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Will a 60-game season be legitimate? Does it matter? And what does that even mean?

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We’ve spent three months talking about labor fights and negotiations. No one really likes that stuff. We may very well be talking a lot about safety protocols and COVID-19 going forward. No one really wants to talk about that stuff either, even if we’ll be obligated to. For now, then, let’s try to do something crazy: let’s talk a bit about baseball. Specifically, what a 60-game season will mean for the 2020 season.

A big question a lot of people have about a 60-game season is how “legitimate” it will be. I get that. But on some level, I think all of that talk is overrated. Both on the individual player level and on the team level.

Player Statistics

To be sure, there will be oddities. The biggest oddity will be outlier statistics. Things like batting average and ERA which could either massively overstate or understate any given player’s quality.

Last year, for example, Gerrit Cole was, by the end of the 162-game schedule, considered about the most dominant pitcher on the planet. A lot of that was due to an insanely great second two-thirds of the season. When Game 60 of the Astros’ season arrived, however, his ERA stood at 3.94. By the same token, Hyun-Jin Ryu had an ERA around 1.32 when Game 60 hit and his ended up a full run higher.

Hitting-wise, last year after 60 games the Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds was batting .355. He ended up having a nice season — he batted .310 — but we’ll think of someone who finishes 2020 hitting .355 differently, won’t we? Someone could, quite easily, hit .400 in a 60-game stretch, right? It’s happened. The season is slated to start on, what, July 27 or so? As a follower of mine tweeted this morning, from July 24, 2004 until the end of the season Ichiro hit .430. Something like that could easily happen again.

But does it really matter? We all know that Cole was a better pitcher than he showed by certain measures through 60 games. We all know that Ryu, even if he ended up leading the league in ERA, was not quite as good as he looked through early June of last season. We all know that, for however much promise Bryan Reynolds has, he’s probably not Wade Boggs v.2 and that if someone hits .400 in 60 games this year that they’re not Ty Cobb. Small sample sizes happen, but we also know oddities when we see them. And we discount them accordingly.

A bigger issue as far as I’m concerned is what a short season will do for players’ career totals and career trajectory. Whether it’ll cause someone to fall short of the Hall of Fame because they didn’t hit a certain milestone. Whether it’ll end up costing them their only chance at a big free agency or arbitration payday. Bill covered that stuff a couple of months ago and it still holds up.

Standings 

A more important issue is whether a 60-game season is a true test of team quality. Whether it constitutes a season of true competitive integrity.

I’ll admit, my first impulse is to jump on the “60 games will be an insane and crazy thing!” bandwagon, but a little reflection and research mitigates against getting too worked up about that.

Through roughly 60 games last year four of the five eventual AL playoff teams were in playoff position. Through around 60 games last year three of the five NL playoff teams were in playoff position. That’s a pretty common percentage, by the way. Per ESPN Stats and Info, since the beginning of the Wild Card era, 68.1% of eventual playoff teams were in playoff position through 60 games. Over the last five years, there were never more than three of the ten playoff teams out of playoff position after 60 games.

Less statistically speaking, I keep falling back on that old bit of baseball wisdom you hear repeated pretty often in the first few months of any season: “we’ll know who’s really good and who’s not by Memorial Day.” Well, Memorial Day in 2019 fell around Game 54-55 for most teams.

Which is not to say it’s ideal, of course. As everyone is quick to note, last year’s World Series champs, the Washington Nationals, were famously terrible through the first 50 games of the year and hadn’t really righted the ship yet through the first 60 games. Under the 2020 system they wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. There are a lot of other good or even great teams in MLB history which started slow and came on late. Losing the possibility of a fun late-season surge like the 2019 Nats had or like the 2002 Athletics had or like any number of other teams have had in history frankly sucks.

But it’s also something that is special mostly because it’s not super common. If the most we lose in 2020 is the chance for a relatively rare second half surge from a team that looked like toast on June 1, well, we haven’t lost all that much. It doesn’t even rank in the top 20 suckiest things of 2020 I reckon. If, on the other hand, we have a season that, while being less than a third as long as usual still gives us more than a 2/3 chance of having the same postseason teams we’d normally have, it’s something less than a major tragedy.

As I noted recently, we have had several shortened seasons in baseball history. None this severely shortened of course, but non-conventional years all the same. Those included at least one year with a September World Series, another year with no World Series at all, and another year with a massively altered playoff format that had the odd effect of the team with baseball’s best record not even making the postseason. We survived all of that. We contextualized its outcomes (no, the 1981 Dodgers are not considered one of baseball’s best teams of all time) and its statistics (everyone knows to multiply 1994 stats by about 1.3 to see how someone would’ve done) and we moved on.

We’ll do the same with 2020. It’ll be an oddity that is aways referenced, but it will not alter the way we view baseball history I don’t suspect. Baseball games will be played. We will enjoy them in the moment, and in the end the outcomes will have as much legitimacy as we choose to ascribe them. If you want to discount it all because it’s only 60 games, no one will stop you. If your team has a fluke 60-game run of dominance and wins it all and you want to buy a “2020 Baltimore Orioles: World Series Champion” t-shirt, hey, go crazy man.

Baseball is entertainment. If they managed to fight through three months of owner-player acrimony and if they manage to safely and responsibly play the season despite the existence of a pandemic, I think most of us will be pretty happy with whatever we get.