13 2.9
Dylan Bundy 65.2 9.9 2.3 0.7 .272 3.29 2.93 2.0
Framber Valdez 70.2 9.7 2.0 0.6 .312 3.57 2.84 2.0
Zack Greinke 62.1 9.0 1.2 0.9 .306 3.90 2.87 1.9
Kenta Maeda 60.2 10.5 1.5 1.2 .206 2.52 3.04 1.9
Lucas Giolito 66.1 11.7 3.4 1.0 .250 3.53 3.18 1.9
Lance Lynn 78.1 9.7 2.6 1.2 .221 2.53 3.80 1.8
Andrew Heaney 62.2 9.6 2.4 0.9 .297 4.02 3.19 1.7
Marco Gonzales 64.2 8.2 0.8 1.1 .253 3.06 3.42 1.7
Hyun Jin Ryu 60.0 10.2 2.3 0.9 .312 3.00 3.01 1.7
Dallas Keuchel 57.1 6.1 2.4 0.3 .258 2.04 3.05 1.6
Gerrit Cole 73.0 11.6 2.1 1.7 .242 2.84 3.87 1.5
Through 9/22

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Nolan Arenado’s Season Is Over, but He and Rockies Are Still Stuck With Each Other

With a 2-9 stretch from September 8-19, the Rockies plummeted below .500 for the season and faded from the playoff picture. Though they’re still technically alive-ish in the race for the NL’s eighth seed, they’ve squandered their 11-3 start, and their Playoff Odds are down to 1.7%; they need to overtake at least four teams in the season’s five remaining days. Their task will be that much harder without Nolan Arenado, who last played on Saturday and who was placed on the Injured List on Monday with what the Rockies described as left AC joint inflammation and a left shoulder bone bruise. His season is over.

Listening to the broadcast of the Rockies-Giants game on Monday night, one of the announcers — I forget which side it was, as I was in the midst of flipping around MLB.TV — noted that Arenado has been so durable that “the last time he was on the Injured List, it wasn’t even called the Injured List” or words to that effect. In 2014, he missed 37 games after fracturing the middle finger of his left hand while sliding head-first into second base. From 2015-19, he averaged 157 games per year from 2015-19, playing more games (787) than all but three players, namely Eric Hosmer (795), Manny Machado (793), and Paul Goldschmidt (791).

Arenado initially injured his shoulder during the season’s fifth game, on July 29, while making the kind of diving stop of a Stephen Piscotty groundball that has typified the seven-time Gold Glove winner’s career:

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2020 Bowman Chrome Autograph Prospects Are on the Board

Yesterday, I noticed some odd prospects trending in FanGraphs’ player search bar and, as I often do, I Googled those players to see why that might be. It’s often due to a call-up, trade, or injury, but in this case I found that some young players like Luisangel Acuna were being searched on the site because their autographs are part of a new baseball card set that came out earlier in the week: Bowman Chrome 2020.

I don’t collect baseball cards anymore but I still frequent two local shops that sell board and trading card games (which I do play) in addition to sports cards. During a trip (with a scout, ironically) to one of them last year, I found the shop owner and a customer deep in discussion about the prospects in last year’s Bowman set, a conversation that included mention of how expensive Wander Franco’s cards had become, and how sought after Jasson Dominguez’s first card was likely to be in 2020. I asked, “What is it that’s driving card prices for some of the prospects who most people have never seen play and who a lot of casual fans have never heard of?” to which the customer responded, “Their stats.” Read the rest of this entry »

Blue Jays Already Basking in Ryu ROI

In spite of everything that was supposed to make the hunt for this postseason more thrilling than ever, the American League playoff field has been pretty much set for quite a while now. The last time a team outside contention had even a 20% chance of reaching the postseason was on September 2, when the Detroit Tigers became the last to fade quietly out of the race. The playoff squad of eight with 99% or better playoff odds contains a bunch of the teams we expected it to, such as the Rays, Yankees, Astros, and A’s. It also includes the Toronto Blue Jays, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2016. Just a year after posting their worst record since 2004, the Blue Jays are contenders thanks to a strong lineup and a surprisingly deep bullpen. Neither of those might have been enough, however, if not for the efforts of left-handed ace Hyun Jin Ryu.

Ryu is 11 starts into a four-year, $80-million contract he signed with Toronto last winter, a deal that carried quite a bit of risk on several levels. He is in his age-33 season, a time that would make a four-year commitment dicey for any pitcher considering how the odds of injury and diminished stuff both head in the wrong direction around then. Indeed, Ryu already faced questions about his health and his arsenal.

