Peering Back at the 2019 Season Through a 50-Game Window

It stands as a threat rather than an official proposal — heaven forbid the owners actually engage the players directly instead of attempting to negotiate through the media — but MLB’s latest thought balloon regarding a 2020 season centers around a 50-game schedule. In the wake of the players’ formal proposal that they receive the full prorated share of their salaries for a 114-game season that would begin on June 30 and end on October 31 (with a postseason to follow in November), the owners have let it be known that they’re not enthusiastic about that idea. Per ESPN, The Athletic, and other outlets, they’ve discussed a 50-game slate as a last-resort option.

The wee season would begin in July, and for it, the players would receive the full prorated share of their salaries, though those would amount to just 30.8% of their full-season salaries. Here it’s worth noting that the 50-game schedule is the same distance from the central 82-game proposal as the 114-game one is; if the two sides were to meet exactly in the middle, we’d be back at the number that’s been floating around since the owners voted to propose a 50-50 revenue split on May 11.

As Dan Szymborski illustrated in his latest round of ZiPS projections, a lot of strange stuff can happen in just 50 games, including a 28.1% chance of the Dodgers — projected as the best team in baseball over a full 162 games back in March — missing the playoffs and a 0.6% chance of the Marlins winning the World Series. “At 50 games, the ability to meaningfully differentiate between the great and the good, the mediocre and the bad, starts to fade significantly,” wrote Szymborski. “There’s a one-in-five chance that the winner of the World Series will be a team believed to be .500 or worse.”

The 50-game ZiPS projections make that point in one manner, but as there are multiple ways to skin this particular cat, I thought it would be worth reviewing several 50-game stretches from last season to show off some of the weirdness. Any Nationals fan, for example, can tell you that the team started last season 19-31 before righting the ship and marching to the franchise’s first World Series win. So let’s start by considering what a 2019 season based on games 1-50 would have looked like. Here it’s worth remembering that teams reach the 50-game mark at slightly different dates (as early as May 21 and as late as May 26 last year), so this doesn’t correspond to a single day on the calendar.

Standings Based on 2019 Games 1-50
AL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Yankees 33 17 .660 Div Champ Div Champ
Rays 31 19 .620 2 WC WC
Red Sox 27 23 .540 6 WC 3rd Place
Blue Jays 20 30 .400 13
Orioles 15 35 .300 18
AL Central W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Twins 34 16 .680 Div Champ Div Champ
Indians 26 24 .520 8
White Sox 23 27 .460 11
Tigers 19 31 .380 15
Royals 17 33 .340 17
AL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Astros 33 17 .660 Div Champ Div Champ
Athletics 25 25 .500 8 WC
Rangers 25 25 .500 8
Mariners 23 27 .460 10
Angels 22 28 .440 11
NL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Phillies 29 21 .580 Div Champ 4th Place
Braves 27 23 .540 2 WC Div Champ
Mets 24 26 .480 5
Nationals 19 31 .380 10 WC
Marlins 16 34 .320 13
NL Central W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Cubs 30 20 .600 Div Champ 3rd Place
Brewers 28 22 .560 2 WC WC
Pirates 25 25 .500 5
Cardinals 25 25 .500 5 Div Champ
Reds 23 27 .460 7
NL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Dodgers 32 18 .640 Div Champ Div Champ
Padres 26 24 .520 6
Diamondbacks 25 25 .500 7
Rockies 23 27 .460 9
Giants 21 29 .420 11
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The AL playoff picture quickly came into focus last season, with four out of the five qualifiers in position by the 50th game; only the defending champion Red Sox dropped out, replaced by the A’s, who trailed them by just two games at this juncture. The NL slate, on the other hand, saw significantly more turnover, with two of the three division leaders after 50 games ultimately missing the playoffs entirely, and one Wild Card leader rising up to win the division. In all, seven of the 10 teams in playoff positions ultimately made the cut.

If we instead shift the 50-game window to start with the 26th game of the season (a date range from April 23 to April 29), here’s how things look:

