It is a baseball season like none other, an attempt at a 60-game race through the fires of a pandemic requiring a zigzagging trajectory that defies prediction. The audacity of the undertaking requires a fundamental transformation of the game’s operating principles.
A sport that ordinarily flattens the peaks and valleys of randomness with a 162-game grinding stone instead will throw itself against the jagged edges of volatility for whatever remains of a summer.
What is known about such a setup? That there’s a lot unknown.
“I’m in the business of working with a group that tries to project performance; well, good luck this year trying to project performance very accurately,” said Red Sox assistant general manager Zack Scott, who oversees the team’s analytics department.
“I’m so used to a certain mind-set from working in this game. Often, I would just tell people in the office, ‘We’re better off not paying attention till June. We can only make dumb judgments if we start reacting before the first couple months are through.’
“To have a season that’s not much more than that, obviously you can’t take that approach. I don’t know how to wrap my head around it yet.”
No one knows exactly what this season will look like. But there are some ways of identifying just how strange its contours might become.
There is (sort of) a precedent
In 1981, a 50-day player strike in the middle of the season — after teams had played 48-60 games — broke the schedule into two parts. Once players returned to work, MLB declared four first-half division winners, who would be joined in an expanded postseason field by the second-half division winners.
Teams then played 48-54 games in an effort to qualify for the postseason — no more than one-third of a typical campaign.
“It was kind of a crazy feeling,” recalled NESN analyst Jerry Remy, who played for the 1981 Red Sox. “You’re so used to the marathon season. There’s really no time to falter. You can’t go through an extended losing streak because you’re basically going to be out of it. You’ve got to maintain good baseball from the get-go and try to stay away from extended losing streaks.
“It’s so different than what baseball should be. Baseball wasn’t built for this kind of season.”
Reducing a 162-game season to two separate seasons not even half that length produced evidence of the potential for massive variance.
The Royals were 20-30 in the first half, 12 games behind the division-leading A’s. Once the game restarted, they went 30-23 to earn a playoff berth. The Astros were a 28-29 afterthought in the NL West when the strike started; they went 33-20 and cruised to a second-half division title.
Teams look very different in 60-game bursts
For a 60-game stretch last year from mid-April to mid-June, the Rockies went 37-23, putting them in solid contention. Then came a 16-44 spiral en route to 71-91.
That 21-win differential over a 60-game stretch in a single season is extreme, yet not drastically divorced from the experience of most teams. Last year, the Rockies were one of four teams to see a gap of at least 15 wins between their best and worst 60-game stretches.
On average, baseball’s 30 teams saw a gap of 10.5 wins between their two most extreme 60-game stretches in 2019. In other words, good teams and bad teams alike are subject to extreme volatility in compressed stages that can make them look like playoff teams or doormats. Shorter stretches can mask both strengths and deficiencies.
“You can cover up a lot of holes in 60 games,” said Remy.
The largest 60-game gap in Red Sox history occurred in 1978. That club experienced a 45-15 summit and a 27-33 trough, an 18-win gap. More recently, both the 2012 and 2011 Red Sox experienced 17-win gaps.
Such volatility could increase even more given the discomfort — and, for some, familial isolation — that players may endure while playing through a pandemic.
“With the pandemic the way it is, as bad as it is, once guys feel they’re out of contention, I wouldn’t be surprised to see guys opt out at that point and teams give up,” said Remy. “That wouldn’t surprise me one bit.”—
|Year||Best 60-game stretch||Worst 60-game stretch||Win differential from best to worst 60-game stretch|
Players can ride dramatic 60-game waves
The shorter the stretch of a season, the greater the likelihood that randomness can produce a drastic outcome. Luck and skill can dramatically influence performance and make players look very different.
In 2016, for instance, Mitch Moreland endured one of the worst starts of his career. Over a 60-game stretch from early April to early June, he hit .214/.286/.374. Yet he started heating up in the late stages of that run, and over a partially overlapping 60-game stretch from June 8 through Aug. 13, he had arguably the best run of his career: A .316/.366/.645 line with 14 homers.