He threw a total of just 213.2 innings over four seasons with the Dodgers from 2015-18, dealing with problems in his shoulder, elbow, hip, foot and groin — name a body part, and Ryu has probably missed a couple of starts by pulling it at one time or another. Then there is his fastball velocity, which has for years only rested at about 90 mph. And while he won the ERA title last year, regression already seemed to be setting in over the final couple months of the season. There were enough warning signs present that erstwhile FanGraphs author Kiley McDaniel projected Ryu to land just $32 million on the open market — less than half of what Toronto ultimately signed him for. Read the rest of this entry »

Jared Walsh Has Simplified Things

When you pull up the MLB position player leaderboards for September, you’ll find some familiar names. Freddie Freeman has launched himself into the middle of the National League MVP race with his incredible form this month. José Ramírez is challenging Mike Trout and José Abreu in the battle for the American League MVP. But nestled among these stars is one surprising name: Jared Walsh. He’s put up a 222 wRC+ in September, notching hits in all but one game this month. Eight of his 24 knocks have left the park — including a mammoth grand slam yesterday afternoon — giving him an impressive .390 ISO this year. He has truly been one of the few bright spots for the floundering Angels.

Best known for being developed as a two-way player, Walsh has finally tapped into the power that he’s displayed throughout his minor league career. A 39th-round pick back in 2015, Walsh quickly moved through the Angels organization, powering his way through each minor league stop. He posted a .237 ISO during his minor league career, though all that power came with plenty of strikeouts. He made his major league debut last September, struggling through 87 plate appearances and five appearances out of the bullpen. A strikeout rate over 40% really hampered all of his efforts at the plate, and those relief appearances all came in mop-up duty where his 26.1% walk rate could do little harm.

With such a disappointing audition in 2019 and the Angels seemingly focused on a playoff run, Walsh was likely relegated to a mere depth piece on their depth chart entering this season. But nothing in 2020 has gone according to plan, and the Angels quickly found themselves looking up from the bottom of the standings. When they traded away a couple of players at the trade deadline, it opened up an opportunity for Walsh, and he has run with it. Read the rest of this entry »

Jay Jaffe FanGraphs Chat – 9/22/20

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Good afternoon, folks, and welcome to the final week of the 2020 regular season. In connection with that, I have the latest installment of my Team Entropy series here:

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Yesterday I looked at Justin Verlander’s Tommy John surgery and its impact on the Astros’ postseason rotation as well as his pursuit of some big milestones…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: Meanwhile, not mine but i just finished reading a piece from The Athletic about the mid-’80s White Sox as early pioneers in biomechanics, complete with video of Tom Seaver’s drop-and-drive delivery…

Avatar Jay Jaffe: OK, on with the show

Cito’s Mustache: If both #8 seeds were to upset the #1 seeds in the 3-game Wild Card series, would that give MLB pause to making the expanded postseason format permanent? A little chaos is good IMO. But too much, and the issue of fairness comes into question.

Avatar Jay Jaffe: First, I think it’s important to remember through all of this that the players have a say in any new postseason format. I suspect that they will have it drilled into them that expanded playoffs increasingly reward mediocrity and could hit them in their wallets. Any expansion beyond the pre-2020 format needs to incentivize teams to win their divisions

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Team Entropy 2020: Still on the Table(s)

The regular season has just six days remaining, and while seven teams (five in the AL, two in the NL) have clinched playoff berths, there’s still a fair bit to be decided as far as seedings and matchups, particularly in the NL. Unfortunately, we won’t get any tiebreaker games this year — everything will be decided mathematically, possibly including who’s in and who’s out — but the odds for confusion are still high given the unfamiliar format, and some of the jockeying for position could go down to the wire. Hence, it’s time for another Team Entropy installment.

The short version of what you need to know about the format is that each league’s playoff slates will include the division winners (who will be seeded 1-3), the second-place teams (seeded 4-6), and then the two other teams in the league with the best records (seeded 7-8, and deemed the Wild Card teams). For what’s being called the Wild Card Series, teams will pair off in the familiar bracket format: 1-8, 2-7, 3-6, and 4-5, with all three games at the higher-seeded team’s ballpark in an effort to provide them with some kind of advantage. Even with no crowds in ballparks this year, home teams have a .546 winning percentage, higher than it’s been since 2009 (.549).