Standings Based on 2019 Games 26-75
AL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Yankees 34 16 .680 Div Champ Div Champ
Red Sox 30 20 .600 4 WC 3rd Place
Rays 27 23 .540 7 WC
Blue Jays 16 34 .320 18
Orioles 12 38 .240 22
AL Central W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Twins 33 17 .660 Div Champ Div Champ
White Sox 25 25 .500 8
Indians 25 25 .500 8
Royals 18 32 .360 15
Tigers 14 36 .280 19
AL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Astros 33 17 .660 Div Champ Div Champ
Angels 29 21 .580 4 WC 4th Place
Rangers 28 22 .560 5
A’s 27 23 .540 6
Mariners 15 35 .300 18
NL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Braves 32 18 .640 Div Champ Div Champ
Phillies 26 24 .520 6
Nationals 26 24 .520 6 WC
Mets 22 28 .440 10
Marlins 21 29 .420 11
NL Central W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Cubs 28 22 .560 Div Champ 3rd Place
Brewers 27 23 .540 1 WC WC
Reds 25 25 .500 3
Cardinals 24 26 .480 4 Div Champ
Pirates 23 27 .460 5
NL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Dodgers 35 15 .700 Div Champ Div Champ
Rockies 29 21 .580 6 WC 4th Place
Diamondbacks 24 26 .480 11
Padres 24 26 .480 11
Giants 22 28 .440 13
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

In this version, five of the six division leaders wound up winning their respective flags, but only one of the four Wild Card leaders hung on. Had this scenario come to pass, the AL Wild Card game would have featured the Red Sox and the Angels (starring Mike Trout!), while the NL game would have featured a rematch of the 2018 Division Series between the Brewers and Rockies; outside of this particular 50-game window, the latter went 42-70 last year.

Moving along, here’s what the picture looks like based on games 51-100:

Standings Based on 2019 Games 51-100
AL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Yankees 32 18 .640 Div Champ Div Champ
Red Sox 27 23 .540 5
Rays 25 25 .500 7 WC
Blue Jays 18 32 .360 14
Orioles 17 33 .340 15
AL Central W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Indians 32 18 .640 Div Champ 2nd Place
Twins 27 23 .540 5 Div Champ
White Sox 22 28 .440 10
Royals 20 30 .400 12
Tigers 11 39 .220 21
AL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
A’s 33 17 .660 Div Champ WC
Astros 30 20 .600 3 WC Div Champ
Angels 29 21 .580 4 WC 4th Place
Rangers 25 25 .500 8
Mariners 17 33 .340 16
NL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Nationals 35 15 .700 Div Champ WC
Braves 32 18 .640 3 WC Div Champ
Phillies 23 27 .460 12
Marlins 22 28 .440 13
Mets 22 28 .440 13
NL Central W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Cardinals 28 22 .560 Div Champ Div Champ
Cubs 24 26 .480 4
Brewers 24 26 .480 4 WC
Reds 23 27 .460 5
Pirates 21 29 .420 7
NL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Dodgers 33 17 .660 Div Champ Div Champ
Giants 29 21 .580 4 WC 3rd Place
Diamondbacks 25 25 .500 8
Rockies 24 26 .480 9
Padres 21 29 .420 12
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

This version features seven of the actual 10 teams in playoff position, as did the 1-50 version, but arguably, it’s a bit more of a shakeup. Three of the six division leads changed hands, including two in the AL, with the Indians, who missed the October dance altogether, “winning” the AL Central. Again, the Angels would make the cut, and likewise, retiring manager Bruce Bochy would have reached the playoffs one last time given the Giants’ rebound from a 21-29 showing over their first 50 games.

The version for games 76-125 has four division winners in place, with the other two slipping down to Wild Card spots. The most interesting thing about it is the NL Wild Card pairing: Giants versus Mets, a rematch of the 2016 Wild Card Game:

Standings Based on 2019 Games 76-125
AL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Yankees 35 15 .700 Div Champ Div Champ
Rays 30 20 .600 5 WC WC
Red Sox 26 24 .520 9
Blue Jays 25 25 .500 10
Orioles 18 32 .360 17
AL Central W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Indians 34 16 .680 Div Champ 2nd Place
Twins 27 23 .540 7 Div Champ
White Sox 20 30 .400 14
Royals 18 32 .360 16
Tigers 12 38 .240 22
AL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
A’s 33 17 .660 Div Champ WC
Astros 31 19 .620 2 WC Div Champ
Angels 23 27 .460 10
Mariners 21 29 .420 12
Rangers 21 29 .420 12
NL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Nationals 31 19 .620 Div Champ WC
Mets 30 20 .600 1 WC 3rd Place
Braves 29 21 .580 2 Div Champ
Phillies 26 24 .520 5
Marlins 16 34 .320 15
NL Central W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Cardinals 28 22 .560 Div Champ Div Champ
Cubs 26 24 .520 2
Brewers 24 26 .480 4 WC
Reds 23 27 .460 5
Pirates 17 33 .340 11
NL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Dodgers 32 18 .640 Div Champ Div Champ
Giants 30 20 .600 2 WC 3rd Place
Diamondbacks 24 26 .480 8
Padres 21 29 .420 11
Rockies 17 33 .340 15
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

I’ve spared you the games 101-150 window and instead gone with 113-162, the final stretch of the season. All 10 teams that are in playoff positions in this one actually made it to the postseason dance, albeit with some shuffling; not only was this the rare instance of the Yankees not sitting atop the AL East, that 30-20 record matched their worst such stretch of the season (more on that topic below). Note that both the Mets and Diamondbacks finished just outside the Wild Card picture in the NL in what would have been quite a race for Team Entropy’s purposes.