Jackie Bradley Jr., of course, has alternated multi-month runs as one of the best hitters and all-around players in the game with Arctic stretches. By contrast, J.D. Martinez has asserted himself as one of the most consistently productive hitters in the game since his swing reinvention in the offseason of 2013-14.
That said, Martinez’s best 60-game runs tend to be of an otherworldly variety that could help carry a team’s contention hopes. With the Diamondbacks in 2017, he hit .313/.378/.776 with 28 homers in a 60-game run. He followed that run with one in 2018 in which he hit .353/.435/.688 with 18 homers — leading the AL in average and RBIs (54) while ranking second in homers.
|Player||Best stretch of 60 team games||AVG/OBP/SLG||HR||Worst stretch of 60 team games||AVG/OBP/SLG||HR|
|J.D. Martinez*||July 26-Sept. 29, 2017||.313/.378/.776||28||April 6-June 10, 2015||.258/.317/.444||10|
|Mitch Moreland||June 8-Aug. 13, 2016||.316/.366/.645||14||July 15-Sept. 24, 2018||.174/.258/.299||4|
|Jackie Bradley Jr.||April 21-June 25, 2016||.314/.408/.628||13||July 22-Sept. 25, 2014**||.092/.126/.102||0|
|Xander Bogaerts||May 10-July 19, 2019||.344/.429/.626||14||June 8-Aug. 15, 2014||.154/.180/.226||3|
|Rafael Devers||May 22-July 30, 2019||.340/.378/.660||16||April 10-June 18, 2018||.218/.263/.386||9|
|Andrew Benintendi||April 10-June 13, 2018||.321/.396/.606||12||July 20-Sept. 23, 2018||.261/.328/.365||2|
|Christian Vazquez||May 2-July 12, 2019||.333/.354/.563||10||March 30-June 5, 2018||.184/.233/.241||1|
|Jose Peraza||July 8-Sept. 15, 2018||.321/.348/.481||7||May 14-July 20, 2016||.250/.286/.250||0|
|Kevin Pillar||June 12-Aug. 18, 2019||.309/.339/.549||11||May 17-July 25, 2017||.195/.244/.318||5|
|Michael Chavis||April 23-June 29, 2019||.273/.346/.485||14||June 6-Aug. 11, 2019||.253/.303/.418||8|
|Alex Verdugo||May 6-July 15, 2019||.304/.357/.480||7||April 5-June 10, 2019||.275/.335/.419||3|
Managing for results
In a vacuum, the value of each win and loss is 2.7 times greater in a 60-game schedule than 162. Games won’t quite feature the short-series intensity of the postseason, but they’ll be much closer to that on Opening Day than ever before.
As such, there may be alterations in the way rosters are used. With 162 games in mind, managers try to look beyond recent performances while keeping their entire rosters rested and involved, and trusting that players mired in poor runs will find their way back.
But Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke has already said he’ll be more responsive than usual to short-term patterns, entrusting more playing time to someone with a hot hand — an element more often seen in the postseason — given the increased stakes of every game. There’s a gamble involved in such an approach.
On the one hand, as Moreland’s overlapping best and worst stretches suggest, it’s almost impossible to predict the beginning and end points of such stretches. A manager who prioritizes recent performance over career norms does so at his own risk. On the other hand, the payoff from such gambles can be immense.
The uncomfortable x-factor of health
Every year, teams recognize that health and depth represent the keys to transforming talent into success. But this year, that notion takes on even greater significance.
Any single injury to a star will be magnified by the reality that a one-month absence would represent half the season. More unsettling, the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak on a team could effectively wipe out its ability to contend — to say nothing of what it would mean for the well-being of team members and their families.
“Everything just has so much more riding on it because it’s a greater percentage of your season,” said Scott. “There’s just a lot of variables that can help or hurt you. It’s unpredictable how much those things are going to impact the season.”
It’s unpredictable how a lot of things will impact the 2020 season, one whose course and completion cannot be taken for granted.