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.
|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%|
|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%|
|Los Angeles Angels||25||25||4||.500||17.7%||16.2%||33.8%||3.1%|
|New York Mets||26||24||2||.520||17.4%||15.5%||33.0%||2.9%|
|St. Louis Cardinals||26||24||1||.520||21.8%||13.2%||35.0%||3.1%|
|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%|
|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 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.