Standings Based on 2019 Games 113-162
AL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Rays 32 18 .640 Div Champ WC
Yankees 30 20 .600 2 WC Div Champ
Red Sox 25 25 .500 7
Blue Jays 22 28 .440 10
Orioles 16 34 .320 16
AL Central W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Twins 31 19 .620 Div Champ Div Champ
Indians 27 23 .540 4
White Sox 22 28 .440 9
Royals 19 31 .380 12
Tigers 14 36 .280 17
AL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Astros 35 15 .700 Div Champ Div Champ
A’s 33 17 .660 2 WC WC
Mariners 21 29 .420 14
Rangers 20 30 .400 15
Angels 16 34 .320 19
NL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Nationals 34 16 .680 Div Champ WC
Braves 31 19 .620 3 WC Div Champ
Mets 30 20 .600 4
Phillies 22 28 .440 12
Marlins 15 35 .300 19
NL East W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Cardinals 33 17 .660 Div Champ Div Champ
Brewers 32 18 .640 1 WC WC
Cubs 23 27 .460 10
Reds 21 29 .420 12
Pirates 21 29 .420 12
NL West W L W-L% GB Status Actual
Dodgers 34 16 .680 Div Champ Div Champ
Diamondbacks 29 21 .580 5
Giants 21 29 .420 13
Rockies 19 31 .380 15
Padres 18 32 .360 16
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

In case your mind is a bit numb from seeing five alternate realities in a short timespan, here’s a summary of the teams in playoff position via each 50-game slice:

2019 50-Game “Season” Comparison
Team Div Actual 1-50 26-75 51-100 76-125 113-162
Yankees AL East Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ WC
Rays AL East WC WC WC Div Champ
Twins AL Central Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ
Astros AL West Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ WC WC Div Champ
Athletics AL West WC Div Champ Div Champ WC
Braves NL East Div Champ WC Div Champ WC WC
Nationals NL East WC Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ
Cardinals NL Central Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ
Brewers NL Central WC WC WC WC
Dodgers NL West Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ Div Champ
Red Sox AL East 3rd Place WC WC
Indians AL Central 2nd Place Div Champ Div Champ
Angels AL West 4th Place WC WC
Mets NL East 3rd Place WC
Cubs NL Central 3rd Place Div Champ Div Champ
Giants NL West 3rd Place WC WC
Rockies NL West 4th Place WC
Phillies NL East 4th Place Div Champ
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The yellow cells show the segments in which the team matched its actual playoff position. Note that the Dodgers were the only team to do so in all five segments, and they, the Astros, and Yankees were the only playoff teams to run the table as playoff qualifiers via any of these 50-game slices. The number of actual division winners who came out on top in the various segments ranged from three to five, with an average of 3.8, while the number of Wild Card teams in that position ranged from zero to two, with an average of 1.2. Three teams who wound up on the outside looking in claimed a total of five division “titles” (the Cubs and Indians twice), while five outsiders claimed a total of eight Wild Card “berths” (the Red Sox, Angels, and Giants twice). That’s an average of 2.6 party-crashers per segment. Roughly speaking, then, we can say that each of these slices represents only about three-quarters of the final playoff picture.

I’ll close with a table showing each team’s best and worst 50-game stretch:

