One Giant Tournament Might Be Better Than a 50-Game Season

As first reported by ESPN’s Jeff Passan in the latest episode of “Let’s Negotiate Through the Media,” MLB ownership will reportedly issue a counter-counter-proposal to the MLBPA’s counter-proposal of a 112-game season with the prorated salaries previously agreed upon in March. This time, rather than the weird pay-scaling or completely dead-on-arrival revenue sharing schemes, the owners proposed a 50-game season, played at the players’ prorated salaries.

The owners didn’t explain how they got to a 50-game season, but it coincidentally averages with the players’ 114-game proposal to come out exactly to the 82-game season that was originally proposed. While a season shorter than 82 games might not be the same bright shade of red flag the we’re-partners-but-only-when-times-are-bad revenue sharing proposal was, there’s a general belief that the players aren’t interested in assuming the risks of playing during a pandemic if they’re not even getting half-season of games in. One priority for the owners is finishing the postseason before a possible second wave of COVID-19 cases hits in order to safe guard lucrative playoff TV contracts — money, it should be noted, that wasn’t fully accounted for when the league claimed $640,000 per game losses in a presentation to the players.

Since I’ve become quite adept at drastically changing the ZiPS in-season simulations to accomodate whatever hare-brained scheme is proposed, let’s look at the projections for a 50-game season. There’s still no concrete proposal for exactly what the playoffs would look like in this scenario, so I’ve left it at the current playoff format. It’s almost a certainty that the playoffs will be expanded in some way. I’ve also maintained the geography-based schedules that have previously been talked about as there’s no particular reason to think that’s changed.

ZiPS Projected Standings – 50-Game Season
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
New York Yankees 30 20 .600 46.2% 19.8% 66.0% 8.4%
Tampa Bay Rays 29 21 1 .580 33.7% 21.9% 55.6% 6.3%
Boston Red Sox 25 25 5 .500 13.8% 16.9% 30.8% 2.6%
Toronto Blue Jays 22 28 8 .440 5.7% 10.2% 15.9% 1.1%
Baltimore Orioles 17 33 13 .340 0.6% 1.4% 1.9% 0.1%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Minnesota Twins 29 21 .580 40.0% 17.1% 57.2% 6.6%
Cleveland Indians 27 23 2 .540 31.6% 17.7% 49.3% 5.3%
Chicago White Sox 25 25 4 .500 19.4% 15.6% 35.0% 3.2%
Kansas City Royals 22 28 7 .440 6.4% 8.2% 14.6% 1.0%
Detroit Tigers 19 31 10 .380 2.6% 3.7% 6.2% 0.4%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Houston Astros 29 21 .580 42.3% 17.7% 60.0% 7.3%
Oakland A’s 28 22 1 .560 29.8% 19.3% 49.1% 5.2%
Los Angeles Angels 25 25 4 .500 17.7% 16.2% 33.8% 3.1%
Texas Rangers 23 27 6 .460 8.4% 10.9% 19.3% 1.5%
Seattle Mariners 19 31 10 .380 1.8% 3.4% 5.3% 0.3%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Atlanta Braves 28 22 .560 31.6% 18.1% 49.8% 5.1%
Washington Nationals 28 22 .560 31.0% 18.0% 49.0% 5.0%
New York Mets 26 24 2 .520 17.4% 15.5% 33.0% 2.9%
Philadelphia Phillies 25 25 3 .500 15.8% 15.1% 31.0% 2.6%
Miami Marlins 21 29 7 .420 4.1% 6.1% 10.2% 0.6%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago Cubs 27 23 .540 27.1% 14.0% 41.0% 3.9%
Milwaukee Brewers 26 24 1 .520 23.5% 13.3% 36.8% 3.4%
St. Louis Cardinals 26 24 1 .520 21.8% 13.2% 35.0% 3.1%
Cincinnati Reds 26 24 1 .520 20.5% 12.7% 33.2% 3.0%
Pittsburgh Pirates 22 28 5 .440 7.1% 6.9% 14.0% 1.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 31 19 .620 56.1% 15.8% 71.9% 9.4%
San Diego Padres 27 23 4 .540 21.3% 20.0% 41.3% 3.8%
Arizona Diamondbacks 25 25 6 .500 14.3% 16.7% 30.9% 2.6%
Colorado Rockies 22 28 9 .440 4.8% 8.2% 13.0% 0.8%
San Francisco Giants 21 29 10 .420 3.5% 6.5% 9.9% 0.6%

When I look at these standings, one burning question pops into my head: Why?

