“It unfortunately appears that further dialogue with the league would be futile. It’s time to get back to work. Tell us when and where.”
With those words, Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, made clear on Saturday night what had long seemed inevitable. There will be no agreement between Major League Baseball’s owners and players on a 2020 season. The only way we will see baseball this year is if MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred unilaterally implements a severely shortened season, a power granted him by the March agreement between the two parties. Such a season would likely not be much longer than 50 games.
If Manfred does implement such a season, the owners will be required to pay the players their full pro-rated salaries for its duration. The primary reason the two sides were unable to come to an alternative agreement is that the owners insisted on paying the players less than their full pro-rated salaries for any season longer than 50-odd games. While the players were willing to squeeze a 114-game season into a mere 124 days, preserving more than 70 percent of the original schedule, the owners never made an offer that would have required them to pay out significantly more than a third of the players’ full-season salaries.
A Manfred-implemented 50-game season would see the owners on the hook for barely more than 30 percent of the players’ full-season salaries. In the narrow terms of the scuttled negotiations, that might appear to be a win for the owners, but, in reality, everyone loses. The players lose. The owners lose. The fans lose. Baseball loses.
A 50-game Major League Baseball season is illegitimate on its face, but it is doubly so when it is ordered by the commissioner against the will of the players and played under the lingering uncertainty of an ongoing pandemic.
That’s not to say that the players don’t want to play. They very much do. Again, it was the union, not ownership, that tried to negotiate a longer season. Yes, maximizing salaries was a motivation there, but if they players were hesitant to play, they could simply have demanded full pro-rated salaries over the 70-odd game seasons the owners offered, or even asked for hazard pay above their pro-rated salaries over a similarly limited number of games. The players want to play, but they wanted to play a legitimate season under terms negotiated in good faith between their union and ownership. Neither will happen this year.
If Major League Baseball does play a season of roughly 50 games, it will be the shortest season in major-league history. The National League’s inaugural season, in 1876, spanned roughly 65 games. Every season since has been at least that long. Every season since 1884 has been at least 100 games in length. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, teams averaged 114 games. The next year, one we still refer to as “shortened,” lasted 144 games, nearly three times as many as we’re likely to get this year.
It’s true that the season’s standard length of 162 games is arbitrary (prior to the early-sixties expansion, the leagues played 154-game seasons, another arbitrary length), but it is not purely random. Seasons of that length are, at the very least, large enough samples to separate the good teams from bad. On Friday, my colleague at The Athletic, Eno Sarris, attempted to determine the point at which a season becomes long enough to comprise a sufficient sample. Building off data from statistician Derek Carty, Sarris cited 60 games as a minimum number, while Carty suggested a figure as high as 118 games. What those two figures have in common is that they’re both greater than 50, or even the rumored 54 games we’re likely to get this season.
That shouldn’t be surprising. As has been commonly cited in recent weeks, the eventual world champion Nationals were a pathetic 19-31 after 50 games last year, a record identical to that of the Tigers, who had the top pick in the draft last week after posting the majors’ worst record in 2019. One only need go back one more season to find a similar example involving the Dodgers. After 50 games in 2018, the eventual NL champion Dodgers were in fourth place with a 23-27 record. Both the 2018 Dodgers and 2019 Nationals were projected to have far more success than they did in their first 50 games, and, given the sufficient sample of the 162-game season, both corrected course and lived up to expectations. This year’s teams won’t get that chance.
Every season produces some unexpected results, that’s why they play them, but those results are accepted as legitimate because the season is long enough to overcome short-sample flukes. If one of 2020’s sleeper teams, say the Blue Jays, White Sox, or Reds, made the playoffs over a 162-game 2020 season, we would celebrate them, as we did the 2015 Cubs or last year’s Rays or Twins. If they, or an even more unexpected team, should do so over a 50-odd-game season, however, the accomplishment would feel illegitimate, as most fans would wonder if they could have sustained that success over the missing 112 games.
On the flipside, the Dodgers entered 2020 with an active streak of seven division titles, the third-longest streak of first-place finishes in major-league history. As a Dodgers fan, would you accept that streak as broken if the Dodgers aren’t in first place after 50-odd games? Do you know how many of those seven seasons saw the Dodgers in first place after 50 games? Just two (2015 and 2019). In 2013, the first year in the streak, L.A. was dead last after 50 games with a 22-28 record, a game worse than the team’s 2018 start.
Though a 50-game season is technically unprecedented, we did have something close to a 50-game season once before, in the bifurcated strike season of 1981, a season the legitimacy of which remains very much in question. When the players went on strike on June 12 of that year, the teams had played between 50 and 60 games, but the owners decided to grant the teams in first place at the time of the strike automatic playoff berths in an expanded postseason. When the season resumed, the leagues played what amounted to a new season of between 49 and 55 games, producing another set of division winners.