If teams are tied for spots after Sunday, or if it has any bearing upon seeding, commissioner Rob Manfred may mandate the Cardinals — who have just 58 games scheduled right now due to all of their COVID-19 outbreak-related postponements — and Tigers play a doubleheader on Monday, September 28 to get to 60 games. Beyond that, ties will be broken on the following basis:

  • Head-to-head record (if applicable). Since teams haven’t played outside their divisions except against their interleague geographic counterparts, this is of use only for determining first, second, and third place within the division. If three teams in a division end up tied, combined head-to-head records against the other two teams will be used.
  • If head-to-head records are tied or not applicable, the next tiebreaker is intradivision record.
  • If teams have the same intradivision records, the next tiebreaker is record in the final 20 division games. If that doesn’t break the tie, then record over the final 21 games is used, and then onto final 22, 23, 24, and so forth until the tie is broken.

First, we’ll take a look at the Senior Circuit, where there’s much more up in the air:

NL Standings Through September 21
NL East W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Braves Marlins Phillies Mets
Braves 32 22 .593 22-15 4-3 5-5 6-4
Marlins 28 26 .519 4 20-17 3-4 7-3 4-6
Phillies 27 27 .500 5 20-17 5-5 3-7 6-4
Mets 24 30 .444 8 16-20 4-6 6-4 4-6
NL Central W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Cubs Cardinals Reds Brewers
Cubs 32 22 .593 22-15 5-5 6-4 5-5
Cardinals 26 25 .510 4.5 19-16 5-5 6-4 2-3
Reds 28 27 .509 4.5 20-18 4-6 4-6 5-3
Brewers 26 27 .491 5.5 16-17 5-5 3-2 3-5
NL West W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Dodgers* Padres* Giants Rockies
Dodgers-x 38 16 .704 27-13 6-4 6-4 7-3
Padres-x 34 20 .630 4 21-15 4-6 5-1 7-3
Giants 26 27 .491 11.5 15-18 4-6 1-5 2-5
Rockies 24 29 .453 13.5 15-18 3-7 3-7 5-2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
*clinched playoff berth

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The AL MVP Battle Could Come Down to Philosophy

With less than a week to go in the regular season, writers will soon vote on end-of-season awards, and the shortened season makes for some very tight races. That’s certainly true for American League MVP. Through play on Sunday, here’s the WAR Leaderboard for American League position players:

American League Position Player WAR Leaders
Name PA HR wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR
José Ramírez 229 16 156 2.6 18.5 2.6 3.0
José Abreu 236 18 178 0.5 23.1 -5.8 2.7
Anthony Rendon 218 9 154 0.8 15.3 3.2 2.6
Tim Anderson 195 10 168 0.8 17.2 -0.4 2.5
Mike Trout 227 16 167 1.1 19.8 -2.9 2.5
DJ LeMahieu 188 10 181 0.5 19.3 -0.7 2.3
Brandon Lowe 206 13 153 2.4 15.8 1.3 2.2
Nelson Cruz 201 16 172 -0.8 17.1 -5.3 2.0
Kyle Lewis 222 11 140 1.5 12.4 -0.8 1.9
Teoscar Hernández 185 16 164 0.8 15.4 -1 1.9
Luke Voit 208 21 161 1.2 16.7 -3.6 1.8
Alex Verdugo 196 6 140 0.8 10.5 2.8 1.8
David Fletcher 206 3 124 0.9 6.9 2.7 1.7
Francisco Lindor 240 8 106 -1.5 0.2 6.1 1.7
Luis Robert 207 11 105 0.9 2.3 5.4 1.6
Eloy Jiménez 215 14 143 0 11.3 -4.7 1.6
Through 9/21

That’s a fine list of players, to be sure, but it doesn’t include one of the top players by AL WAR at the moment. Shane Bieber has made 11 starts and pitched 72.1 innings good for a 2.13 FIP, 1.74 FIP, and 2.9 WAR. He’s struck out 41% of batters, given up three runs in three starts, two runs in two starts, one run in one start, and no runs in five starts. He pitched at least six innings in every start but one, when he threw five frames against the Brewers on September 6, striking out 10 against one walk, giving up a single run. Given Bieber’s runs’ allowed, there is no real difference between his FanGraphs’ WAR and his mark at Baseball-Reference. He also leads the league in xwOBA over at Baseball Savant. Read the rest of this entry »

Rafael Marchan Powers Up

Ask 10 professional hitters what they’re trying to do at the plate, and you might get 10 answers. They might be trying to hit a line drive to center every time, or put the ball in the air, or stay back on offspeed pitches, or take what the pitcher gives them. Ask what they want to do, however, and if they’re honest, they’ll tell you they want to hit a home run.