At 50 games, the ability to meaningfully differentiate between the great and the good, the mediocre and the bad, starts to fade significantly. There’s a one-in-five chance that the winner of the World Series will be a team believed to be .500 or worse. In the last ZiPS projected standings before everything went sideways, that probability was right around 3%; it was 3.7% before the 2019 season.

Of course, it’s a philosophical question. A 20% chance of a below-average team winning the World Series isn’t inherently superior or inferior to a 3% chance. But if the season doesn’t do a good job differentiating between dousing your head with champagne versus what’s in the bathroom urinals, what purpose does it serve? Remember, with a 12, 14, or 16 team playoff, this disparity grows. At that point, a randomly-drawn 32-team tournament, with teams advancing in best-of-15 series, might simply do a better job separating the wheat from the chaff (you could fill the final two spot with Futures teams from the AL and NL). I haven’t constructed a full simulation, but under this format, if the Yankees, projected as a .602 team in ZiPS, had to beat a .500 team, a .530 team, a .560 team, a .575 team, and a .590 team, they would have an 11% chance of winning the World Series. In the same scenario, a team we know is .500 would have a 20% chance to make the third round, a 6% shot at the fourth round, a 1.8% chance to make the World Series, and 0.4% to win.

In a 50-game season, the argument for having a season at all instead of one big tournament simply becomes one of fulfilling local television contracts, rather than any actual baseball need. It cheapens the season into bottom-line-serving exhibition games, the equivalent of a network burning out the final eight episodes of a canceled sitcom on a Friday evening or on their little-used web app. From a baseball standpoint, a tournament has a lot to offer over a season damaged beyond any recognition.

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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3 years ago

I find the 50-game proposal pretty wacky. If teams are going to lose money if they pay players the prorated amount, then their counter-proposal should be to cancel the season. If the teams are going to gain money if they pay players the prorated amount, then their counter-proposal should involve playing more games. Going to 50 games is a solution that, no matter what the actual situation is for the owners collectively, means they’re worse off. And the fixed costs are going to be there no matter what, and they’ll almost certainly get less TV revenue from this arrangement.

The only way this makes sense is if they just want the playoffs without the regular season, figuring 50 games is the least they can get away with, and they just want to make sure they get to the playoffs. If that’s the case, I’m with Dan–just do something totally wacky and out of left field. A 50-game season isn’t worth it for anyone. Just discard the pretense of having anything close to normal. You could do it World Cup style, double- or triple- or quadruple- elimination, super league, or maybe all of them.

3 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Alright, here’s sadtrombone’s 2020 playoffs guide:

-You start doing a round-robin series (like the World Cup, but with more games) within the division only. 3-4 games at each opponent, 3-4 games at home vs each opponent. With four opponents, that’s 24-32 games.

-The two teams with the worst record in each division goes into a loser’s league.

-Now you’ve got 12 teams in the “loser’s league” and 18 in the “winners league”, with a total of 10 different divisions, where they play each other round-robin style.

-Teams with the best record in the “losers league” get to move up to join the “winners league”. Teams with the worst record in the “winners league” join the losers division. Another 3-4 games at each opponent, round-robin style, but now there are only 2 other teams in each division instead of 4. Maybe you scramble the divisions too so you’re playing different opponents? So now you add 12-16 games. You’re actually getting pretty close to 50 games at this point, so if it’s this important to have 50 games, you can tweak it to get there.

-Team with the worst record in each of the losers divisions have their season ended, plus the two other teams in the losers division with the worst record. Team with the best record in each of the losers division gets promoted to the winners divisions. Now you’ve got 24 teams, 8 divisions. Only two divisions in the “loser’s league” now. Everyone plays round-robin, for another 12-16 games.

-Team with best record in the loser’s league division (2 in total) get promoted back to the winner’s league–the other four teams are eliminated. Team with worst record in the winner’s league get dropped down to a new “loser’s league”, along with the four other worst records in the winner’s league. Now you’ve got 20 teams in total–8 in the loser’s league, 12 in the winners. The winners start doing a playoff, while the loser’s league plays round-robin, but only 2 games at a pop in a 4-team divisions, to determine which two teams get to join the playoffs.

-The losers of the playoff go home. The two winners of the divisions in the “loser’s league” get to join the playoff. Now you’ve got 8 teams in the playoff. Now you have something that looks vaguely like the playoffs–divisional round with 8 teams, championship round with 4, world series with 2.

By my math, that’s 36-48 games that all teams are playing, and so that can easily be increased if it needs to be at 50 for some reason. 24 teams play another 12-16 games, 20 teams play another 5-7 games, and then you get something vaguely like the playoffs.