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What Randomness Could a 60-Game MLB Season Bring?

The shortened slate seems sure to allow a few unlikely teams to sneak into the playoffs, and we could see a few statistical anomalies. Will that make the 2020 campaign any less enjoyable than usual?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the bottom of the fifth inning of a game against the Orioles on June 6, 2019, Rangers left fielder Danny Santana lifted a one-out fly ball to center. When O’s center fielder Keon Broxton caught it, his Texas counterpart Delino DeShields hurried home from third, scoring what would be the winning run in a 4-3 Rangers victory. With that win in the books, the Rangers’ record stood at 32-28. Through 60 games, they were in wild-card position. “Playoff baseball may come back to Arlington sooner than expected,” Sports Illustrated’s Michael Shapiro wrote that week.

A lot has happened since then. The Rangers went 46-56 over the rest of the season, finishing 78-84, 18 games out of the second wild-card spot. DeShields was traded to Cleveland. Broxton became a Brewer (again). Globe Life Park was replaced by Globe Life Field. And a global pandemic caused Major League Baseball to shorten its 2020 regular season to 60 games.

If last season had stopped after 60 games, the Rangers would have won the second wild card. The Cubs would have won the NL Central, and the Phillies would have won the NL East. In other words, three out of the 10 teams that were in playoff position at that point didn’t end up making the playoffs. That’s pretty typical: According to data from Baseball Prospectus, 36.5 percent of teams during the divisional era (1969 to 2019, excluding the 1981 and 1994 strike seasons) that were in playoff position through 60 games didn’t end up making the playoffs. The tables below list the prospective playoff qualifiers through 60 games that finished with the worst full-season records, and the actual playoff teams with the worst records through 60 games.

Prospective Playoff Teams After 60 Games With Worst Full-Season Records

Team W% After 60 G Full-Season W%
Team W% After 60 G Full-Season W%
1978 Athletics .533 .426
1983 Angels .567 .432
2005 Orioles .600 .456
1973 Brewers .550 .457
2004 Reds .567 .457
2006 Diamondbacks .567 .469
1973 White Sox .550 .469
2014 Marlins .533 .475
1973 Cubs .600 .478
1995 Phillies .633 .479

Playoff Teams With Worst Records After 60 Games

Team W% After 60 G Full-Season W%
Team W% After 60 G Full-Season W%
2005 Astros .417 .546
2012 Athletics .433 .580
1989 Blue Jays .433 .549
1974 Pirates .433 .543
2006 Twins .450 .593
2019 Nationals .450 .574
2013 Dodgers .450 .568
2003 Marlins .450 .562
2007 Cubs .450 .525
1984 Royals .450 .519

As ESPN’s David Schoenfield noted this week, the average winning percentage of the worst playoff team in each league over the past five seasons was .549, which translates to 33-27 over 60 games. Among eventual playoff teams from 1969 to 2019 (again excluding ’81 and ’94), 29 percent went worse than 33-27 in their first 60 games. Yet any team that’s in playoff position through 60 games this season—if the pandemic even permits 60 games to be played—will actually enter the playoffs. And any team that’s on the outside of the playoff picture won’t have any additional time to work its way in. The odds are good that the 2020 playoff field will feature a few teams that wouldn’t have made it in a 162-game season. Things are going to get weird. And to cope with that weirdness, it might make sense for fans to consider reorienting their approach to rooting.

Sixty games amounts to less than 40 percent of a standard regular season. In spans of 60 games, great teams can play poorly and lousy teams can play well. The average team winning percentage is, of course, .500. But during the divisional era (sans strike seasons) the average winning percentages over a team’s best 60-game stretch and worst 60-game stretch are .584 and .416, respectively. Seventy-one percent of all teams managed at least one 60-game stretch of 33-27 or better, and 88 percent at some point played at least .500 ball. Two playoff teams in that span (the 1973 Mets and 2016 Giants) suffered 60-game slumps of 22-38, and two non-playoff teams (the 1978 Red Sox and 2005 A’s) enjoyed 60-game hot streaks of 45-15. Fifteen teams during the divisional era have had differences of at least 180 points between their full-season winning percentages and their winning percentages over their best or worst 60-game stretches.

