Michael Cunningham: If MLB plays it will be a wild, random season

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I’m assuming that MLB and its players soon will reach a deal for the 2020 season that looks something like the latest reported offers from both sides. I know that’s not a safe assumption. The players’ union has twice shot down reports that MLB believed the sides had a “framework” for a deal and, oh yeah, there’s the challenge of playing in home stadiums during a pandemic.

But let’s say MLB plays 60-70 games followed by a postseason that includes 16 teams. What kind of season will that be for baseball? And what will such a short season mean for the Braves?

Basically, MLB’s players and teams will roll the dice and hope they come out on the right side of the randomness.

Baseball requires lots of games to separate the lucky from the good. That won’t happen when playing less than 40% of the usual 162-game schedule. Placing more than half the teams in the playoffs only adds more chance to the equation.

Hot streaks will produce MVPs and Cy Young winners (if those awards are given out). The World Series champion could be so lucky as to be unworthy of a title. It will be another legitimacy debate for a sport that has more than any other. There will be calls for asterisks all over this season.

I welcome a season of any length, so long as the health of the participants is protected. Focusing on season-long arcs is to forget that there is value in individual games. I’ll watch them even if the overall outcomes don’t seem fair.

And as stated previously in this space, I like the idea of a short-season sprint to an expanded postseason. That was a month ago, when MLB proposed an 80-game season with seven playoff bids per league. A 60-70 game season with eight postseason spots per league is a faster race to a wilder postseason.

Still, my emotional desire for entertainment clashes with my rational need for enough data to confirm what I think I’m seeing. It’s hard for me to get my head around a 70-game baseball season even if I’m ready to see it. It could be both fun and frustrating.

The Braves might be among the losers in a short season. They are a good team, and good teams tend to prevail over the long haul. In the short term, they can lose to inferior teams because of flukes.

I consider the Braves to be a worthy favorite to win the National League East and second to the Dodgers in the NL. At least that’s what I thought in early March, when it still seemed as if there would be a normal schedule. Nothing has been normal since then, so now who knows how the Braves, Dodgers or any other team will perform?

There’s no word yet on the opponent breakdown for the proposed schedules. Presumably, the Braves will play a slate with a high percentage of games against NL East opponents. That’s not ideal. In the NL’s other two divisions, only the Dodgers and Cardinals look to be in their class. The East has more challengers.

The Nationals lost third baseman Anthony Rendon since winning the World Series but have the NL’s best rotation. The Phillies improved their pitching and aren’t apt to have lousy injury luck again (that’s a variable that’s a lot more important in a short season). The Mets are a threat to stop being the Mets and finally play to their potential.

It’s hard to imagine the Braves being one of the seven NL teams left out of the playoffs. They are good enough that such an outcome would seemingly require an incredible run of bad luck. Yet there are some reasons to think the short season might hurt them, especially at the plate.

Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies tend to slump in May. That isn’t a big deal when the season lasts until October, but 25 or so bad games means a lot if there’s only 60. Freddie Freeman can go on tears, but with 60 games, he wouldn’t have much time to do it.

It’s not clear if the short season would be a net benefit for Braves pitchers. My guess is that it’s good for the veterans in the rotation, not so good for the younger pitchers. I figure relief pitchers will be fine since they are accustomed to working in small samples and being ready whenever needed.

The delayed start could help Braves left-hander Cole Hamels. He suffered a shoulder injury in February that was projected to keep him out beyond opening day, but presumably will be ready when the season begins. Veteran right-hander Mike Foltynewicz still is hard to figure out, but generally, he’s been better early in the season than later during his career.

The shorter season is unfortunate for young Braves starters Mike Soroka and Max Fried. They’ve lost out on needed seasoning. Soroka and Fried have a combined 73 starts and 425 2/3 innings. Now they will pitch during a truncated season with heightened stakes for every game.

It could turn out that all the usual analysis ends up meaning little this season. Everything is based on the normal understanding of a typical baseball year: offseason training, full spring training, 162-game season. Changing those variables for players who are accustomed to ritual could have unexpected results.

There will be lots of noise in the statistics this season. Sabermetics has tried to figure out what sample size is necessary for numbers to become reliable measures of performance. The conclusion is that it doesn’t take long for three of the most important numbers for pitchers: strikeout rate (70 batters faced), walk rate (170) and fly-ball rate (70 balls in play).

It’s a bit different for hitters. Strikeout rate (60 plate appearances), walk rate (120) and extra-base hit rate (160 at-bats) stabilize early. It takes much longer for slugging percentage (310 PAs) and on-base percentage (460 PAs). And batting average is a notoriously noisy statistic, with more than 900 at-bats needed for it to be a reliable measure of performance.

Even great hitters can produce bad numbers over a small sample of games. MLB’s best, Mike Trout, went hitless in 37 games last season (minimum four plate appearances). Over those 165 plate appearances, Trout had 45 strikeouts and 35 walks and posted a .242 OBP.

Trout wasn’t good for nearly 30% of his 134 games. He was AL MVP because he great in so many others. If this season is played, he and other MLB players won’t get enough chances to balance out their bad stretches with good ones.

That’s a circumstance created by COVID-19 and the protracted negotiations of MLB owners and players. I’ll probably end up regretting my assumption that they’ll reach a deal. If they do, what follows will be a wild and random season. That beats no season at all, but get ready for some weird outcomes.


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