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This Baseball Season Is a Sprint, Not a Marathon. Is That a Better Format for the Sport?

MLB’s 60-game schedule will be unlike anything else in league history. It also turns regular-season baseball into must-see TV.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

MLB teams will play 60 games this season instead of 162. That’s just 37 percent of the amount that they usually play. If a 162-game season were a drive from Los Angeles to New York, a 60-game season would get you from L.A. to Denver. If you watched 37 percent of Game of Thrones, you’d come a few episodes short of reaching the Red Wedding.

Baseball seemingly didn’t have to lose this many games. The sport has built-in social-distancing measures that other sports lack: It’s noncontact, the players on the field generally stand at least 6 feet away from each other, and the games take place outside. Plus, unlike sports leagues that had their seasons interrupted when the coronavirus pandemic first started to spread across the United States in mid-March, MLB’s regular season had yet to begin, meaning the league didn’t have to scramble to reconfigure its format. But team owners said they’d lose money for every game in which they had to pay player salaries without recouping the revenue from ticket sales, and pushed to have as short a season as possible. “The reality is we weren’t going to play more than 60 games no matter how the negotiations with the players went,” commissioner Rob Manfred said on The Dan Patrick Show earlier this month. It feels like more baseball could’ve been beneficial to all parties involved—it would’ve brought more eyeballs to a sport that’s been losing them, more cash to the players, and more entertainment to the fans who were quarantined—but after a prolonged and fractious dispute, we’re getting a strange miniseason instead.

While the factors that led to this miniseason are depressing, though, I have to be honest: Focusing strictly on the competitive landscape of the sport, I prefer the 60-game schedule to the unabridged 162-game version. I mean, I’ve driven across the country, and the stretch between L.A. and Denver is the best part. (Mountains! Deserts! Valleys! Cool rocks!) And anyone who conked out after 37 percent of Game of Thrones saved themselves from watching the final season. The compressed format will feel like an MLB season on steroids—well, not actually on steroids. We already did that.

The truth is, more sports don’t always equal better sports. A shorter season is a sprint, not a marathon. The 100-meter dash is always a highlight of the Summer Olympics; have you ever sat through an entire Olympic marathon? The NCAA tournament would be way worse if each round were a best-of-three series. (Congrats on winning Game 1, UMBC! Now you have to historically upset Virginia again.) There are plenty of people who feel the NBA would benefit from a shortened regular season, considering how often players skip games during the 82-game format due to load management, and some watched the NHL’s lockout-shortened season in 2013 and thought, “Hey, we should do this every year!” (TV ratings were way up.) The NFL wants to add more games to its regular season, and can move from 16 to 17 games starting in 2021, but that’s a transparent attempt to generate profit rather than enhance the quality of play. “If the NFL wants to change its season to 17 games, they should ask me,” wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders said in February, “and I say no, because my body was hurting.”

No pro sports league’s season is longer than MLB’s. A 162-game baseball season is an endless summer where there’s seemingly always a tomorrow. Wins are pleasant; losses generally aren’t worth losing sleep over. A team can struggle through April and May and still win the World Series—in fact, it happened just last year, when the Nationals opened 19-31 before winning the whole thing. I enjoy having baseball on my TV, but rarely feel as if any regular-season game is a must-see event. When each game represents 0.61 percent of a team’s season, few feel truly urgent.

In a 60-game season, however, each game is worth as much as an entire series in a 162-game season. The odds for chaos are extremely high, and the importance of every game is magnified. The chances of a random team getting hot and making the playoffs are better than ever—remember when the Mariners started 13-2 last year, only to finish 68-94 and in last place in the AL West? This year, a 13-2 start would all but guarantee a playoff berth.

On the flip side, struggling teams will need to hit the panic button next to immediately. Teams will not have time to tolerate a starting pitcher with the yips, or a hitter in a slump. While I can appreciate the beauty in baseball’s Groundhog Day (or Palm Springs) dust-it-off-and-come-back-to-the-park ethos, giving up a walkoff homer shouldn’t be something that you can just dust off. It should be devastating. In a 60-game schedule, it will be.

To understand the lack of urgency in a typical MLB season, think about the way teams manage their arms. In the regular season, they have a rotation of five starting pitchers and about seven or eight relief pitchers. But when the postseason rolls around and the games grow vastly more important, teams dramatically alter their strategy. They send their aces out on three days’ rest; their fourth- and fifth-best starters are sent to the bullpen; pitch counts go out the window; closers try to pitch for two innings. Sometimes, teams even use their aces in relief. Some of the most memorable moments in playoff history have come when pitchers tried to push themselves to an extra gear, from the triumph of Madison Bumgarner’s relief appearance on two days’ rest in the 2014 World Series to the disaster of Grady Little trying to squeeze a couple more outs from Pedro Martínez in the 2003 ALCS.

Why don’t managers use pitchers like this all season long? Simple: Those pitchers’ limbs would fall off. There’s a limit to how many pitches a human arm can throw in a day, a week, or a season. (The anatomy of the human arm seems to have changed since the days when Old Hoss Radbourn was in the majors.) But in a 60-game season, teams will be forced to adapt. The Ringer’s Michael Baumann wrote about the unique ways this compressed season will force teams to reconsider pitching philosophies. The successes and failures of those untested strategies will play out every single day.

I love the thrill of watching a high-leverage baseball game more than just about anything in sports. Unfortunately, there usually aren’t all that many of them. Baseball might be my favorite sport to watch when it matters, but its competitive structure ensures teams almost always hold something back. This season could bring the intensity of playoff baseball from the first pitch of Opening Day through the final out of the World Series. This is a one-time thing. As a result, I’m going to do something I’ve never done: watch every game that my favorite team plays.