MLB appears to be inevitably headed to a shortened schedule, and at this date, we don’t really have a great idea what that might look like. Fewer games is likely to mean a little more randomness. The 162-game schedule is long by design. With the talent levels of major league teams clustered fairly close together even at the extremes, playing 162 games exacerbates the differences that do exist. In a three-game series where one team has a 65% chance of winning each game, the underdog still wins more games a quarter of the time. If the same teams played a 45-game series, the odds of the underdog winning drop below 2%. That’s an example at the extremes. If a team was favored to win every game 55% of the time, they would still be considered much more talented in baseball terms, yet over 81 games, half a season’s worth, the underdog still wins nearly one in five series.
Dan Szymborski wrote earlier today about how the ZiPS 2020 playoff odds change based on different season lengths. I’m going to take a different approach. To provide some sense of how a different schedule can change outcomes, we can look how things unfolded last season. Here’s what the season would look like if it had ended on September 8, 2019, after roughly 144 games:
Orange = Not in playoffs at actual season’s end, but would be if season ended 9/8/2019.
If the season had ended just three weeks earlier, the Cubs would have been in the Wild Card instead of the Brewers, but every other playoff spot would have remained intact. It seems pretty unlikely that teams will play 144 games, though. In what might be considered the current best-case scenario, here’s what the season would have looked like if it had ended after roughly 132 games, on August 27, 2019:
Blue = Not in playoffs at actual season’s end, but would be if season ended 8/27/2019.
Ending the season after 132 games again finds the Cubs over the Brewers in the Wild Card race, but it also finds Cleveland narrowly ahead of Tampa Bay for an AL Wild Card spot. But even 132 games might be a bit optimistic in the face of COVID-19. Here’s what things looked like on August 14 after roughly 120 games:
Blue = Not in playoffs at actual season’s end, but would be if season ended 8/14/2019.
The Twins and Indians are separated by just a half game and might have been tied if they had played the same number of games. This time, it’s the A’s who are left out of the AL Wild Card, while in the NL, the Cubs and Cardinals tie for the division with the loser playing the Nationals in the Wild Card game and the Brewers again on the outside looking in. Before we look at how the standings might have looked if the 2019 season had started late, let’s just remind ourselves what the standings looked like at the All-Star Break:
Blue = Not in playoffs at actual season’s end, but would be if season ended at the ASB.
The standings in the AL remain the same, but in the NL, it’s the Phillies in the second Wild Card spot, with both the Brewers and Cardinals out of the playoffs and the Cubs taking the NL Central. While the specific placement in the standings is interesting, note that from the Nationals down to the Pirates and Rockies, there were nine NL teams within three games of each other, with the Mets, Reds, and Giants not that far behind either. It’s much harder to create that separation in fewer than 100 games.
We can also use the same process, but in reverse. What would the season standings be like if teams only played around 100 games, the season didn’t start until June 8, and every team played out the roughly 100 games left on the schedule?
Blue = Not in playoffs at season’s end, but would be if season started 6/8/2019.
This is interesting, as Cleveland closed out the season better than Minnesota while the A’s were neck and neck with the Astros and up a half a game over the last 98 games of Oakland’s season. These standings would put Houston and Minnesota in the Wild Card game. In the NL, the Nationals win the division over the Braves, who would then face the Mets in the Wild Card, with the Brewers missing the postseason. If you went back to May 1, most of the standings are exactly the same, though the Brewers would have taken the division over the Cardinals, who would still have made the playoffs.
We think of a baseball season as 162 games, but we don’t spend a ton of time thinking about the impact of a shorter season on how wins are distributed. The longer the season, the more likely the sport is to see deserving teams separate themselves from their competitors. A shorter season brings more randomness and luck as teams are packed closer together. This is best represented by the NL standings at the All-Star Break last season. There were nine teams that were nearly indistinguishable from each other fighting for three playoff spots. With fewer games, it’s going to be a lot harder to be sure which teams actually perform better than their peers this season.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.