Three weeks has never felt so far away. That's when the MLB season is supposed to begin, but it's hard to nail down any future plans having to do with anything anymore. Let's close our eyes for a moment and imagine we do, in fact, get baseball at the end of July. It's going to be a 60-game season, a campaign unlike any other we've seen; the equivalent of a six-game NFL slate or 30-game NBA schedule.
What are the implications of such a short season? What does it mean? SI's MLB staff weighs in:
The key to the 60-game season is to get off to a good start. Two weeks is about 25% of the season. Teams better play those first few weeks like it’s the postseason, which is why aggressive managing will be in order.
The games will lack energy without fans. Players will have limited personal freedom because of the necessary health protocols. Paychecks have been reduced and for some low-salaried players non-existent because they already received advance money. The threat of COVID is real. So if you remove the incentive to win–and a bad start in a 60-game season could do just that–the season becomes a burden, especially for the veteran player who has made his money.
This season could set up well for an aggressive manager with a young team that finds its purpose quickly and rides the opportunity.
Mostly it means chaos. If last season had ended after 60 games, the Nationals would have missed the playoffs entirely. Everything is magnified over 60 games. A 10-game slump is usually a blip. This year, that would be 17% of the season. So this year more than ever, depth will be key. If a starting pitcher goes down and misses two starts—very likely given how messed up everyone's routine will be—you better have someone good to replace him. And of course, at any moment, half of a team could test positive for the coronavirus. What if that team is in first place but now has to sit out two weeks? As I said, chaos.
Aside from all of the questions around how this will work in terms of logistics and safety, I’m most intrigued by what it will mean for managing a pitching staff. I think it will mean much more reliance on openers and bullpen games. I also think, unfortunately, we’ll see more injuries, as guys try to ramp up quickly after the lengthy hiatus. In all, I think that means more flexible roles in a more variable group—not a completely deconstructed pitching staff, but close, and definitely not like what we’ve seen before.
A 60-game season means the unprecedented opportunity of waking up on July 23 and seeing all 30 clubs tied for first place. I tend to think the cream rises to the top, meaning we won't live in a bizarro baseball world in which the Royals, Orioles, Marlins and Pirates are MLB's final four teams in October. But the small sample size should allow at least one Cinderella team to emerge–the 2008 Rays come to mind–and I can't wait to find out who it is. I'm going to guess the Padres. We'll see.
There will be the baseball purists who will loudly call hogwash on the 60-game season, especially if an unexpected team wins the World Series. But that's exactly why winning it all in such an abbreviated season should mean a lot. The teams that make the postseason this year will not be racing against just the usual suspects in this pennant chase. After all, the Mariners were tied for first one month into the 2019 season. Had they just played .500 baseball in May instead of going 7-20, they would have been a wild-card team after 60 games. Heading into play on June 1 last year, two months into the season, three teams that didn't make the postseason—the Phillies, Cubs and Padres—all would have qualified.
If MLB can somehow ensure a safe and healthy season, a 60-game sprint would mean one of the most exciting campaigns in recent memory. There are no shortage of teams in contention for the postseason, and the small sample could allow for some truly unique outcomes. Perhaps we wouldn't remember a .400 season in 2020 the same way we remember Ted Williams's run in 1941, but it would still be a thrilling chase down the stretch. Gerrit Cole or Jacob deGrom could finish the season with a sub-1.00 ERA. This entire season will ultimately be remembered as an anomaly, and the champion will invariably have some form of an asterisk. But that doesn't mean we can't have some fun along the way. Let's hope 2020 provides some truly weird outcomes if we can actually finish the season.