With so much uncertainty surrounding the “when” and “if” of a 2020 MLB season, it’s not surprising to see a constant progression of new plans. What it comes down to is that there’s no obvious one-size-fits-all solution that maximizes player and staff safety, baseball quality, the number of baseball games, and league revenue simultaneously. It’s only in such an odd year that things like playing in spring training parks, Arizona/Florida leagues, neutral playoffs, fanless games, and Thanksgiving baseball actually seem plausible rather than falling in the category of whimsical skylarkings.
While states re-opening for business seems like a dubious decision, often running counter to the advice of public health experts, it appears inevitable that many jurisdictions will resume much of their pre-COVID-19 economic activity, though with additional precautions and wariness of others. We’re far from being able to expect normal game conditions, with fans and hot dog vendors, but increasingly, there’s a push to play a large percentage, if not all of the season, in teams’ home parks.
With travel likely to be both more difficult and more perilous, CBS Sports’ RJ Anderson reported a proposal for a three-division alignment for the 2020 season. This would likely involve teams at least starting in just a few stadiums before an eventual move to their home cities depending on the course of the virus.
To simplify travel, the idea is to base the temporary divisions on general geographic location. This isn’t a perfect solution, especially if there are three 10-team divisions; the location of the 30 teams doesn’t magically conform to a league structure. The proximity of east coast cities would allow for fairly neat travel, but there’s only a single Mountain time zone team (the Rockies), and the Texas teams would have to travel a lot more than most teams in a “western” division.
Luckily, I’m not the one that has to figure out all these logistics. (Our own Tony Wolfe gave it his best shot.) I’m just the guy who gets to projectify whatever actually does happen! So let’s whip out ZiPS for the proposed three divisions and see what the pennant races might look like. For these projections, I’m assuming a 100-game season, and no set playoff structure as nothing has really been proposed in that area. I’ve denoted a “top five” percentage given that any postseason structure is unlikely to go past 15 total teams:
|New York Yankees||60||40||—||.600||55.9%||21.7%||10.9%||5.8%||3.1%||97.4%|
|Tampa Bay Rays||54||46||6||.540||15.2%||22.2%||19.5%||15.0%||11.3%||83.3%|
|New York Mets||53||47||7||.530||5.7%||12.2%||15.2%||16.5%||15.3%||64.9%|
|Boston Red Sox||50||50||10||.500||2.2%||5.8%||8.9%||12.3%||14.5%||43.7%|
|Toronto Blue Jays||47||53||13||.470||0.6%||2.3%||4.7%||7.3%||10.8%||25.7%|
Unsurprisingly, the New York Yankees show up at the top of any division structure; ZiPS projects the Los Angeles Dodgers to be the only team with a stronger roster. The Yankees would still have to contend with the Tampa Bay Rays, but none of the other five division winners from 2019 pop up in the new MLB East division. Every non-Yankee team has at least one serious hole and the top three teams — the Yankees, Rays, and Washington Nationals — all have a >80% chance of finishing in the top half of the league.
The division in this format also protects some popular regional rivalries such as the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, the Yankees vs. the Mets, the Nationals vs. the Orioles, and Phillies fans vs. everyone. Let’s turn our attention to the Central:
|St. Louis Cardinals||50||50||5||.500||5.4%||7.9%||9.7%||11.3%||12.4%||46.6%|
|Chicago White Sox||49||51||6||.490||4.4%||6.5%||8.4%||10.3%||12.0%||41.6%|
|Kansas City Royals||44||56||11||.440||0.3%||1.0%||1.8%||2.8%||4.6%||10.5%|
One of the more unusual features of this league is Atlanta escaping all of their normal divisional rivals, though an unusual division is nothing new for the Braves, having previously been a team in the old NL West division. The MLB Central is a fairly wide-open race, with no big division juggernaut teams standing squarely at the top (remember, the Cubs seem determined not to be such a team and they’re totally out of money, guys!). Eight of the 10 teams in this division project within six games of each other, leaving only the Kansas City Royals and the Detroit Tigers on the outside of what ought to be a highly entertaining divisional race. And these teams project to have at least some chance; even the Tigers have an upside scenario in which they could have a top three pitching staff in this division. To the West!
|Los Angeles Dodgers||61||39||—||.610||64.2%||19.4%||8.7%||4.3%||2.0%||98.6%|
|San Diego Padres||52||48||9||.520||6.1%||14.5%||17.5%||16.5%||14.9%||69.5%|
|Los Angeles Angels||50||50||11||.500||2.4%||7.5%||11.4%||14.0%||15.4%||50.6%|
|San Francisco Giants||45||55||16||.450||0.1%||0.9%||2.1%||4.3%||6.8%||14.1%|
If there’s a loser in the realignment, it’s the second-and-third tier contenders such as the Diamondbacks, Angels, and Rangers. This is especially apparent for the residents of the old AL West, who had a much better situation with the Astros at the top of the division than with the Dodgers added to the mix. The Astros are still projected as the best team in a normal AL West, but it’s a roster with a real downside scenario in the known weaknesses of the rotation depth and Justin Verlander’s surgery, in addition to the unknown weakness consisting of any downside caused by the trash cananigans. The Dodgers are an extremely dangerous team and face fewer scenarios in which they simply fall apart than Houston does.
With this division, one can see the problems caused in travel. The Rockies, Astros, and Rangers always have to fly a lot of miles, but this is even trickier in our current situation. It may not have baseball consequences — the data on the effect of long travel on team performance isn’t conclusive — but it would have very real human consequences in the midst of a pandemic.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com 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.