Teams With Biggest Gaps Between Best/Worst 60-Game Winning Percentage and Full-Season Winning Percentage

Team Full-Season W% Best/Worst 60G W% Difference Between Best/Worst Stretch and Full Season
Team Full-Season W% Best/Worst 60G W% Difference Between Best/Worst Stretch and Full Season
1977 Cubs .500 .717 .217
2013 Dodgers .568 .783 .215
1997 Phillies .420 .633 .213
2017 Dodgers .642 .850 .208
2005 Athletics .543 .750 .207
2011 Twins .389 .583 .194
1988 Angels .463 .650 .197
1973 Cardinals .500 .683 .183
-- -- -- --
2015 Braves .414 .233 -.181
1988 Indians .481 .300 -.181
2013 Dodgers .568 .383 -.185
1986 Athletics .469 .283 -.186
1982 Twins .370 .183 -.187
1997 Phillies .420 .233 -.187
1987 Brewers .562 .350 -.212

You’ll notice that two teams—the 2013 Dodgers and the 1997 Phillies—appear on both the top and the bottom of the table above. Those Jekyll-and-Hyde teams had winning-percentage gaps of 400 points between their best and worst 60-game stretches within the same season. The 2013 Dodgers had a 60-game stretch where they played like a 62-win team and a 60-game stretch where, powered by Yasiel Puig, they played at a 127-win pace. In their best and worst 60-game spans, the ’97 Phillies looked like a 103-win team and a 38-win team, respectively.

Granted, we find more extreme swings when we cherry-pick teams’ best and worst 60-game stretches than we do when we look at their first 60-game stretches. But however we slice a 60-game season, we end up singing the “small sample size” song. It takes 67 games for an MLB team’s record to reflect half skill and half luck. We’re never going to get to that point in the 2020 regular season.

I don’t want to imply that this postseason would be a random drawing. There’s plenty of signal in 60 games, and we learn much more about teams’ true talent in their first 60 games than we do in the remainder of the season. Plus, luck is a large factor even in a season of 162 games—just not nearly as large. Based on binomial probability, if a team finishes with a .500 winning percentage over 162 games, there’s a 64.5 percent chance that its true talent level lies between .450 and .550. If a team finishes with a .500 winning percentage over 60 games, though, there’s only a 40.9 percent chance that it’s truly a .450-to-.550 team.

Plus, a small-sample schedule isn’t the only factor making this season extra chaotic (and more slanted toward underdogs). There’s also the likelihood of a higher pitcher injury rate, the potential for more minor injuries among position players who may not be in the best shape of their lives after a long layoff, and the inevitability of COVID-19 cases and clusters. And because the trade deadline is set for August 31—barely more than a month after Opening Day—teams that fluke into fast starts may be more likely to upgrade than they would if the deadline came as late in the season as it usually does, when the pretenders have had time to cool off. They may also be more likely than they otherwise would be to promote top prospects, and less likely to keep pitchers on short leashes. As Joe Sheehan noted in his newsletter this week, “If you’re playing 162 games, you can’t get swept up in a good month. If you’re playing 60, a good month is half the season.”

Even under normal circumstances, baseball is the rare sport in which the best team on paper usually doesn’t win the title, but most of its tendency to create underdogs comes from its famously crapshooty postseason, which comes the closest to a coin flip among the major American sports. This year, we can’t count on the top-tier teams even making it to the postseason, which spoils some of the suspense about bragging rights that October typically provides. If MLB had replaced the regular season with an expanded tournament, we could easily embrace the randomness and abandon any expectation of this semblance of the season establishing the best teams. As it is, though, we’re heading for a regular season that won’t really be regular at all.

