Another Day, Another New Plan Projected

As owners and the players discuss ways to start up the 2020 season, we’ve started to see the outline of a possible plan for play become less foggy. 162 games has, of course, long been impossible; now, the owners are proposing roughly a half-season rather than the expected 100-110 games. 82 games starting in early July gives us less baseball than usual, but it could also result in the “baseball year” following its same basic schedule rather than ending in late November. After all, teams normally play about that many games after early July! This likely represents the desire of the owners to play as many games as possible in the home parks rather than the considerably more exotic Super Spring Training plans that have been floated over the last six weeks.

But a shorter schedule isn’t the only proposed change coming for 2020 baseball. Forecasting how the Players v. Owners fight over revenue-sharing shakes out is beyond my abilities as a projectionista, but there are many other new tidbits that do fall within my scope. For one, while the league standings are still likely to be organized along the usual lines, teams would only play their regional division “partners” and the corresponding geographical division of the other league. This has the rather odd result of the Wild Card standings consisting of a lot of teams that would never play each other. But as ugly as that sounds, the main concern is playing the season rather than maximizing its fairness. For the purposes of these projections, I’ve assumed teams will play 52 games, or 63% of the schedule, in their division with 30 games out of division.

The designated hitter is also expected to become universal this year. I’ve long been of the opinion that as soon as interleague play became a daily activity, pitcher-hitting was on borrowed time. When interleague play consisted of special chunks of the season, NL teams could design their rosters to call up a Wily Mo Pena, a competent DH type without a full-time spot on the team, large pitching staffs having mostly killed off the designated pinch-hitter job. Once DH games became sprinkled throughout the system, it put NL teams at a slight disadvantage when planning to have an extra bat on the roster.

Another major proposed change is expanded rosters. While this has been done in the past — 27 players after the 1990 lockout, 28 after the 1994-1995 strike — modern baseball has never been disrupted to this degree. For the purposes of these projections, I went with 30-man active rosters. I also included the effect of a 20-man taxi squad and gave those players real playing time given the very likely possibility of no minor league season in 2020.

The last major change is seven teams going to the playoffs in each league, something that Rob Manfred talked about before the world fell apart. I hated the idea then due to the continued cheapening of the regular season, but at this point, there are a lot of things I don’t like that I’ll learn to live with for the purposes of getting baseball going! With those changes in mind, here’s how the season projects:

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL East
New York Yankees 50 32 .610 58.4% 38.8% 97.2%
Tampa Bay Rays 48 34 2 .585 33.9% 56.1% 90.0%
Boston Red Sox 42 40 8 .512 6.6% 38.0% 44.6%
Toronto Blue Jays 37 45 13 .451 1.2% 11.6% 12.8%
Baltimore Orioles 28 54 22 .341 0.0% 0.1% 0.1%

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL Central
Minnesota Twins 48 34 .585 50.2% 35.1% 85.2%
Cleveland Indians 46 36 2 .561 33.9% 41.7% 75.7%
Chicago White Sox 43 39 5 .524 14.0% 35.4% 49.4%
Kansas City Royals 37 45 11 .451 1.7% 7.5% 9.2%
Detroit Tigers 33 49 15 .402 0.2% 1.1% 1.3%

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL West
Houston Astros 49 33 .598 54.7% 34.8% 89.5%
Oakland A’s 46 36 3 .561 30.2% 46.8% 77.1%
Los Angeles Angels 43 39 6 .524 12.1% 37.0% 49.1%
Texas Rangers 39 43 10 .476 2.8% 15.2% 18.0%
Seattle Mariners 32 50 17 .390 0.1% 0.8% 0.9%

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL East
Atlanta Braves 47 35 .573 38.1% 39.4% 77.5%
Washington Nationals 47 35 .573 36.6% 39.4% 76.1%
New York Mets 43 39 4 .524 13.3% 35.1% 48.5%
Philadelphia Phillies 43 39 4 .524 11.2% 32.5% 43.7%
Miami Marlins 36 46 11 .439 0.8% 4.7% 5.5%

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL Central
Chicago Cubs 45 37 .549 31.5% 27.9% 59.4%
Milwaukee Brewers 44 38 1 .537 24.7% 27.1% 51.8%
St. Louis Cardinals 43 39 2 .524 21.5% 26.3% 47.9%
Cincinnati Reds 43 39 2 .524 19.3% 25.8% 45.1%
Pittsburgh Pirates 37 45 8 .451 2.9% 7.0% 10.0%

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West
Los Angeles Dodgers 52 30 .634 77.3% 20.6% 97.9%
San Diego Padres 45 37 7 .549 14.8% 56.9% 71.7%
Arizona Diamondbacks 43 39 9 .524 6.9% 42.3% 49.2%
Colorado Rockies 37 45 15 .451 0.7% 9.3% 10.0%
San Francisco Giants 36 46 16 .439 0.4% 5.4% 5.8%

So who gains from all of this? A few different classes of teams.

