Possible 82-game season, universal DH, testing key items
NEW YORK–MLB owners approved a proposal that aims to have Major League Baseball back in early July. Commissioner Rob Manfred planned to present the proposal to players May 12.
While player safety playing during the coronavirus pandemic and financial questions about compensation for a shortened season will be at the top of the priority list, details about the season are also taking shape ahead of Tuesday's expected meeting. ESPN.com's Bradford Doolittle, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield examine how that shorter 2020 season could look by weighing in on everything from the expected 82-game length of the regular season and expanded playoffs to 2020 rule changes that could include a universal DH and a revamped extra-innings format.
What would be the most exciting part of a shorter 82-game season?
Bradford Doolittle: Everyone has a chance. Well, not quite, but pretty close. On a per-game basis, teams aren't any better or worse than they would have been in a normal season. But the hidden factor that flows beneath every season looms much larger in a half-season scenario: Randomness. It's not something I'd advocate for under normal circumstances. These are nothing if not abnormal circumstances, so I say let's embrace the fluke.
Since we know the proposal is for 82 games, let's consider last season, which was unusually polarized from a competitive standpoint by the standards of the current era. Let's consider the proposed 14-team playoff format. And let's not look at how teams stacked up through their first 82 games, but their first 72. In other words, how did the landscape look if there were just 10 games to go in the season?
You would have had three teams who had clinched a spot by that point: the Twins, Dodgers and Astros. One other -- the Yankees -- would have been sitting pretty. Eighteen other teams would have stood either among the top 14 or within four games of the cutoff. World Series hopes would be alive for 22 of 30 teams headed into the final stretch of the season.
Is it a viable season? Maybe, maybe not. But it will be exciting.
David Schoenfield: To Brad's point about viability, when I looked into how teams play over their best stretches of 50, 75 and 100 games, I found that 100 games does a pretty job of replicating a 162-game season, with teams' best 100-game stretches, on average, .038 points of winning percentage better than their 162-game percentage (that's 3.8 wins over 100 games). For 75 games, the best stretches averaged 5.1 wins better.
What does that mean? While a good team could have a rough 80-game stretch (think of last year's Nationals, who started 19-31), for the most part an 80-game schedule is enough to separate the good teams from the bad teams. To Brad's point, however, we likely will be left with a lot of teams in the middle, making every game feel a little more important than a normal season.
Jesse Rogers: Just the fact that every game will have double its meaning this season is juicy. By, like, game 25 of the shortened season, we can start the playoff push, so to speak. Once teams get their feet under them, perhaps we'll see heightened competition. And remember, a shortened season means less time for players to earn their raises for the previous year. In other words, it's game on from Day 1.
What would be the biggest drawback of a shorter 82-game season?
Doolittle: Really it's the flipside of the everyone-has-a-chance quality to the season. From a competitive standpoint, whoever wins the World Series will forever have that gnawing sensation that comes with knowing something just wasn't quite right about it. That doesn't mean you don't celebrate it, as the 1981 Dodgers celebrated their championship. But 39 years later, most history-minded baseball observers likely feel that L.A.'s crown that season wasn't as lustrous as it might have been. The secondary drawback is that player season totals won't stack up to other seasons, and career numbers will be impacted and milestones will be missed. Someday, Hall of Fame voters might have to make some mental adjustments when surveying their ballots.
Rogers: It's hard to know how long sloppy play will be the norm early in the season. So if it really is as hard to restart as we might imagine, half the season could look like little league. Pitchers will kind of be ready after three weeks of spring training and hitters will eventually get their timing down, but we might be in September before great competition emerges. It's hard to see all the potholes, but they will be there, considering these athletes are conditioned for something entirely different than what this year will bring.
Schoenfield: It will feel weird and the season-ending stats will look weird and playing in potentially empty stadiums will be a big negative, but it's still baseball and that's good. The biggest drawback would be a team like the Nationals that got off to a horrendous start in 2019, but got their act together over the long haul, made the playoffs and won it all. A short season will mean you need to come out ready and healthy.
How might an extra round of MLB playoffs in 2020 play out?