2019 Best and Worst 50-Game Stretches
Team Best W Best L W-L% Worst W Worst L W-L% Win Dif Playoff
Dodgers 37 13 .740 29 21 .580 8 Div Champ
Indians 36 14 .720 23 27 .460 13
Astros 36 14 .720 28 22 .560 8 Div Champ
Yankees 36 14 .720 30 20 .600 6 Div Champ
Twins 35 15 .700 25 25 .500 10 Div Champ
A’s 35 15 .700 24 26 .480 11 WC
Nationals 35 15 .700 19 31 .380 16 WC
Braves 34 16 .680 26 24 .520 8 Div Champ
Cardinals 34 16 .680 20 30 .400 14 Div Champ
Rays 34 16 .680 22 28 .440 12 WC
Cubs 32 18 .640 22 28 .440 10
Brewers 32 18 .640 22 28 .440 10 WC
Mets 32 18 .640 20 30 .400 12
Giants 32 18 .640 20 30 .400 12
Red Sox 31 19 .620 22 28 .440 9
Rockies 31 19 .620 14 36 .280 17
Angels 30 20 .600 15 35 .300 15
Rangers 30 20 .600 18 32 .360 12
Diamondbacks 29 21 .580 21 29 .420 8
Phillies 29 21 .580 22 28 .440 7
White Sox 27 23 .540 18 32 .360 9
Reds 27 23 .540 21 29 .420 6
Pirates 26 24 .520 16 34 .320 10
Padres 26 24 .520 18 32 .360 8
Blue Jays 25 25 .500 15 35 .300 10
Marlins 24 26 .480 12 38 .240 12
Mariners 24 26 .480 13 37 .260 11
Orioles 21 29 .420 11 39 .220 10
Royals 21 29 .420 15 35 .300 6
Tigers 20 30 .400 9 41 .180 11
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

I’ve made the table sortable so that you can futz around with it, but a few items are worth noting. The Yankees, as mentioned above, hardly dipped in quality across their worst stretches, going 30-20 in two overlapping ones covering all but one day in either June or July, plus the season-ending stretch; at best, they went 36-14 at several turns, and so their spread between best and worst stretches tied (with the dreadful Royals) for the smallest in the majors. The Indians tied for the majors’ second-best 50-game stretch (five overlapping ones, actually, starting with one that ran from June 11 to August 8), yet missed the playoffs. The Cubs, Giants, and Mets all had stretches as good as the Wild Card-qualifying Brewers but all went into similarly deep funks as well. Still, none of the other playoff teams had as awful a 50-game stretch as the Nationals’ season opening one, which in fact stands as the worst for any World Series winner in the Wild Card era, outstinking the 2003 Marlins (21-29).

The simultaneous rebuilding programs of so many teams turned the 2019 season into a low point as far as competitive balance was concerned. As Craig Edwards found, the season produced the largest standard deviation in winning percentage since 1954, even larger than any expansion season. The volume of tanking made the season a rather unremarkable one for playoff races, particularly in the AL, and so I have little doubt that a similar analysis on a different season might yield results even more wild than the above.

Still, what this exercise should underscore is just how shaky the playoff picture might be given a 50-game schedule. Yes, the best teams in terms of true talent will likely qualify, and here we’re not even considering the way that roster management strategies could help ensure that. In a shorter season, young pitchers will be able to throw a full complement of innings without concerns for caps, health permitting, and the decisions to hold or trade pending free agents could change depending upon an altered playoff format and adjusted trade deadline. All told, regardless of those details, it’s quite possible a 50-game slate would admit into the postseason interlopers who might not last the full 162 games. The results could still be entertaining from a #TeamEntropy standpoint, and a 50-game season would certainly better than no season at all, leaving aside the health and safety issues that admittedly, are rather hard to leave aside. Nonetheless, the validity of the wee season’s results would always be in question, particularly if a weaker team goes on a Cinderella run in October. If it’s what it is, we’ll make do, but to these eyes, this is all the more reason for a longer schedule.

We hoped you liked reading Peering Back at the 2019 Season Through a 50-Game Window by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Lenard
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Member
Lenard

Tigers with a 9-41 stretch….Yikes.

adohaj
Member
adohaj

It makes me wonder what the worst 50 game stretch ever is

Brian Reinhart
Member
Member

Even the Orioles team that started 0-21 in 1988 came back to have 11 wins by the 50 game mark.

rosen380
Member

Per Play Index:

4 A’s (1916)
7 Astros (2012)
8 Braves (1923)
8 Cardinals (1907)
8 Diamondbacks (2004)
8 Giants (1902)
9 Mets (1962)
10 Cubs (1999)
11 Angels (1999)
11 Blue Jays (1979)
11 Dodgers (1905)
11 Indians (2012)
11 Marlins (1998)
12 Brewers (1975)
12 Mariners (1980)

I got through the Mets alphabetically. If someone else wants to fill in some gaps, great, but feels like 4-46 is a pretty likely guess as to the worst 🙂

rosen380
Member

Checked one more by hand (as not included in Play Index)… the 1899 Spiders had suns as bad as 3-47 — though they are a pretty special case of a team essentially designed to lose.

At this point they stopped playing home games as the home “crowd” had become too hostile, so even figuring a pretty slight HFA, might not really be worse than the 1916 A’s worst 50 game runs.