In the big scheme of things, adults playing a child’s game pales in comparison to the very real COVID-19 crisis. Still, whenever we finally turn a corner with the current situation, sports could provide a sense of normalcy, serve as a source of comfort. They did just that for me and others after the events of 9/11.
That’s why the news MLB and the MLB Players Association have hammered out financial details to eventually restart baseball offers cause for optimism. Granted, when a 2020 season actually begins depends on the progression of the COVID-19 outbreak and its aftermath. Plus, subsequent agreements on season length, roster sizes, and postseason format will be required.
Still, overcoming major obstacles now should speed up the process once it’s time to play ball. In the interim, we’re left to speculate on what an abbreviated season might look like. Naturally, such conjecture is fuel for sports talk radio, other media platforms, and the blogosphere.
Even the venerable duo of Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark recently joined the conversation. In the Athletic, they highlighted fun and innovative ways MLB could tinker with the season and playoffs. Meanwhile, Keith Olbermann of ESPN presented the radical idea of playing a 32-game schedule starting in September.
Talking about these and other ideas is a nice distraction, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the reality that an abbreviated season likely presents a different outcome than a full 162-game schedule.
I’m not suggesting MLB shouldn’t play a season unless they can squeeze in x-number of games. Only that the postseason picture could be vastly different with a season significantly shorter than the usual campaign.
To demonstrate this point, I’ve devised a science project using the 2019 season. Let’s see which teams would’ve reached the postseason if we ended 2019 after 32, 75, and 100 games.
Two notes before proceeding:
* The dates selected are when the average number of games played by all 30 teams matches the milestone selected. Some clubs will have played the exact number; others will be over/under the mark. Remember, we’re simply attempting to gain perspective on how an abbreviated season might influence the final standings; not determine postseason berths.
* To ascertain team records on our chosen dates, I used Baseball Reference, which provides users with the capability to review standings on a specific date. It also permits us to quickly determine how clubs fared from that point moving forward. It’s a fun tool I turn to often.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
Regardless of when the season started, the Twins and Astros won their respective divisions. But the Yankees would’ve been relegated to a wild card spot using the 32-game micro-schedule.
At least New York makes the postseason under any scenario. The same isn’t true for other clubs.
The Rays, an actual 2019 wild card, win the AL East in a season lasting just five weeks. The team also nets a wild card spot through 75 games. However, Tampa Bay is on the outside looking in at the 100-game mark.
The Indians meander between playoff team and also-ran depending on when the season concluded. A mediocre 12-17 win-loss record in May certainly didn’t help the squad keep pace with the powerhouse Twins. The Tribe would rebound going 35-17 in June-July, but fell short of the postseason for the first time since 2015.
In a 75-game scenario, Boston fans would be pleased. In reality, the Red Sox went 35-37 in the second half of an otherwise lost season. Still, it’s tough feeling bad for fans in New England. Their Sawx won the World Series the year prior.
The Athletics have been late bloomers in recent seasons; 2019 was no different. Only Baltimore and Kansas City had a worse record in the AL than Oakland through 32 games. By June 20, the A’s were surging and just a half-game behind Boston.
Surprisingly, a tie in the standings existed between Oakland and division-rival Texas at 75 games. The Rangers were five games over .500, but an 8-16 record in July squelched any playoff aspirations. Despite the dreadful month, the club had a winning record as late as August 11.
There’s another also-ran worthy of mention – the Mariners. Seattle had an MLB-best 13-2 record through mid-April. Then came a rapid descent towards the cellar. Still, the Olbermann plan would’ve provided a glimmer of hope.
On May 3, the Mariners were just a game behind division-leading Houston. Seattle had already played 34 games. However, two games earlier, the club based in the Pacific Northwest had the same record as the Astros. Imagine the rebuilding Mariners breaking their 19-year postseason drought thanks to a torrid two-week start in a 32-game season.
Wouldn’t that be something?
Here’s a not-so-fun fact for fans in the Motor City. On May 3, the Tigers were just a game under .500 and 2.5 games behind division-leading Minnesota.
Unfortunately, things went downhill afterwards. Detroit won 33 games for the remainder of the season. That’s 10 less wins than the next terrible team – the Orioles. At least the Tigers locked up the number-one overall draft pick.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the Senior Circuit.
As with the AL, the division out west remains unchanged regardless of when the season ended. The Dodgers would still win their seventh consecutive NL West title.
Every other division experienced some level of churn, especially under the 32-game scenario.
Philadelphia was five games over .500 on May 3 and would’ve been NL East division champions. But the club finished with a mediocre 81-81 and replaced its manager. It’s not as if the Phillies cratered, but expectations were high in the City of Brotherly Love after the team signed Bryce Harper to an enormous 13-year/$330 million deal.
The Cubs were a wild card team early and even rose to division leader at later checkpoints. But Chicago fell out of contention later in the season. As late as the last day of August, the team held the second wild card slot with a 4.5 game lead. Then, a disappointing 11-16 run in September finished the North Siders. They too have a new manager now.
Arizona managed to be relevant through 32 games clinching a wild card spot and being just a game behind the division-leading Dodgers. However, the D-Backs would fall to the .500-mark by June 20 and remain there at our next milestone. The team did enjoy a late-season surge going 31-22 down the stretch. When the dust settled, they finished four games behind the second card team – Milwaukee.
Speaking of the Brewers, they were inconsistent throughout 2019. The Brew Crew’s monthly record was .500-or-worse in June-August. Milwaukee finally caught fire with a spectacular 20-7 mark in September, which was enough to get them into the postseason.
Three games behind Milwaukee in the wild card standings at season’s end were the Mets. At the All-Star break, New York was 10 games under .500 – second worst in the NL at the time. But the team then erupted with the second best record (49-26) in the league behind the Dodgers. Too little, too late for the Amazin’s.
And how about the Rockies?
By the end of the 2019 season, Colorado would tie Baltimore for the fifth worst record in the majors. Yet, on June 20, the club was six games over .500 and in possession of the first wild card spot. Then came the crater-job – a 31-57 record the rest of the way.
Ironically, our first two scenarios would’ve excluded the eventual World Series champions – the Nationals.
During last year’s postseason, announcers frequently noted Washington started the season terribly. It’s true; only two NL teams had a worse record than the Nats did at the end of May. That’s when they took off.
Starting on June 1, the Nationals went 69-36 giving the team the best record in the NL from that point moving forward. Only their eventual Fall Classic opponent – Houston – performed better over the last four months of the season.
As we’ve seen during our discussion, the length of the season can drastically affect the final standings. Having said that, I’m not against any scenario providing us with major-league baseball this year.
Yes, Olbermann’s innovative and fascinating idea feels more like a tease than something that I’d find satisfying. Then again, the alternative is nothing and I vote against nothing when given options leading to games.
By now, MLB has undoubtedly developed contingencies to address multiple potential scenarios, including cancellation of the 2020 season altogether. Hopefully, zero baseball isn’t the endgame. If we’re fortunate to see action this year, it’ll certainly be gratifying for two reasons.
Most importantly, the resumption of sports would suggest we’ve beaten down COVID-19. Baseball returning this year would also symbolize some semblance of normalcy sooner than later. Right now, we could all use some of that.
Wouldn’t you agree?
My Oh My…