By the Numbers: Proposed 82-Game MLB Season Could Yield Shocking Results

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By RADIO.COM

The 2020 MLB season, if we have one, will be like no other. The latest proposal calls for an 82-game season with Opening Day slated for July 4 or thereabouts. We’ve seen strike-shortened seasons before (the 1994 and ‘95 campaigns, for instance) but the 82-game slate recently laid out by MLB owners would be unprecedented. An unprecedented season to match the unprecedented times we’re living in with America’s coronavirus death toll nearing 100,000.

There’s still plenty to be sorted out—reports indicate the league and its players are far apart on a number of key points with revenue sharing thought to be the most divisive issue. But if MLB does resume play in 2020, an abbreviated 82-game schedule is the best either side could hope for.

It goes without saying that an 82-game mini-season is not at all the same beast as the 162-game war of attrition teams are accustomed to, never mind all the other proposed changes (universal designated hitters, condensed schedules emphasizing divisional play, etc.) MLB players will have to deal with upon their return to the diamond this year. More so than in any other sport, the MLB season is a marathon, a slow burn that rewards strong finishers. We’ve seen stacked teams like the Dodgers and Astros save their bullets for the later months, cognizant that championships are won in October, not May and April.

But that’s a luxury the slow-starters of the world won’t have in 2020. Teams can’t afford to go through the motions this year. Six months is plenty of time to dig yourself out of an early hole, but the breakneck pace of an 82-game sprint won’t be as forgiving.

Obviously, there’s less margin for error in a shortened season, which could put some of the more deliberate, October-minded teams at a disadvantage. But I’m more interested in how the dark horse clubs will affect this year’s playoff calculus. Each year, without fail, we see a handful of seemingly random teams surge to hot starts before inevitably fading down the stretch. But this year, there is no stretch. With fewer games on the proposed 2020 docket, fast-starting Cinderellas that typically get weeded out in the dog days of summer may not have time to cool off. Expanding the playoff field from 10 to 14 teams will only up the chaos ante in what figures to be—assuming this season actually takes flight at some point—baseball’s wildest year yet.

One-hundred-sixty-two games is typically enough time for the cream to rise to the top, but 82 is a much lighter lift (even the hopeless team from Peanuts could string together a decent half-season if they had to) for feisty underdogs like the up-and-coming White Sox and Blue Jays. Of course, that doesn’t mean MLB will devolve into jungle law just because the league is shaving 80 games off its schedule. While the potential for playoff anarchy is higher with an abbreviated slate, good teams tend to be good—and bad teams stay bad—no matter the season length.

To give you a comparison, I compiled the league standings through 82 games for each of the past two seasons with playoff qualifiers in bold:

2018 

AL East

1) Boston Red Sox 55-27

4) New York Yankees 54-28

Tampa Bay Rays 41-41

Toronto Blue Jays 39-43

Baltimore Orioles 23-69

AL Central

3) Cleveland Indians 45-37

Detroit Tigers 36-46

Minnesota Twins 35-47

Chicago White Sox 28-54

Kansas City Royals 25-57

AL West

2) Houston Astros 54-28

5) Seattle Mariners 51-31

Oakland Athletics 44-38

Los Angeles Angels 41-41

Texas Rangers 36-46

NL East

2) Atlanta Braves 48-34

5) Philadelphia Phillies 45-37

Washington Nationals 42-40

New York Mets 33-49

Miami Marlins 32-50

NL Central

1) Milwaukee Brewers 48-34

4) Chicago Cubs 47-35

St. Louis Cardinals 42-40

Pittsburgh Pirates 39-43

Cincinnati Reds 34-48

NL West

3) Arizona Diamondbacks 47-35

Los Angeles Dodgers 43-39

San Francisco Giants 42-40

Colorado Rockies 40-42

San Diego Padres 36-46

2019

AL East

1) New York Yankees 54-28

5) Tampa Bay Rays 46-36

Boston Red Sox 44-38

Toronto Blue Jays 30-52

Baltimore Orioles 24-58

AL Central

2) Minnesota Twins 53-29

Cleveland Indians 44-38

Chicago White Sox 40-42

Kansas City Royals 28-54

Detroit Tigers 27-55

AL West

3) Houston Astros 50-32

4) Texas Rangers 46-36

Oakland Athletics 44-38

Los Angeles Angels 42-40

Seattle Mariners 35-47

NL East

2) Atlanta Braves 48-34

5) Philadelphia Phillies 43-39

Washington Nationals 41-41

New York Mets 37-45

Miami Marlins 32-50

NL Central

3) Chicago Cubs 44-38

4) Milwaukee Brewers 43-39

St. Louis Cardinals 41-41

Pittsburgh Pirates 39-43

Cincinnati Reds 38-44

NL West

1) Los Angeles Dodgers 55-27

Colorado Rockies 43-39

San Diego Padres 42-40

Arizona Diamondbacks 41-41

San Francisco Giants 35-47

Now see who actually made the playoffs those years:

2018

American League

1) Boston Red Sox

2) Houston Astros

3) Cleveland Indians

4) New York Yankees

5) Oakland Athletics

National League

1) Milwaukee Brewers

2) Los Angeles Dodgers

3) Atlanta Braves

4) Chicago Cubs

5) Colorado Rockies

2019

American League

1) Houston Astros

2) New York Yankees

3) Minnesota Twins

4) Oakland Athletics

5) Tampa Bay Rays

National League

1) Los Angeles Dodgers

2) Atlanta Braves

3) St. Louis Cardinals

4) Washington Nationals

5) Milwaukee Brewers

Based on two years of data—not the biggest sample size, but enough to paint a basic picture—15 of the 20 teams (75 percent) in playoff position through 82 games finished the job, living to see October baseball. Juggernauts like the Yankees and Braves were largely unfazed, maintaining their pace throughout the season, but there were a few shakeups to the ranks. The Dodgers, who got off to an uncharacteristically sluggish start in 2018, wouldn’t have been in the playoff mix had the season ended after 82 games while the same is true of the 2019 Nationals, who were merely a .500 team at last year’s halfway juncture. Both clubs won their respective pennants with Washington riding World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg to its first title. And to think that neither team would have made the cut had the season’s candle blown out after 82 games.

While the Nats and Dodgers gathered strength down the stretch, the Phillies experienced the opposite phenomenon, collapsing after hot starts the past two seasons. Using Game 82 as a hypothetical dividing line, it’s easy to imagine an alternate timeline with Gabe Kapler (now manning the ship in San Francisco) leading an upstart Phillies squad coming off consecutive playoff appearances. One also wonders if Joe Maddon would still have a job with the Cubs if Chicago had held off the hard-charging Cardinals in the second half of 2019.

In most cases, the 82-game standings weren’t drastically different from the final product, but one seeding change proved fairly significant with Houston edging the Yankees for home-field advantage in the 2019 American League playoffs. It would have been the other way around had the season wrapped up after a tight 82. Would Jose Altuve’s iconic (potentially buzzer-aided) walk-off to beat Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 have played out differently in the Bronx? You could certainly make that argument.

The playoff teams I listed aren’t even a full representation as MLB seems all but certain to adopt a 14-team postseason format for 2020 (that’s one of the few proposals not causing tension between players and ownership). Here’s what the 2018 and ’19 seasons (remember, we’re staring through an 82-game lens) would have looked like with expanded playoffs:

2018

American League

1) Boston Red Sox

2) Houston Astros

3) Cleveland Indians

4) New York Yankees

5) Seattle Mariners

6) Oakland Athletics

7) Los Angeles Angels or Tampa Bay Rays (Rays would host tiebreaker game)

National League

1) Milwaukee Brewers

2) Atlanta Braves

3) Arizona Diamondbacks

4) Chicago Cubs,

5) Philadelphia Phillies

6) Los Angeles Dodgers

7) San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals or Washington Nationals (Giants hold tiebreaker over Cardinals and Nationals, Cardinals hold tiebreaker over Nationals)

2019

American League

1) New York Yankees

2) Minnesota Twins

3) Houston Astros

4) Texas Rangers

5) Tampa Bay Rays

6) Boston Red Sox

7) Oakland Athletics

National League

1) Los Angeles Dodgers

2) Atlanta Braves

3) Chicago Cubs

4) Milwaukee Brewers

5) Philadelphia Phillies

6) Colorado Rockies

7) San Diego Padres

Now this is where things take a turn for the insane. There were tiebreakers galore with the Cardinals, Giants and Nationals somehow finishing in a dead heat for the NL’s fourth and final Wild Card spot in 2018, which would necessitate two tiebreaker games with home-field determined by head-to-head record. In a truly cruel twist of fate (we’re really getting into the weeds here), the Rays and Rangers, who tied for fourth in the AL through 82 games in 2019, actually faced each other at the season’s midway point. The Rangers lost two of three that series, but their win in Game 82 (Tampa Bay claimed victory in Games 83-84) was enough to grant them the superior playoff seed.

One criticism of expanding the playoffs is that it would water down the field with lesser teams perceived as “undeserving.” The playoff-bound Rays and Athletics (both 41-41 through 82 games in 2018) would certainly fit that mold. The 2019 Padres (42-40) weren’t exactly ringers either, but the more the merrier, right?

The data leaves us with little in the way of concrete takeaways, but based on the small, two-year sample size provided, I think we can expect the usual October heavyweights (the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers all have “World Series or bust” mandates) mixed in with a few surprise entries in this year’s playoff field. Whatever the outcome, let’s hope MLB returns quickly so we can stop waking up at the crack of dawn for KBO games to fill our baseball void.

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