How could you not want to hit a home run? The feeling of absolutely obliterating the ball must be magical. Want to take your time around the bases? It’s all up to you! Your teammates will all congratulate you. There are no fielders to interfere with it. It’s the perfect combination — the best contact you’ll ever make, and plenty of time to enjoy it.

Of course, most trips to the plate don’t end in a home run. For Rafael Marchan, in fact, none of his trips to the plate in a professional game had ever ended with that feeling of elation before 2020. That didn’t stop him from standing out as a prospect, because he checked a lot of other boxes: he’s a catcher with a plus throwing arm, and he has excellent contact skills. It’s a Wilson Ramos starter kit, essentially, and that was enough to make Marchan the Phillies’ 10th-best prospect heading into 2020.

Marchan didn’t look likely to break his string of homer-less professional plate appearances in 2020. He played in A- and Hi-A ball in 2019 and acquitted himself well enough even without the homers; his .271/.347/.339 batting line for the Lakewood BlueClaws was good enough for an unconventional 105 wRC+. That isn’t the kind of line that clamors for a big league call-up, and with no minor league season, it was shaping up to be a year of sitting quietly on the sidelines, not getting any better at hitting or any closer to the big leagues.

There was one thing working in Marchan’s favor: his age. A 2015 signee, Marchan was eligible for the Rule 5 draft after last season, and he would be again this year. The Phillies probably didn’t want to take the chance that someone would snap him up, and they at least wanted to get a look at him in camp before having to make a decision one way or the other. It was a no-brainer to add him to the 60-man player pool, even if we still thought his ETA was 2022.

While Marchan was in camp, impressing coaches with his defense and continuing to make contact against advanced pitching, the Phillies got funky at the major league level. On the August 31 trade deadline, they added David Phelps while activating Ranger Suárez and Jay Bruce from the Injured List. That meant they needed both 40-man roster space and active roster space, and Deivy Grullón got caught in the crosshairs.

Grullón was on the Phillies roster for Rule 5 considerations himself, but was stuck in between roles; he’d come up as a glove-first backstop, but the glove didn’t hold up at higher levels, and while his bat improved, it wasn’t enough to carry him. He looked like a fringy backup or a solid third catcher, which is exactly how the Phillies were using him, but they needed 40-man spots. They were going to lose him in the offseason, anyway: if they protected Marchan in the Rule 5 draft, that would in all likelihood mean releasing Grullón to make the roster work.

It probably wouldn’t matter much for Marchan, but that made him the third catcher on the Phillies’ depth chart this year. With only a month remaining in the season, he wouldn’t likely be needed in the bigs, and in most years, teams can always find a spare third catcher lying around rather than use a 21-year-old who has never played above A-ball if they need a spot start.

Of course, it’s not most years. When J.T. Realmuto injured his hip on September 12, the team added Marchan to the active roster. It was no big deal, from a 40-man perspective; they were going to add him this offseason anyway, so why not do it now? He’d serve as Andrew Knapp’s backup while Realmuto rested — it might only be a matter of days, but Marchan would probably need to catch at least one game, due to a double-header scheduled for September 14.

He went a solid 1-3 in one game of that double-header, and Realmuto didn’t recover quickly, which meant another start, on September 18 against the Blue Jays. And in that game, Marchan did the unthinkable: he hit his first professional home run. It was no cheapie, either; a 364-foot, 99.6 mph blast to right off of an A.J. Cole cutter.

Home runs don’t impress us as baseball fans the way they used to. They’re everywhere in the major leagues, so commonplace as to be boring. Eric Sogard, who looks like a substitute teacher, has a double-digit home run season. Jorge Polanco cranked out 22 last year. Home runs aren’t special anymore.

But c’mon — this is something else. FanGraphs carries minor league data back to 2006. Here’s a list of the players with the most minor league at-bats in that timeframe without a home run:

Most MiLB PA without a HR (’06-’19)
Name Plate Appearances Home Runs
Kyle Hudson 2728 0
Norris Hopper 1561 0
Joey Gathright 1141 0
Rafael Marchan 846 0
Ryan Theriot 312 0
Tony Giarratano 295 0
Tim Laker 206 0
Pablo Ozuna 203 0
Michael Barrett 170 0
Yefrey Ramírez 170 0

This list is a bit misleading. For one thing, two of the top four players had extensive pre-2006 minor league careers. In fact, both Gathright and Hopper hit homers before 2006 (Theriot, Ozuna, and Barrett did too, but they’re below Marchan on the list so we’ll leave them out of it). Gathright hit exactly one home run in his minor league career, and exactly one in his major league career. Close to what we’re looking for! But no cigar.

