The Pros And Cons Of MLB’s 60 Game Season

On June 4, 2019, the Washington Nationals sat at a record of 27-33.  They were in fourth place in the NL East, six games below .500, and sported what was easily the worst bullpen in baseball through the season’s first two months.  It seemed like the Nationals were just doing their typical thing early that year: completely choking even with one of the sport’s best overall rosters.

But baseball seasons are long.  They’re 162 games running from March to September.  A lot can happen and change during that span, especially in a game as variant as baseball, which is almost solely based on numbers.

In 2019, a lot changed after June 4.  The Nationals bullpen improved slightly, which was just enough to have it not be the sole reason they were losing games.  Washington snuck into the playoffs, won the NL Wild Card Game on a single base hit, let the Dodgers trip on themselves again (and subsequently take the throne from the Nationals as the most disappointing team of the 2010s) and became World Series Champions.

Around MLB, a lot changed after June 4 as well.  The St. Louis Cardinals – Washington’s opponent in the NLCS – were 30-29, third in the NL Central, and sat behind the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs in the division.  Chicago didn’t even make the playoffs, and the Brewers choked in one of the most stunning ways we’ve ever seen in the playoffs.  The Philadelphia Phillies led Washington’s division and were seven games above .500; they didn’t even end up making the postseason.

The 2019 season saw seven of the 10 teams that made the playoffs in position to do so on June 4 – the day the Nationals played their 60th game of the season.  That’s a pretty high percentage.  As surprising as 2019 was, the small sample size we had on June 4 was actually quite representative of how the season ended up playing out, even though the eventual World Series champions were left out.

Even more surprising, baseball’s early season small samples aren’t as misleading as we tend to believe.  I looked at the standings on the date of the eventual World Series champions 60th game every year since 2010, and eight of the past ten seasons, more than half the teams who were in a playoff position on that date actually made it into October.  Here’s the charted data:

MLB from 2010-2011 only had one Wild Card in each league, resulting in an eight team playoff field

2010: 6/8 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the San Francisco Giants 60th game made the playoffs

2011: 5/8 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the St. Louis Cardinals 60th game made the playoffs

2012: 4/10 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the San Francisco Giants 60th game made the playoffs

2013: 7/10 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the Boston Red Sox 60th game made the playoffs

2014: 5/10 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the San Francisco Giants 60th game made the playoffs

2015: 8/10 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the Kansas City Royals 60th game made the playoffs

2016: 8/10 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the Chicago Cubs 60th game made the playoffs

2017: 8/10 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the Houston Astros 60th game made the playoffs

2018: 7/10 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the Boston Red Sox 60th game made the playoffs

2019: 7/10 teams who held a playoff position on the date of the Washington Nationals 60th game made the playoffs

A couple additional notes here:

  • It is extremely interesting that during the second half of the decade, the first 60 games were much more representative of the playoffs than the first half.
  • On paper this could make sense – the 2018 Red Sox, 2017 Astros and 2016 Cubs were all the best team in the baseball each of those years.  The 2015 Royals and 2019 Nationals, not so much.
  • Every Giants World Series title felt incredibly surprising in the moment, and the data backs that up, which explains why during the first half of the decade, the first 60 games were much less representative.
  • The Giants were not even in the playoff picture through 60 games in 2010 and ended up winning the World Series.  They join the 2012 Giants and the 2019 Nationals as the only three other teams to be out of the playoff picture through 60 games and win the World Series in the past 10 years.

The data doesn’t lie.  It shows that approximately 67.7% of the teams in the playoffs after 60 games make it into October over the past 10 years.  That’s a better percentage than most, including this website, seem to give credit for.  Usually the first MLB column of the year lands some time in July on this site, due to school and the NBA Finals wrapping up.  But it’s also significantly due to a perceived small sample size in games and statistics.  Writing about what’s happening a month or two into the season seems insignificant.  It might be time to reconsider that thinking going forward.

