What would a 50-game baseball season look like? Under some scenarios based on the 2019 season, the eventual World Series champion would have missed the playoffs and the team with the worst record in the National League would have qualified.
As Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association continue a stare-off about the ground rules for a 2020 season, the sides have proposed very different visions of the potential duration. The league opened with a proposal built around an assumption of 82 games, the players countered with a 114-game season, and now MLB has signaled an interest in discussing an even shorter schedule — perhaps as brief as something in the 50-game range.
What would a season of each of those intervals look like? How strange might the outcomes get in a season of 50, 82, or 114 games, and what might be the implications for the competitive integrity of such a season? Which season length would most closely capture the dynamics of a full 162-game slate, and which ones might produce bizarre outcomes?
It seems self-evident to suggest that the shorter the season, the further it would be from a normal 162-game campaign. But just how big is the gap? To start to answer that question, it’s illuminating to look at the 2019 season. Baseball-Reference.com offers a “Streak Analyzer” tool to compare teams over specific stretches.
For a 50-game season, it’s possible to look at how all teams fared in 2019 from their first through 50th games, as well as their second through 51st, their third through 52nd, and so on through their 113th game through Game 162 — a total of 113 combinations. The same exercise can be performed to look at the 81 combinations in an 82-game season and the 49 different 114-game stretches that occurred last year.
It’s an approximate means of reverse-engineering the 2019 seasons under some of the rules that may exist this year. It’s not perfect — teams may manage their rosters very differently in a shorter season — but it gives some semblance of how seasons play out in sample sizes of different lengths.
The most obvious start to an answer features the eventual World Series winner. The Washington Nationals got off to an atrocious 19-31 start last year, yet recovered about one-third of the way through the season, ultimately surging into and through the playoffs.
Washington, of course, would have missed the playoffs had the season ended after 50 games — or, for that matter, any of the first two dozen 50-game stretches of the year. But the Nationals’ performance after that was consistently solid to excellent.
With a normal 10-team postseason (five in each league), they would have reached the playoffs in 84 of 113 stretches of 50 games (74.3 percent). Had MLB featured an expanded 14-team playoff field (an idea being floated), Washington’s 162-game performance would have allowed it to reach the playoffs 78.8 percent of the time in a 50-game season.
Washington’s season highlights the potential influence of a reduced sample size. While there’s roughly a 1-in-4 chance the Nationals would have missed the playoffs in a 50-game season, over the larger sample of 82 games, that number drops to about 1-in-40. The Nationals would have qualified for the playoffs in every 114-game stretch they played in 2019.
The longer the regular-season stretch, the more closely it approximated what actually happened over a 162-game season.
That’s true of all the playoff teams — even with an expanded 14-team playoff field. In 2019, five of the 10 playoff teams (Astros, Braves, Dodgers, Twins, and Yankees) would have qualified for a 14-team postseason in every 50-game stretch of the season; that’s true of six of the 10 playoff teams (the prior five plus the A’s) in an 82-game season, and nine of the 10 playoff teams (the prior six plus the Cardinals, Nationals, and Rays) in a 114-game season.
But what about the other side of the coin? What schedule lengths would have opened the door for “bad” teams to reach the postseason?
The most dramatic place to start is with the Marlins, who finished 2019 with a 57-105 record — the worst record in the NL. If the season was 50 games and featured an expanded playoff field of seven teams in each league, there were stretches in which they could have qualified for the playoffs, or at least tied for the final wild-card spot.
The Blue Jays, Mariners, Padres, and Pirates all finished the year with more than 90 losses — but all had performances over 50-game stretches that would have been good enough to qualify for the playoffs. Nearly all of those were eliminated by an 82-game schedule (the Padres had one 82-game stretch in which they would have made the postseason under an expanded playoff format). None would have made the playoffs over any 114-game stretch, even with a 14-team playoffs.
There are some divergences between what happened over 162 games in 2019 and what transpired over any individual 114-game segment. Cleveland, for instance, would have qualified for a 10-team playoff (or at least tied for the final spot and had a play-in game) in every 114-game segment of the season — but the Indians were bumped from the playoffs by the Rays, who surged past them with more pronounced hot streaks.
The 2019 Red Sox would have qualified for a 14-team playoff field over every 114-game stretch of the season, and likewise would have done so over nearly every 82-game and 50-game segment of the season. But the longer the season, the less likely it was that they would have earned a postseason berth in a 10-team playoff field — underscoring the fact that they failed to sustain elite performance en route to an 84-78 record.
The 2019 season underscores a relatively intuitive conclusion: Longer seasons come closer to matching full-season playoff fields, and help to eliminate the chances that a terrible team sneaks into the postseason.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.