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Does A Short-Season MLB Champ Deserve An Asterisk?

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark met in Arizona on Tuesday for the first time during the sport’s contentious labor negotiations, a conclave that represented progress after Manfred had described the stalled talks as “a disaster” to ESPN earlier this week. The new proposal from Manfred would see a 2020 season starting as early as July 19 that includes a universal designated hitter, which would be extended into the next season as well. To add revenue in a year in which there could be no fans in stadiums, owners want to expand the playoffs to 16 teams — and keep the format in 2021 — and are proposing placing ads on jerseys.

But perhaps the most important development — as it relates to getting baseball back this summer — was that the owners moved toward the player camp by agreeing to full prorated pay and proposing a 60-game schedule, though players would have to drop their right to file a grievance over the number of games played. The length of the season remains a sticking point — whether it’s closer to the owners’ preferred 60 games or the players’ latest proposal for 70 — and that number of games will make a difference to baseball fans, too.

A season so truncated — regardless of how many games end up getting played — will be deemed by some to be illegitimate. After all, if a batter hits .400 in a season less than half its normal length, that record can’t possibly mean as much. But what about the World Series? Could title-winning players who celebrate in an empty stadium in October — assuming a COVID-19 spike doesn’t derail the season — unabashedly enjoy the moment? Would the champion be seen as a legitimate winner, given the unusual path it would have taken?

We were curious about how a shorter schedule would have played out in previous seasons — which playoff teams would have made the postseason regardless of season length. We know that a smaller sample of games helps underdogs, but how much? To find out, we examined the past 25 years — since wild cards were first used, in 1995 — to see who would have come out on top if the seasons had been just 50, 60 or 70 games long.

In the wild-card era, teams in the top 10 of win percentage at the end of the season have made the playoffs 81 percent of the time. Before 2012, when only eight teams made the playoffs, the share was 76 percent; it’s been 93 percent since the playoffs expanded to 10 teams. So how did the best teams at earlier points in the season fare? Teams in the top 10 in win percentage through 70 games went on to secure playoff berths 62.5 percent of the time, according to Baseball-Reference.com data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. Through 60 games, that only dropped off to 60.1 percent. If players and owners cannot work out a deal, Manfred could eventually impose a season thought to range between 48 and 54 games. But even a 50-game season might have fewer surprises than some might expect: 56.4 percent of clubs in the top 10 for win percentage through 50 games went on to advance to the postseason.

More games — and playoff spots — help good teams

Share of MLB teams in the top 10* of win percentage at various points in the season that went on to make the playoffs

50 games 60 games 70 games Full season
1995-2011, 8-team playoff 53.7% 56.7% 58.4% 75.7%
2012-2019, 10-team playoff 62.4 67.0 71.8 92.6
1995-2019, total 56.4 60.1 62.6 81.1

*Including ties.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Teams that led their divisions at the 50-, 60- and 70-game mark — by win percentage1 — were even more likely to go on to make the playoffs. Just over 72 percent of teams leading their respective divisions through 70 games went on to make the postseason, compared with 67.7 percent through 60 games and 63 percent through 50 games. The more games that are played, the better picture we get of who the best teams are; but as seen at the 50-game mark, most division winners establish themselves early.

But how many go on to win the World Series? Only two eventual title winners since 1995 did not have a winning record through 50, 60 or 70 games: the 2003 Florida Marlins and the 2019 Washington Nationals, which had losing records at all three thresholds. The average number of wins for title winners through 50 games was 29.9, or a .598 win percentage. That was 36.2 wins through 60 games (.603 win percentage) and 41.8 wins through 70 games (.597 win percentage).

Some teams, obviously, would have been left out of the postseason if past seasons had been shortened. But there’s a remedy in place: the owners’ proposal for an expanded playoff. More spots in the postseason would likely help good teams that get off to slow starts in 2020. In past years, almost all eventual title winners would have been in an expanded playoff field like the proposed 2020 format. Though added chances in the postseason could give a less-worthy team the title — which could add to concerns about an illegitimate season — they would likely keep the best teams in the hunt.

A shortened season will be complicated to execute amid a pandemic, and its legacy will be difficult to grapple with. Individual records may need to be tossed out. But perhaps a shortened season wouldn’t be as watered down as we might have thought. Perhaps hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy in 2020 would still be something to celebrate.


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Footnotes

  1. Teams hit the 50-game mark on different days, so actual standings could vary. We compared win percentages of all teams regardless of whether they hit these benchmarks for games played on the same day.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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