It’s not quite accurate to say the coming baseball season will be a sprint instead of a marathon. Rather, it’s worth thinking of a 60-game schedule as the start of a marathon, with a crowd of competitors taking off from the starting line in a cluster, with plenty of bumping and jostling and not enough time for the field to take full shape.
On the one hand, each 60-game increment does a fairly good job of identifying most of the teams that would emerge as the best over 162 games, while eliminating the worst teams from the head of the field. On the other hand, 60 games is far less likely to separate teams in the middle, creating the possibility of chaos among those fighting for the final postseason spots.
One way to illustrate those notions is by looking back at the 2019 season and dividing it into 60-game intervals. Over a 162-game schedule, there are 103 distinct stretches of 60 games that can be compared through the magic of baseball-reference.com’s Streaks Analyzer.
So how did those 60-game stretches play out in 2019?
Cream (mostly) rises to the top
Four teams — the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, and Braves — would have qualified for a 10-team postseason in every one of the 103 stretches of 60 games.
|Team||Percentage of stretches in which team would have made playoffs||Percentage of stretches in which team would have qualified for play-in game|
Missing from that list is the World Series champion Nationals. Even so, Washington overcame its horrendous start and would have qualified for the playoffs in a little less than two-thirds (65 percent) of all 60-game stretches. Washington would have qualified for a play-in game by tying with another team or teams for the final National League spot in an additional 9.7 percent of those stretches.
So, in roughly three out of every four 60-game segments in 2019, the eventual World Series champions would have had the opportunity to play beyond the regular season.
The Nationals’ performance underscores that teams will have little margin for error to recover from a stumble out of the gate, but also offers evidence that the best teams over 162 games more often than not are one of the best in most 60-game stretches.
The same was true of three other 2019 playoff qualifiers, the Athletics, Twins, and Cardinals, each of whom would have qualified for the playoffs in the majority of 60-game stretches.
Cleveland represented an exception. It would have qualified for the playoffs in about 58 percent of the 60-game stretches and for a play-in game an additional 12 percent of the time, but Tampa Bay sneaked past Cleveland in the final days of a 162-game season. The 2019 Red Sox would have qualified in a little less than one-third of the 60-game intervals.
There aren’t many flukes
A 60-game slate with a 10-team playoff field is likely to weed out the very worst teams. Whereas a 50-game schedule with expanded playoffs threatened grotesque outcomes — such as stretches in which last year’s putrid Marlins team (57-105) might have qualified for the postseason — the 60-game schedule with 10 playoff seeds makes such occurrences less likely.
In the American League, only one eventual sub-.500 team (the 78-84 Rangers) would have qualified for the playoffs in any 60-game stretch of 2019. The NL didn’t have quite as much quality control given a thick cluster of mediocre teams. The Mets, Diamondbacks, Cubs, and Phillies — teams that finished .500 or better but missed the playoffs — all would have qualified for the playoffs in different 60-game stretches.
Yet the 77-85 Giants (36 percent outright playoffs, 5 percent play-in game) and the 71-91 Rockies (28 percent outright playoffs, 2 percent play-in game) were good enough in several 60-game stretches to qualify. The Reds (75-87), Angels (72-90), and Padres (70-92) all had 60-game stretches in which they would have qualified for a play-in game.
Even so, unlike 50-game stretches and an expanded playoff field, there were no scenarios in which any of the teams that finished with the seven worst records in the majors (Tigers, Orioles, Marlins, Royals, Blue Jays, Mariners, Pirates) would have competed beyond the regular season.
The extremes are … extreme
There were 10 stretches last year of teams reeling off 43-17 records (.717) over 60-game spans. There were five instances of teams falling into 12-48 (.200) gutters. Also of note: In 2019, no team would have qualified for the postseason with a sub-.500 record over a 60-game stretch.
Fit to be tied
While MLB and the Players Association couldn’t reach an agreement on expanded playoffs, there’s a strong likelihood that more than 10 teams will be playing beyond 60 games.
There is a vast middle class of teams that often remain in a cluster through the early months of the season, and require the longer expanse of the season to achieve clear separation. That won’t necessarily happen in 60 games.
The 103 different 60-game stretches of the 2019 season ended with at least one tie for the final playoff spot 60 percent of the time. About 14 percent of the 60-game intervals would have ended with ties for the last playoff spot in both leagues.
The effect was even more pronounced at the start of the year, before some teams purposefully went into the tank. Twenty-two of the first 26 stretches of 60 games (85 percent) ended in a tie for the last playoff spot in at least one league.
These weren’t just ordinary ties. About 19 percent of last season’s 60-game stretches featured at least a three-way tie for the final wild-card spot in a league.
Even more remarkably, during one 60-game stretch (games 21-80), there were four-way ties for the second wild-card spot in both the AL and NL. There was also a 60-game stretch that featured a five-way tie for the second wild-card spot in the NL.
So, the majority of the time in 2019, a playoff field derived from 60-game stretches would have featured at least 11 teams — and in one instance, it would have yielded 16 teams still alive beyond the regular season.