MLB is going to make us do that this season whether we like it or not.  The data shows that it may not be something we hate as much as we think it will.  Sixty games may not be the madness we think it will be.

Still, the remaining 32.3% of teams that could get screwed by this short season is significant chunk, and as the data showed, there’s a 30% chance it leaves out the World Series Champion based on the previous 10 years.  Those are both big numbers.

This data is a surprising find, which, despite numbers never lying, leaves for some holes to potentially be poked in them and for us to potentially disagree with them a bit. It’s widely been written about how much of a crapshoot baseball is, specifically during the playoffs.  While the best team wins more times than not, it happens drastically less than in other sports, and when it does (Like the Nationals last year), it feels even more incredible.  Washington in 2019, the Royals in 2015 and almost every Giants title early in the decade was totally unpredictable.  Even the Royals opponent in 2015 – the Mets – completed an astonishing feat by making it that far.

But for three years after that, the best team truly did win: the Cubs in 2016, the Astros in 2017 and the Red Sox in 2018 all dominated those respective seasons.

It ebbs and flows.  When the ebbs occur, they’re enormous, unpredictable and spectacular.  The data can’t really put that into context.

Additionally, the data set pulled may possibly not be the most accurate due to the resources available.  It might have been more accurate to take each teams best and worst 60 game stretch of each season and compare those to the playoff standings in a given year.  Comparing the first 60 games of a 162 game season may not accurately compare to the first 60 games of, well, a 60 game season.  Because baseball is so variant, stats can change dramatically during any 60 game stretch, not just the one that begins the season.

However, finding those 60 game stretches would be nearly impossible with resources available.

Still, 60 games out of 162 is not even 40 percent.  That’s leaves more than half the season left to be completed.  There’s a lot of variability that can occur in either pocket, which means ultimate chaos could still culminate when Opening Day comes along in late July.

We didn’t have to be here.  Games were going to be lost no matter what, but talks between the MLB and MLBPA started in early May regarding a resumption.  Based on camp starting July 1 for most teams, it wouldn’t have taken that long to get things going again – likely about a month total after an agreement.  June 1 was realistic when the sides first started talking.  That would have given us the potential to play somewhere around 90-100 games.

But an agreement couldn’t be made.  The owners and players union spent almost two full months arguing over small amounts of money in the grand scheme of things, most of which came down to billionaire owners being greedy rather than millionaire players being so.  Players are the ones who would be the ones traveling, interacting with others and putting themselves at the highest risk for potentially catching a case of the coronavirus.  Owners will be in their mansions tucked away watching.

There are some caveats – which aren’t defenses of billionaires – though.  Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s are really hurting right now – no season could have legitimately put these teams into bankruptcy, in which MLB would’ve had to bail them out.

A lot of teams that cried poor over the past two months aren’t.  It’s mostly owners refusing to put more money than they want to into their teams when they have plenty more to spend in their back pockets.

Oakland and Tampa Bay don’t necessarily fit this bill.  Yes, their owners may be greedy in their refusal to sell, but they don’t possess the mammoth wealth many others do throughout baseball.  For example, Oakland’s owner, John J. Fisher, has only $750 million worth of stock in Gap, the company his parents own and founded, right now. That’s $230 million less than the value of the Miami Marlins, per Forbes.

Fisher hasn’t made his money any other way other than through his Gap stock.  As Ken Rosenthal and Alex Coffey wrote here, it’s been a tough go for the company amidst the coronavirus pandemic.  Gap’s valuation has tanked, and therefore so has Fisher’s, and the A’s, wealth.

So, the owners rejecting MLBPA proposals of games in the 70-114 range at full pro-rated salaries might have been a good thing for the future of these two teams.  It’s highly unlikely every owner in baseball was looking out for the A’s and Rays rather than just their own wealth in rejecting the proposal, but some could have factored it in.

Regardless, an extra 10-15 games probably wouldn’t have stretched the A’s and Rays that far.  At the end of the day, those owners still have a lot of money.  They’d probably be fine up to 80 games or so – about half of a normal season.  Instead, they cut it off 13 percent short of the halfway mark, all over what likely amounts to no more than $10 million for each team – chump change for billionaires.

