MLB: Who benefits most from a 50-game season?

Recent reports indicate MLB might consider a much shorter season when it finally begins the 2020 season. Who would benefit from such a plan?

As of right now, it looks like we’ve got good news and bad news when it comes to the 2020 Major League Baseball season.

The good news is that we might actually have a season! Jon Heyman reported Thursday that there’s “great confidence” that we’ll actually have baseball this year. The bad news is that we might only be getting a 50-game season, according to an ESPN report.

Because players want to get paid their pro-rated salaries for games played in 2020, something that was collectively agreed to in March, the 30 team owners are pushing back and trying to limit the number of games so that they won’t have to spend so much money on payrolls as revenues crater.

But let’s ignore all that drama for a few minutes and indulge the idea of what would happen if there actually was a 50-game MLB season during the summer and fall. Who would most benefit from a mini, truncated campaign like that?

The easy answer would be, duh, the best teams because they’re the best anyway. However, that’s only partially true. A smaller sample size inevitably increases the chances for some randomness to occur.

For an example of this, let’s look at the first 50 games of the 2019 season. Though not every team reached 50 games at the same time because of all the different off days and travel schedules, rainouts and the early Japan series between Oakland and Seattle, there weren’t any days where even 10 teams reached the 50-game mark at the same time. But there were a couple of days where eight teams did, so let’s look at a freeze-frame of what was going on last May 24.

For those of you who subscribe to the ‘duh, the best teams would benefit the most’ theory, the American League would prove you correct. Four of the same teams that reached the playoffs last year after 162 games, New York, Minnesota, Houston and Tampa Bay, would’ve made the postseason after “50” games as well.

But the final Wild Card spot would’ve gone to the Boston Red Sox, who were a half game ahead of Texas, Cleveland and Oakland that day. Of course the A’s ended up being the final postseason team ahead of the Indians, with the Red Sox finishing well behind and the Rangers finishing with 78 wins.

And if you’re a fan of the small-sample randomness theory, the National League would’ve really been your jam. Your 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals? They were 20-31, in fourth place in the NL East behind your small-sample playoff bound Philadelphia Phillies. In a 50-game season, the Bryce Harper signing would’ve paid off big time, costing the Nats huge in the standings.

The NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals were 25-25 and in fourth place behind small-sample-size division champion Chicago. Maybe Joe Maddon would still be Cubs manager in an alternate universe 50-game 2019 season. The Dodgers, Braves and Brewers still would’ve made the playoffs, but the Senior Circuit postseason would’ve looked quite different.

As for your small sample size player award winners, eventual MVPs Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger were doing really well after 50 games, but Trout was edged out in WAR by Houston’s George Springer. Bellinger led baseball with a .389 average at the time, but imagine if he or some other player hit over .400 in a shortened season. How would that count in the record books?

If you’re into pitching WAR as a representative indicator for the Cy Young Award, Mets ace Jacob DeGrom was third in his own rotation in WAR on May 24. Ironically, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg paced the NL in that category after “50” games and Detroit’s Matthew Boyd paced the AL. Eventual award winner Justin Verlander was 10th in WAR behind the likes of Mike Minor, Frankie Montas, Domingo German and Lance Lynn. AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez didn’t even play a game for the Astros until June.

In short, the fewer games are played, the more randomness there could be in results. So for who or what benefits the most in a 50-game season, the answer is most likely chaos.

Next: MLB’s lacking social voice and the decline of African-American ballplayers

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