Great teams tend to be hurt the most by shorter schedules and in an 82-game season, a lot of would-be playoff appearances by teams like the Yankees and Dodgers disappear into the ether. The greater number of Wild Card spots mitigate this somewhat, restoring the playoff odds these teams saw in the “normal” projected standings from a few months ago.

The shorter season also helps teams with injury problems that will be mitigated somewhat by starting the season in July. The Yankees get the biggest boost, but this also aids teams like the Reds, Astros, and Indians.

The biggest winners are perhaps the AL and NL Central teams. Both the Central divisions are projected as weaker-than-average and these teams benefit by swapping out East and West division teams for games against the Central team of the opposing league. Overall, the strength of schedule becomes even more unbalanced, with opposing team strength ranging from .525 for the Orioles (85 wins per 162) to the Twins’ opponents at .479 (78 wins). That doesn’t increase their divisional probabilities since there’s still just one AL Central and one NL Central title, but it’s a huge boost to their Wild Card chances. Teams like the White Sox, Cardinals, and Reds all advance to coin flips.

The designated hitter rule provides a boost for NL teams with extra bats. My colleague Craig Edwards wrote about how the DH changes affect National League teams and while I get slightly different results from making slightly different choices, the same principle applies. A team like the Reds, with too many outfielders for their lineup, is well-equipped to provide a viable DH on a daily basis.

And lastly, the taxi squads provide a small but real boost to teams with better high minors depth and better top prospects. The Rays and Dodgers, among others, see gains here, thanks to having both elite prospects and excellent Triple-A depth.

Do these changes benefit the game? In a normal season, I’m not sure. But in 2020, anything that gets us closer to “Play Ball” has to be seriously considered.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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2 years ago

Universal DH really helps the market for Puig

2 years ago
Reply to  ZLSinger

Does it? Projections have him as pretty average hitting and fielding. Anyone could have signed him as an OF. An extra “lineup” slot shouldn’t change things.

I just don’t understand why players think this is an improvement. Relying on owners to overpay for older hitters sounds like Lucy and the football.

Ken Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  patsen29

What about this plan indicates that the owners are going to “overpay” for older hitters? Guess I missed that part

2 years ago
Reply to  patsen29

Average hitting and fielding is a lot better than most NL teams have for their 9th best position player. NL teams that were previously comfortable with standing pat would become more interested in Puig once they have to put an extra bat in the lineup.

2 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I sort of took the opposite view above, suggesting Puig might be a loser this year if he doesn’t adjust his salary demands, but your point is quite valid. As long as he doesn’t ask for the moon and takes a one year deal, he might land quickly. He frankly should take minimum if that’s all he can get. Out of sight, out of mind. Go to a team where he can have a big impact over the 82-game season and re-enter the market in the off season.

2 years ago
Reply to  patsen29

How many teams actually have a dedicated DH? Sure, each team probably has a player who will get a significant portion of the DH ABs, but the reality is short of elite hitters with poor fielding or health skills–think David Ortiz or Edgar Martinez or Frank Thomas in his 30s or Harold Baines–most AL teams use the DH spot to rotate their position players. They don’t want one player locking up that spot because it reduces roster flexbility.

Let’s look at one team that pops to mind. The Yankees have Giancarlo Stanton. He may get the most ABs at DH, but he likely also plays 60+ games in the OF as long as he can return to health. Judge, Sanchez, Voit, etc. will get time at DH to rest. That’s the model most AL teams want follow. It allows them to have an extra impact bat in the lineup, while also allowing them to rest their position players. The Mets, for another example, have multiple players they can DH, and eventually they’ll welcome the opportunity to DH Robinson Cano.

Puig is someone a team can DH, but know that he can also go to the OF. Puig, though, could be a big loser THIS year. He never signed. Who is going to sign him now with only half a season to play if he continues to ask for a high salary? Teams are counting pennies now. He may not return until 2021 unless he takes a low-base contract.