Let’s assume MLB plays — or attempts to play — a season. We don’t know when it will start. We don’t know how long it will last. We don’t know if it will be staged entirely in Arizona with games held at spring-training sites with no fans in the stands. Put inelegantly, we don’t know squat. But for the purposes of today’s exercise, let’s assume this much:
Any MLB season will end with closer to 100 games played than 162. That estimate is based on the calendar. We’re almost two weeks into what would have been the regular season, and nary a ball has been pitched. Players have been scattered for a month. There’s little chance they’ll reconvene before May. There’s a chance that no regulation games will be played anywhere before June.
The Braves were scheduled to have played 53 games by June 1. That’s 32.7 percent of a season. MLB could and probably would try to recoup a few lost games by playing seven-inning doubleheaders, but you can’t cram six months’ worth of games into four without looking ridiculous. (Then again, this is MLB, where ridiculous happens.) The shortest season of the modern era was the strike year of 1981, which saw teams play between 103 and 110 games.
Pause for emphasis: Yes, MLB’s irregular season ended with some clubs getting the equivalent of an extra week to work. Was it any wonder that the teams with the best and third-best overall records — the Reds and Cardinals, respectively — didn’t qualify for an expanded postseason tournament that featured eight half-season division winners?
About those half-seasons: The Royals finished 50-53 overall, but they made the playoffs because they went 30-23 after play resumed in August after nearly a two-month hiatus. On the year, they had the 17th-best record among 27 teams, but they were pretty good for a couple of months. Bear that in mind as we look forward to what might be the 2020 season: Any team can look good for a while.
The Braves have finished first two seasons running. They won the National League East by eight games in 2018 and four last year. They’re expected to do well again, though estimates vary: They’re the betting choice in Vegas, though Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA had them third behind the Mets and Nationals. (This was before Noah Syndergaard was lost to Tommy John surgery.) Given that the Braves have won 187 games over the past two years, it stands to reason they’d have been stout over another 162 games.
But what, we ask, if the season is 120 games? What if it’s 100? What if it’s 81?
Dan Szymborski did the math for FanGraphs last month. Over 162 games, his ZiPS projections gave the Braves a 66.2 percent chance of making the playoffs; over half that many, their odds dropped to 47.2 percent. That’s a 19.1 percent dip, which was the seventh-biggest among the 30 clubs.
This, it must be said, has more to do with the way of baseball than any weakness in the local club. The more good teams play, the more they tend to win. (That’s what makes them good, duh.) But we’re coming off a postseason that saw the 93-win Nats beat both the 107-win Astros and the 106-win Dodgers – and, lest we forget, that saw the 97-win Braves ousted by the 91-win Cardinals.
All the teams that saw their playoff shots lessened by more than 19.1 percent by ZiPs are teams, like the Braves, projected to win 90-plus games over a full season. Now consider the Phillies: ZiPS had them going 82-80 and finishing fourth in the East, which would have translated to an 18.2 percent playoff shot. Over 81 games, the same Phillies are awarded a 30.7 percent chance.
Wrote Szymborski: “At 110 games, every team except for the Orioles has better than a 1-in-100 shot to make the playoffs. The margins between the Yankees and Rays and the Astros and A’s become almost negligible. … At 110 games, only a single team, the Dodgers, maintains a 75% chance of making the playoffs by any means.”
This isn’t to suggest the Braves would be helpless in any schedule configuration. They have Freeman, Acuna, Soroka, Albies, Ozuna, et alia. General manager Alex Anthopolous said this month that Cole Hamels’ shoulder is painless; had the season begun on time, Hamels surely would have missed at least a month.
Everyone expects that, if/when games commence, the starting pitchers won’t be ready – “stretched out,” as they say – to go more than four or five innings, which could benefit a team that already had three candidates (Felix Hernandez, Sean Newcomb, Kyle Wright) vying for Hamels’ rotational slot. At such a time, it would be impossible to have too much starting pitching.
Also: The Braves spent the offseason shoring up their bullpen. Early games — even if those “early” games are within sight of the Fourth of July — figure to be bullpen-heavy.
Also: The expectation is that rosters will be expanded in the early going, which would keep the Braves from having to choose between Johan Camargo and Austin Riley at third base. (Though Anthopoulos has said both might have made the squad had the opener been played April 3.)
The biggest thing a truncated schedule does is increase the value of a single game. Had the 2019 season ended after 81 games, the Nationals wouldn’t have made the playoffs. They were 41-40, holders of the NL’s eighth-best record. They’d started 19-31.
Nothing in the Braves’ recent past suggests they would start 19-31. After a middling April, they were under .500 as late as May 10 last year. That said, they moved into first place by themselves June 12 in both 2018 and 2019. That came in their 66th game two seasons ago, in their 68th last summer. They’re not especially slow starters.
A shortened season surely would make for a more crowded stretch run. Only once over the past two Septembers have the Braves taken the field not leading the East by at least three games. That came Sept. 8, 2018. Five games later, their lead was 7-1/2 games.
As for the playoffs: It’s likewise unknown if the same format — three division winners and two wild cards per league — will be used. MLB could try to amp up its playoff after a watered-down regular season by throwing wide its gates. MLB has expressed interest in expanding the field to 14, and it might see this as the time to get bigger, which would mean longer, which would mean playing deep into November. (Given that the Masters is scheduled to end nine days before Thanksgiving, why not?)
For today, that’s enough speculation. Always before, we could quash rampant musing by saying, “That’s why they play the games.” As is, we have no idea how or where or when any games will be played. If there’s a baseball season, there’s no reason the Braves shouldn’t do well. Mighty big if, though.
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