If the 2020 MLB season proceeds as planned—and that’s a giant, glaring “if,” with COVID-19 counts rising in the U.S. and the sport’s testing procedures in need of refinement after a tumultuous weekend—it will look unlike any other in recent memory. And not just because of a lack of fans in the stands and player spit on the field: To accommodate the shortened season and to reduce travel due to the pandemic, the schedule required extreme streamlining.
Released on Monday night, the schedule calls for teams to play 60 games apiece, with the following matchups:
- Ten games each against divisional opponents, for 40 total
- Six games against the “natural” interleague rival (e.g., Yankees and Mets)
- Three or four games each against the other interleague teams in the corresponding geographical division, for 14 total (e.g., the Yankees have 14 games scheduled against the non-Mets teams from the NL East)
Notably missing from that list is any competition across geographical lines—East teams play only other East teams, while skipping clubs from the Central and West divisions. It also emphasizes interleague play, now a full third of the schedule instead of 12 percent in a normal season. These changes mean more from a macro perspective, because of what they signal about MLB’s efforts to grapple with staging a season, but the on-field effect is imbalance, across teams and especially divisions.
This graph shows the average projected opponents’ winning percentage for every team this season; a lower number means easier competition and a higher number means a more difficult slate.
Unsurprisingly, most of the easier schedules belong to better teams; the Yankees don’t have to play themselves. Other easier schedules belong to teams in the two Central divisions, which makes similar sense because those groups—especially the AL Central—have routinely been weaker than their coastal counterparts.
We can translate those strengths of schedule into more easily understood terms—wins and losses—by comparing two different records that FanGraphs projects for each team: its “true talent” record, reflecting the showing it would expect against a neutral schedule, and a second projection that accounts for the actual schedule. For instance, the White Sox have a natural winning percentage projection this season of .501, or a 30-30 record; their schedule-adjusted projection, however, is .523, which translates to 31.4 wins in 60 games. So Chicago would expect an extra win or two this season by virtue of its easy schedule alone.
That advantage may not seem like a lot, but it’s a potentially enormous deal in a season of this length. One or two games will almost certainly be the difference between playoff and nonplayoff teams; for instance, here are the projected win totals (adjusting for schedule) for the presumed AL wild-card contenders, after the projected division-leading Astros, Yankees, and Twins:
- Rays, 33.8 projected wins
- Cleveland, 32.4
- Athletics, 32.2
- Red Sox, 31.7
- White Sox, 31.4
- Angels, 30.6
The National League is even more muddled. The Dodgers are up at 36.3 projected wins, best in the majors, and then comes a mass around the .500 mark:
- Braves, 32.6
- Nationals, 32.6
- Cubs, 31.9
- Mets, 31.6
- Brewers, 31.4
- Reds, 31.1
- Padres, 30.9
- Cardinals, 30.8
- Diamondbacks, 29.7
- Phillies, 29.4
Between the two leagues, that’s 15 teams—a full half of the sport—projected between 29 and 33 wins. (Like the Dodgers, the Astros, Yankees, and Twins are all projected above 33.) There are grounds to expect more tiebreaker games this season, with fewer contests to separate teams in the standings, and that’s all the more reason for a mere game or two to wield outsized influence on the eventual playoff bracket.
In comparing schedule-neutral and schedule-adjusted projections, the three teams with the largest positive gaps all play in the AL Central: Minnesota, Cleveland, and Chicago. If they’re all getting the same number of schedule wins, the advantage will cancel out in the division race—but it could certainly matter in the battle for the AL’s wild-card spots, with teams like the A’s and Angels reaping lesser scheduling gains. Here’s the full accounting (with a negative number meaning the team is projected to win fewer games because of its schedule than it would against a neutral field):
On the other end of the spectrum, while a few prospective contenders like the Diamondbacks and Phillies fare worse when accounting for schedule, most of the teams congregated toward the bottom of that graph are probable last-place clubs. That makes sense—the Marlins don’t get to play themselves. The poor Orioles, meanwhile, already looked like the majors’ worst team, and now have a schedule stocked with contenders. In a normal season, they’d at least get to play the Royals, Tigers, and Mariners a combined 20 times or so; now it’s just the Marlins who line their schedule with any hope. (And I even believe in the Marlins as a sneakily solid team.)
Other 2020-specific strategic wrinkles could affect this season’s standings, too. The Twins don’t merely benefit from the majors’ easiest schedule; they also benefit from the universal designated hitter rule, which saves them from losing Nelson Cruz’s bat for a sixth of the regular season (10 road interleague games, out of 60 total). The teams with the largest DH advantages will retain those for the entire season.
The DH may also give AL teams a boost in interleague contests; even if the universal DH is implemented for future seasons, 2020’s adoption will be unique because AL teams were able to build a 2020 roster knowing they’d have a DH, while NL teams must adjust on the fly.
Keeping with the AL Central theme, Edwin Encarnación signed a one-year deal (with a club option for a second year) with the White Sox in January. Encarnación is in his late 30s now and not the most graceful fielder—but he can still crush at the plate, with 30-plus home runs in each of the past eight seasons. NL teams would have been more likely to pursue his bat in free agency if they knew his glove wasn’t a necessary part of the deal. By FanGraphs’ estimations, all of the top seven teams in expected DH value, and 12 of the top 14 teams, are AL clubs.
Top 2020 Designated Hitter Projections
|Team||Rank||Projected WAR||Primary DH|
|Team||Rank||Projected WAR||Primary DH|
|Red Sox||2||1.2||J.D. Martinez|
|White Sox||7||0.7||Edwin Encarnación|
Taken all together, the logistical oddities of the 2020 season might not amount to much when compared to the very real health impacts playing the season may bring. From a purely on-field perspective, Minnesota’s advantages here could easily be overshadowed if a star player misses games due to a positive COVID-19 test or pulls a hamstring in late July because the abbreviated spring training prevented him from fully preparing for the season. (And again, that’s just the on-field consideration, which pales in comparison to the broader implications of any illness or injury sustained in this questionable effort to play amid a pandemic.)
But all those little effects can add up, particularly in a shortened season that by its very nature adds uncertainty; it’s a lot easier for teams to separate in the standings based on skill level over 162 games than over 60. FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski calculated that the White Sox’s playoff odds had increased more than any other team’s since February, due mainly to the scheduling changes, while the three best teams—Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers—have seen their odds fall the most. Even the favorites don’t have much better than a coin-flip chance to win their division; randomness may reign in the 2020 standings, and the unprecedented schedule is just one reason why.