Disadvantage, Yankees? Winners, losers if MLB plays shortened season

If Major League Baseball resumes in 2020, it’s going to look a lot different than usual. Last week, MLB floated ideas about drastic changes to the schedule and roster rules. Let’s evaluate what those potential changes mean and which teams would be helped, or hurt, the most by various scenarios.

140 games or fewer

Any hopes of playing a full 162-game season have already been scrapped. If MLB can commence regular-season games in late May, it plans to play a 140-game season. That is an enormous “if” though; the country doesn’t appear anywhere close to reopening. Even when conditions are finally safe, there must be some kind of preseason. More likely, teams will play substantially fewer than 140 games in the regular season.  

By its very nature, baseball has an incredibly high amount of random chance. A pop fly off the end of the bat can fall in for a winning hit, whereas a screaming line drive in a clutch situation could fly directly into an outfielder’s glove. In other sports, the better team wins the game against a weaker opponent far more often than in baseball. This sport needs a longer season to account for much of the randomness, so that the legitimately better teams can rise to the top of the standings. We don’t have that luxury this year, so the win-loss records could get wacky.

Winners: Angels, Padres, White Sox

Clubs on the fringes of contention stand to benefit the most from increased randomness. Take the Padres, for example. FanGraphs projects a .519 winning percentage for them, and let’s assume that is their true talent level. Over 162 games, Lady Luck could have them finish anywhere between a .480-.560 winning percentage without too strong a push in any direction. With a shortened season, the bell curve widens, and they’re expected winning percentage range might become .450-.590. This could mean a collapse just as easily as a pleasant surprise, but for these teams on the edge of playoff contention, it widens the range of possibilities that get them into the postseason.

Losers: Astros, Dodgers, Yankees

Before spring training and the coronavirus pandemic, these were the teams everyone figured were bound for the playoffs. They’re the clear upper echelon of the sport and probably will still make the postseason in any format. However, with the shortening of the season and increased variability, their error bars widen just like everyone else’s. As the season shrinks, the chances increase for a bad record for the biggest favorites. Just ask the world champion Nationals, who were 19-31 on May 23 last year.

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