Doolittle: Hectically and randomly. As suggested, this is a season in which we have little choice but to accept the wildness. As Bob Costas and others have suggested, this is the time to take some of the more radical rule chances that have been bandied about, throw them against the wall, and see what sticks. Same goes for radical realignment. If that is the likely outcome from some future expansion to 32 teams, let's see what that looks like now.
That line of thinking applies to the ridiculous 14-team playoff tournament proposal that leaked over the winter. As a remedy for a revenue-strapped, pandemic-clipped season, then fine. We'll make that our pandemic playoff format. But when the 39-43 Reds play the 42-40 White Sox in the World Series, we can see firsthand why bloated playoff brackets don't make sense in baseball.
Schoenfield: I'm not too worried about two .500 teams making the World Series. Yes, it could happen and that would not be ideal, but we've already had playoff systems that created suboptimal World Series winners. The 1987 Twins won 85 games (they would have finished fifth in the AL East) and were outscored. The 2006 Cardinals finished 83-78. In 2014, we had an all-wild-card matchup between two teams that won 88 and 89 games. Even last year's Nationals tied for just the eighth-most wins in the regular season.
Which teams could be most impacted if MLB regionalizes divisions to reduce travel?
Doolittle: Once again, the Central divisions in baseball projected to be worse than either East and West divisions. However, the NL West was looking pretty mediocre this season as well. If team schedules are regionalized into East/Central/West formulas, the outer-edge divisions will suffer from not getting to play their middle divisions, but to a degree similar to each other.
Conversely, the best of the Central teams will get artificial schedule boosts. Just in terms of strength of divisional opponent, the Twins and Indians -- the only clubs in either Central division forecasted to approach or pass 90 wins -- would profit most from the change. And the AL West will get a boost from playing more games against the NL West and vice versa. The Padres' attempt to leap to a higher tier would be hurt by more games against the Astros, Athletics and Angels. But maybe the Texas teams won't be in the west region at all. It all depends on the moving parts.
Schoenfield: I'm with Brad. I think the biggest hits are to the teams in the NL East who would now have to play more games against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays instead of the Pirates, Giants and Rockies. That could spell trouble for a team like the Phillies, that already projected as the fourth-best team in that division and now could face a tougher schedule.
Who would be helped and hurt if MLB enacts a universal DH in 2020?
Doolittle: Even if we're talking about the American League, there just aren't that many teams that use a full-time DH. The Twins used Nelson Cruz, the Astros used Yordan Alvarez (although reportedly are planning to use him in the field more often in 2020), the Red Sox's J.D. Martinez DH'd about three-quarters of the time. The Angels obviously leverage the DH spot to use Shohei Ohtani as a two-way player. Beyond that, given that rosters will be expanded, I just don't see that there will be that much difference between the two leagues. The difference will be that NL teams don't have those aforementioned DH stars, which is not nothing. This is an era that rewards depth and NL teams that have it -- the Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, Braves and Cardinals stand out -- will be better positioned. In other news, the upshot is that once baseball sees a landscape with all DHs, everyone can see what is lost from a diversity standpoint that comes with the NL playing style.
Schoenfield: National League teams with the most offensive depth get a boost -- the Dodgers fit here. They can rest players by rotating them through the DH spot. If Yoenis Cespedes is actually healthy, the Mets now have a place to play him without worrying about his defense or sitting one of their other outfielders. Howie Kendrick would be a great full-time DH for the Nationals, allowing them to platoon Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman at first base.
Which of these rumored 2020 possibilities are you most intrigued by: expanded rosters, taxi squads or more doubleheaders?
Doolittle: More doubleheaders, although I'm not sure how I would feel about seven-inning games if that's what comes to pass. In theory, it seems acceptable. In practice, it will seem very strange. But who doesn't love a doubleheader? It's Ernie Banks' dream scenario. The other items are more a product of necessity than intrigue. We've seen expanded rosters every September for decades, and it's not something people love. And taxi squads? That's an old NFL thing.
Schoenfield: I'll pick the doubleheaders, assuming these are seven-inning games. I would love to see how that feels/plays out. It would, in theory, eliminate the needs for so many mind-numbing pitching changes in the middle innings since you go starter to closer. But that may also mean fewer comebacks and less interesting baseball when, or if, the 2020 MLB season begins.