Despite doubling the number of teams that made the playoffs that year, the owners undermined the legitimacy of those playoff teams by basing their berths on those abbreviated half-season samples. Case in point: the two teams with the best overall records in the National League, the Reds and Cardinals, didn’t lead their divisions in either abbreviated sample and thus were omitted from the playoffs entirely, prompting protests from both clubs. Meanwhile, the Yankees and Phillies, who had been in first place when the strike hit, posted losing records in the second half. Some explained away those weak second halves by suggesting that, having already clinched a playoff berth, those teams took it easy after the strike, a theory supported by the Yankees’ deep postseason run. However, the Royals, who won the second-half title in the American League West, went just 20-30 (a mere .400 winning percentage) in the first half. That split was further evidence that a 50-game sample simply isn’t large enough to determine a team’s quality.
The 1981 season had significant shortcomings, but it still had fans in the stands, a collectively-bargained settlement between the union and the owners, and a certainty about the completion of the season after play resumed. The potential 2020 season will have none of the above.
I typically reject out of hand the common fan gripe that a certain player or team is not trying. We have all seen players fail to run out hits or to make a full effort in the field on occasion, but among the characteristics required to reach the majors leagues are a hypercompetitive nature and a great deal of pride. The pitcher-hitter confrontation is one that both players are trying to win on nearly every occasion, regardless of the game or season situation, and loafing on the bases or in the field is almost always met with an immediate rebuke by coaches, managers, and often teammates. Not every player is going to give 110 percent on every play. Not every at-bat will have playoff-level intensity, but the players are trying.
I do wonder, however, just what the quality of play in a commissioner-implemented, empty-stadium, 50-game season will look like. I don’t think players are going to give away at-bats, but I do wonder if they will or will even be able to bear down as hard as they would during a legitimate season. I know several players, particularly high-leverage relievers, have expressed concern about being able to have the same focus and intensity in an empty stadium. To some extent, that might be beyond their control. Focus and adrenaline can often be involuntary reactions to external stimuli, stimuli such as the roaring crowd that will not be present this season.
In other circumstances, players may lack the motivation, not to try, but to give the extra effort required to make a certain play, particularly when it might risk injury. I think of the sharp decline in Bryce Harper’s play in the outfield in his walk year with the Nationals in 2018. There was widespread speculation that Harper, who had several ugly collisions with outfield walls early in his major-league career, played timidly in the field in 2018 for fear of suffering an injury on the eve of a free agency that many predicted would yield the richest contract in major-league history (and, briefly, did). The improvement in Harper’s defensive play post-contract last year gave additional credence to that theory. Well, what if every player, not just impending free agents like Mookie Betts and Justin Turner, approaches the 2020 season like walk-year Bryce Harper, warry of taking any unnecessary chances because this season means so much less than the one we all hope will follow.
After all, consider the impact even a minor injury could have on a player, or team, in a 50-game season. Take the example of Clayton Kershaw, who has missed roughly a month of each of the last four seasons and five of the last six. Well, in a 50-game season, a month is roughly half the season. The minimum 10-day injured-list stay alone spans a fifth of the season. A moderate muscle strain or ankle sprain suffered late in Spring Training could wipe out a player’s season. An even more minor injury suffered after the season begins could similarly prove season-ending. One also has to wonder how motivated players will be to battle back from injuries if they’re doing so simply for a couple weeks’ worth of games in a meaningless season played in front of empty seats.
That doesn’t even factor in the players who may opt out of the season entirely due to increasing concerns about the resurgence of COVID-19. The owners and players did agree that “high-risk” players, a term sure to engender disputes but broadly meant to identify players with compromised immune systems or other preexisting or chronic medical conditions, such as diabetic Dodgers reliever Scott Alexander, would be allowed to opt out of the season. What about otherwise healthy players who might not fully trust the safety of returning to work? Recent reports suggest that the union does not anticipate many players opting out of the season, but we’re still in a perceived eye of the storm as states and municipalities move to reopen. In reality, the first wave of infection has yet to crash, and the efforts to reopen have already resulted in increased spread of the virus. As those numbers continue to spike, we may see some players change their minds, and those who can most easily afford to do so are those who are highest paid, which is to say, the stars.
Perhaps even more likely is a scenario in which the league has to shut down again as reopening, to which MLB will be contributing, even without fans in the stands, allows the virus to spread freely again as it had in March before the initial shutdown. What will the quality of play look like if we get to the point when such a second shutdown is even being debated, and what will MLB have gained by forcing an illegitimate season only to have to shut it down before it could be completed? That is not purely pessimistic speculation. The players were willing to let the regular season stretch through the end of October and to play the postseason in November. The owners countered that the playoffs had to happen on time in October, in part because of scheduling difficulties and broadcast windows, but also out of concern over a potential second wave of the virus in the fall.
There is an alternative here. Manfred doesn’t have to force a season to happen. MLB has already butchered the 2020 season so badly that it could actually save face by cancelling it outright out of concern over the health of its employees and the rising rates of infection. I’ve already written that I don’t think there should be a 2020 season because of the virus. I felt that way when the players’ 114-game proposal was still on the table. Now that the only possible 2020 season is preposterously abbreviated, cancelling it outright not only seems like the responsible thing but the only legitimate option remaining.
Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for SI.com. The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and Boston.com, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.