Needless to say, the 2020 MLB season–if there even is one–is going to be strange. From games in empty stadiums to an influx of doubleheaders to a realignment of the league itself, there is no telling what exactly baseball this year might look like.
Yesterday, however, we learned of the most recent plan that MLB is discussing. Teams would be split into Arizona, Texas, and Florida, utilizing ballparks and facilities in those three areas. But as CBS Sports’ R.J. Anderson notes:
Any leaked proposal, this one included, should be taken with a grain of salt. MLB would have to reach an agreement with the union on other logistical issues. For example, Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw have each pushed back against the idea of spending months in isolation, away from their families.
Still, it’s safe to expect MLB to continue looking for ways to have some kind of 2020 season due to the substantial amounts of television revenue that could be lost with a wiped-out year.
Let’s assume that some iteration of the three-state plan were implemented. There would likely be no NL and AL as they are currently constructed. (Read: potentially say goodbye to pitchers hitting dingers until 2021.) Instead, MLB could divide its 30 teams into three groups of 10. That raises a whole separate host of questions (How would the postseason format change? Would there there be three divisions of 10 or six divisions of five?) Regardless, one of the more straightforward organizations under this plan would assign teams to a state based on geography. This would presumably put NL and AL East division teams in Florida, Central teams in Texas, and West teams in Arizona.
What ramifications would this have as far as strength of schedule goes? Using FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections, I calculated the average total projected wins above replacement (WAR) among the five teams in each division.
- AL West: 38.7
- NL East: 38.2
- NL West: 37.0
- AL East: 36.8
- NL Central: 36.0
- AL Central: 35.3
The Arizona conglomerate becomes the strongest (in large part because it contains both the Astros and Dodgers) while Texas houses the two weakest divisions. If the teams in each state merged into one giant division, the Cardinals’ average opponent WAR would drop from 36.4 in the pre-COVID-19 schedule (76 NL Central games, 33 NL East and West games, respectively, 16 AL East games, and four Royals games) to 35.5, about a full win per 162 games. It’s not much, but nonetheless something that could tip the scales in a tight pennant race. The difference is less pronounced if the new hypothetical schedule pits a greater share of St. Louis’ games against its four NL Central peers, but avoiding the likes of the Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Yankees, and Rays is still beneficial.
That said, the “gains” in terms of strength of schedule are mitigated by the fact that every NL Central team would reap the same rewards. Precisely how much the three-state plan would help the Cardinals’ playoff odds would hinge upon the details of the 2020 postseason. If, for example, each state advanced a certain number of clubs to the postseason with wild cards for the final couple spots, the quality of one’s divisional opponents obviously becomes more important.
Ultimately, though, beggars can’t be choosers. We should consider ourselves lucky if we get any sort of baseball in 2020, whether it makes the Cardinals’ road to the playoffs easier or not. But, hey, I’m not going to complain if the Cardinals come out slightly ahead.