Would that extra 13 percent of a season really change things?  The data says no, given that according to it 37 percent of the season sets a decently clear playoff picture.  Fifty percent of a season would only entrench that more so.  But halfway through the season is typically around the All-Star break, and by then, teams are forced to deal with smaller sample sizes with the trade deadline usually a week or two afterward.  A lot of teams make decisions on whether to buy or sell right up to the final days before July 31 because any extra games (or samples) they can get, they will take.

Eighty or 82 games would be a clean break.  Half the season lost to coronavirus and some bickering.  Fine.  Put that down in the record books.  We’ll deal with it.  What happened the past two months will go down as purely embarrassing and won’t ever have an easy explanation.  It was nonsensical.

The biggest reason why things panned out this way was not only because of greedy owners but because of what looms after next season (which will hopefully be a normal one and at some point have fans in the seats): the CBA’s expiration.

Up after the 2021 season, the CBA’s expiration means a lockout is a virtual guarantee.  It was even before this season, thanks to brutal free agent markets of past offseasons.  That was going to get ugly, like, perhaps no 2022 season ugly.  Factor in what just occurred over the past two months and no season in 2022 seems like a lock.

All the bickering and hard lining over these negotiations resulted in the implementation of a season because of the acquiring of leverage for the next CBA.  Giving in now makes you look weak and ready to do so more in 2022.  With things getting as dicey as they will then, neither side was willing to relinquish whatever leverage they had going for them in those talks now.  The past two months’ talks determine a two month season.  2021’s talks determine the next five full seasons.

Regardless, we’re here.  And we’ll take what we can get of it, for however long that lasts.

Lets hope it’s for awhile.  MLB took some steps when it comes to limiting the coronavirus threat, like having teams play only their divisional opponents and interleague divisional opponents to reduce travel distances.  Showers aren’t going to be allowed postgame.  There won’t be spitting, seeds or fights without severe punishment.  Media access will be only via Zoom.  Players aren’t allowed to go out to restaurants or bars postgame; they must go straight to their hotel instead.  There will be distancing in the dugout and clubhouses.

But a lot of this seems pointless when you consider how close a runner and first baseman stand next to each other, or how close the batter, catcher and umpire are at home plate.  It seems pointless considering that teams are going to be traveling on charter planes whose pilots and flight attendants won’t be in quarantine while transporting players, or that random hotel maids will be entering rooms while players are gone.  When teams are playing home series, players will go home to their families.  Those families may not be as careful as they should be – especially when one of their own is away half the time.

This is not a bubble whatsoever.  MLB players are going to be doing a lot of things that aren’t being recommended right now.  They will be coming into contact with a lot of people whom MLB has no control over.  That’s a lot of trust to put into a lot of different people.  If a player gets sick, it needs to be caught immediately, and testing every other day doesn’t cut it.  An outbreak could happen easily.

MLB has instituted a taxi squad for every team to have on deck, meaning they don’t plan to halt play if an outbreak like that occurs.  Sickness would be treated like injury, and backups would play instead.  Still, a potential outbreak on a given team may feel a lot more surreal in the moment, and could force MLB’s hand in halting play of that team or the league as a whole.

It feels a bit shortsighted, given all the time it took to get here.  MLB seems to be ignoring the one and only thing that could bring them down again.  Health and safety protocols were agreed to almost immediately between the league and union.  Now we know why: there weren’t that many to begin with.

Whether a 60 game season turns out to be completely ridiculous or not, we should be glad we got it.  If it’s the Dodgers and Yankees or the Padres and Blue Jays in the World Series, it’s better than the alternative conclusion from the past two months of pandering between the league and the players union.  A couple extra bucks from the owners probably would have given us something a little better, but everyone is racing against a time bomb in the coronavirus, and therefore, running shorter might be a little sweeter.