(Note: For the purposes of this column, normal and healthy skepticism about whether even a 60-game season can be successfully contested in the midst of a global pandemic will be put aside. Let’s have some faith that this can be pulled off, just so we might have some fun.)
Here’s what we have to accept: The season will be unlike any in history. The novel coronavirus has deemed it so. So don’t place on it the expectations that come with the marathon of 162 games. Are 60 games fair? After 60 games a year ago, the Washington Nationals were 27-33. The next day, when they notched another victory and still had more than 100 games to play, slugger Juan Soto said: “It’s about time. It’s our time now.”
Wait that long this year, Juan, and you will be home for October, rather than a hero in it.
There is no “early” in this season. In baseball, losing three straight games is inevitable — even for the best teams. The Houston Astros won 107 games last year — but lost seven straight once and five straight another time. Think about it this way: A seven-game losing streak in the truncated 2020 season will be like losing 19 in a row in a normal year.
Each night is still a baseball game — nine innings that somehow carry more than twice as much weight as a game in any other year. Even previous seasons interrupted by labor disputes — most notably 1981, 1994 and 1995 — included more than 100 games. What limits our lives now is unlike anything that has limited them in more than a century. So what awaits us in baseball has never been attempted.
First off: no fans. Before we figure out what that’s like, you know what stinks? The Astros, those cheaters, were going to get booed out of every ballpark they entered all summer. Eighty-one times, they would have been heckled right back to their hotels. Shoot, they were due in Washington for a World Series rematch this coming weekend, over the Fourth of July. Now? The pandemic already made their sign-stealing scandal seem less important. But we won’t have our all-American right to stand up, jeer and be heard.
Baseball is often criticized, with some legitimacy, for being stuck in another era, too slow to play each night and too slow to adjust over time. To cure that, think of this season as a baseball lab, with plenty of room for experimentation. There are new rules — joining the three-batter minimum that pitchers must face that was already coming this season — that the purists will surely hate.
Hey, purists (looks in mirror): Relax. By definition, this season can’t be like all the others. So don’t try to apply other seasons to this one. Let’s see how these tweaks feel.
The National League will have a designated hitter. Somehow, I have grown to enjoy having two leagues with two sets of rules — even though it doesn’t make logical sense — and I generally prefer the machinations involved when pitchers have to hit (double switches and the like). But we should probably get used to this.
It’s quite possible we have seen our last pitcher penciled into a starting batting order. How? Well, who knows what rules will be in place for a 2021 season that also could be altered by the coronavirus. Plus, the DH could be installed in both leagues during the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement following that season. (Shhhh. Don’t tell Max Scherzer.)
The weirdest change, of course, is the alteration of extra-inning games. Top of the 10th, and a runner automatically starts on second base. How did he get there? Well, for statistical purposes, he reached via error (though no error will be charged) because then the pitcher on the mound won’t be docked an earned run if he allows that runner to score. (He would, however, be assigned a loss if the runner scores and his team can’t counter in the bottom half. This makes further ridiculous the idea of pitcher wins and losses as a meaningful statistic, but that’s another column.)
I’ll admit: I’m not crazy about this rule. Seems contrived. Plus, according to data from the essential Baseball-Reference.com, of the 208 extra-inning games in 2019, 91 — nearly 44 percent — ended in 10 innings. Is putting a runner on second — for both teams — going to cause games to finish more quickly? Seems dubious.
There are bound to be some statistical oddities. Ted Williams was the last player to hit at least .400 — .406 in 1941. (Note: Batting average is another junk statistic that tells us little, but that’s another column.) The closest someone has come since was 1994, when Tony Gwynn hit .394. But there’s an asterisk there because Gwynn’s San Diego Padres played only 117 games before the players went on strike, killing the postseason — and his run at .400.
Rod Carew was hitting .402 at the all-star break in 1983. (Oh, that’s a reminder: There will be no all-star break this year.) Stan Musial hit .403 before the break in 1948. After the Nats’ first 38 games in 2016, Daniel Murphy was hitting .400. Maybe someone could do it. But would it — should it — count as the first since Williams?
Other individual outliers await us, for sure. A starting pitcher with a sub-1.00 ERA? Over the 12 starts that probably will be the maximum, it’s conceivable. Pedro Martinez posted a 0.99 over the first 12 starts of his historic 2000 season.
What’s a good team record? We know over a normal season 90 wins almost always gets you into the playoffs and 100 wins is exceptional. Since World War II, the best 60-game records were the 2001 Seattle Mariners at 47-13 and the 1953 and 1998 New York Yankees at 46-14.
Those marks, when applied over a full season, represent 127 and 124 wins, respectively. They are clips that are not sustainable.
But you know what? In 2020, they won’t have to be sustained. The winning percentage that it takes to get to 90 wins in a normal season is .556. Apply that to a 60-game season, and it’s somewhere between 33-27 and 34-26. The regular ebbs and flows will feel like jerks on the steering wheel. Each series, each game, is going to matter more.
Someone (I can’t remember who) once pointed out that more than any other sport, baseball is a grind. Winning is as much about survival over time as it is about excelling in the moment.
What lies ahead this summer is something of a jaunt. Is 60 games enough to determine a division champion? Doesn’t matter, because 60 games will determine six division champions. Training camps haven’t opened yet, and it already feels late in the season. That’s because it is. Might as well embrace it.