If every regular season lasted 60 games, we would be accustomed to this amount of statistical noise, but 2020 will be an outlier in length even compared to previous shortened seasons. As FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski wrote this week, “2020 will go down as the season in baseball history when the relative talent of the teams was the least important in determining the playoff field and the eventual champion.” The empty stands and temporary rules will only add to the air of unreality, making it easier for fans of the future to set this season’s results aside.

So how will we remember 2020’s best teams and players? “If the 2020 season does start, my guess is that people will see it for what it is,” Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton wrote on Monday. “It’s a weird, one-off year that was played under weird circumstances under weird rules. Even if someone hits .400, the accomplishment will be followed with, ‘yeah, but that was that weird 2020 season.’”

I don’t disagree; I’ll be filtering out 2020 from future leaderboards just like I filtered out 1981 and 1994. And to some extent, the same perception will apply to the eventual World Series winner. We won’t apply a literal asterisk to the title, but we’ll hold one in our heads, just as we do for the 2017 Astros. Illegal sign stealing may not be why the Astros won, and the 60-game season may not be why the 2020 champion will win. But we’ll never know for sure. Unlike the 2017 Astros, the 2020 World Series winner won’t have done anything dishonorable; it won’t be that team’s fault that its accomplishment comes with a caveat. So I wouldn’t call this year’s title less “legitimate.” I’d just call it less definitive, and on some level, less impressive.

I’d argue that in light of those unique conditions, coupled with the difficult conditions in the country at large, we should temporarily make a mental adjustment and reframe fandom. The players will be trying to win, and it’s fine for fans to want their teams to win. The champions will still pop corks, wear goggles, and spray champagne, even if no one will be there to give them curtain calls. We don’t all have to wear our “I just hope both teams have fun” shirts or borrow Justin Bieber’s sports takes. But the 2020 season won’t look like any other season, so maybe we shouldn’t root the way we would in any other season.

First and foremost, we’ll have to hope for health. Hope that as few players and team personnel as possible contract COVID-19. Hope that those who do will escape severe cases and long-term complications. Hope that owners who are hungrier for revenue than safety don’t endanger the public at large.

Because of COVID-19, the season came close to cancellation before it began. An outbreak could end it any day, wiping out the postseason and freezing the midseason standings in an eternal what-if, like 1994’s. Even if it’s possible to complete the season safely, there will be fewer major league games played this season than in any year since 1900. So savor the aesthetic experience of the sport for as long as it lasts. Appreciate the pitches and the swings of some of the most talented athletes ever. Watch with friends or family, whether together or far apart. Do yard work and doze off with the familiar music of a baseball broadcast in the background.

Root for good games and sweet stories and successful performances by players you like. Root for unique occurrences—statistical quirks, previously unseen strategies, and discoveries that we wouldn’t make except in this strange season. Try to steer into the small sample. The short season may topple the superteams: According to Szymborski’s computations, the Dodgers are the only team with a greater than 50-50 chance to win its division. Maybe the season would seem slightly less arbitrary if a pre-pandemic favorite went all the way, but even if the Dodgers ended their drought, their detractors would discount the achievement. (Even the ’81 world champions played 110 games.) So cross your fingers for a free-for-all. Let a few long-shot teams that are trying to compete make a real run. If it’s going to be weird, and it only kind of counts, let it be weird in ways we won’t forget.

Expecting lifelong fans to change the way they watch sports is a pretty tall order. It takes time to rewire one’s rooting interests, and for some, the season won’t be worth watching without the promise (or at least illusion) of convincing victory and decisive defeat. But we’ve all made major adjustments this year. The 2020 winners won’t be viewed in the usual light, so why sweat the wins and losses? Especially at a time when there’s so much else over which to lose sleep?

This year, the ball games are going out without us. It’s better not to be taken out with the crowd. Nobody’s buying peanuts, and Cracker Jack sales can’t be strong. So sure, root, root, root for the home team. But if they don’t win, it’s not necessarily a shame. It might just be a small sample.

Thanks to Lucas Apostoleris and Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.