Hopper displayed a jaw-dropping lack of power; in a whopping 4,761 minor league plate appearances, he managed exactly three home runs. He also hit only a single major league home run, but it too was after he’d already gone yard in the minors.

If we’re looking for someone to top Marchan’s feat, then, Kyle Hudson is our best shot. Hudson, like Hopper, combined minor league longevity with absolutely no thump. He was drafted in 2008, then spent four years in the Orioles’ system before getting a shot in the big leagues in 2011. Like Gathright and Hopper, he was a speedy outfielder with questionable pop; he hit one home run in his last season at the University of Illinois, where he was a two-sport star who totaled 999 receiving yards over three seasons of football.

In his brief shot in the major leagues, however, Hudson didn’t exactly power up. He hit a desultory .143/.143/.143 in 29 September plate appearances, then left the Orioles organization in the offseason. He bounced around through five organizations before hanging up his spikes for good in 2015, with no professional home runs to his name.

So there you have it: as far back as I can scrape data, Rafael Marchan is the champion of hitting his first professional homer after a long, fruitless minor league stint. But that’s unsatisfying, even if he’s leaps and bounds beyond any other active minor leaguer when it comes to homer-less plate appearances. That’s because of a simple fact: having the longest streak of never doing something ends as soon as you do that thing.

Take John Gant. One of my favorite weird baseball statistics was that Gant was, briefly, the major leaguer who had the most plate appearances without reaching base. Then he reached base (on a home run, naturally). Now he doesn’t hold that record anymore. If your record involves never doing something, it’s hard to make it stick. Eventually, you’ll do it.

In that vein, I decided to dig a little deeper and look for players who had little power but not actually no power. Here’s a list of players with no more than three homers at the minor league level since 2006:

Low Power MiLB’ers (’06-’19)
Name Plate Appearances Home Runs HR Rate
Guilder Rodriguez 3120 2 0.06%
Kyle Hudson 2728 0 0.00%
Engelb Vielma 2358 2 0.08%
Terrance Gore 2334 1 0.04%
Adam Frazier 1670 3 0.18%
Norris Hopper 1561 0 0.00%
Jordan Weems 1180 3 0.25%
Joey Gathright 1141 0 0.00%
Jose Ruíz 1005 1 0.10%
Mel Stocker 1005 2 0.20%
Wilkin Ruan 977 3 0.31%
Rafael Marchan 846 0 0.00%

This is hardly a list of household names, unless you count Gore and Frazier. Ruíz and Weems both converted to pitching, so bereft of pop were they. The players in front of Machan on this list have combined for 35 major league homers, and Frazier has hit 33 of them. He has the vast majority of the major league plate appearances this group has accrued as well; this skillset simply doesn’t seem to get much of a chance in the majors.

That, of course, is mostly meaningless. Marchan is in the major leagues. He’s Philadelphia’s best catching prospect, and if Realmuto leaves this offseason, he might just be their best catcher, period. He’ll get more chances at the major league level, and the batted ball data, scarce as it is, already looks good.

He has a barrel! His hard-hit rate is 50%. The sample size is “go away, this isn’t a real sample,” but we’re not talking about Billy Hamilton here; Marchan’s maximum exit velocity, in six chances, is 99.6 mph, nearly equal to Hamilton’s maximum in 257 batted balls the past two years.

Rafael Marchan is a historical oddity; a near-powerless minor leaguer who still looks like he has a bright future in the major leagues. He’s also, though, a creation of this strange year. Players like Marchan develop slowly. He’s both a catcher and a switch hitter. If there were a minor league season, he might have shown up and shown the pop he’s now showing, hit a handful of home runs and found his way off of this strange list.

That might still happen. If Realmuto returns, Marchan will be back in the minors next year. He might be back in the minors even if Realmuto leaves; he’s a 21-year-old who has never played above A-ball before this year. He’s only here because of a string of unlikely circumstances. The team could drop him in Double-A and sign a veteran to hold down the position to give Marchan another year of seasoning.

I’m rooting for the exact opposite, though. I want him to stick in the majors and hit well enough that his minor league career becomes absurd. I want him to be Hamilton in the minors — although, not actually Billy Hamilton, because he somehow hit 13 homers in 2,272 plate appearances — and a normal hitter in the majors. Marchan isn’t a footnote of history just yet, but he could be, and that’s one piece of 2020 history I’d be happy to remember.