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What history tells us about a 60-game season

How would past Cardinals teams have fared?

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals
This image would not exist if the 2019 regular season had ended after 60 games.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Baseball is back..unless you count, among other things, health and safety protocols that still need to be ironed out, potentially messy scheduling and travel logistics, and a rising number of COVID-19 cases within the sport that could easily derail a 2020 season for good. But otherwise, baseball is back!

An MLB statement last night outlined the league’s plan to implement a 60-game season. If the aforementioned factors relent, we could have an Opening Day around this time next month. It appears there will not be an expanded postseason bracket, which, needless to say, means teams will only have about one-third as much time to clinch a division title or one of two wild cards.

To illustrate how differently things can end up over 60 games versus 162, I rebuilt the standings from each of the past 10 years using only teams’ first 60 games. Here is what the Cardinals’ win total after 60 games (and extrapolated to a 162-game schedule) looks like compared to their actual records over the last decade.

Cardinals record: 60 vs. 162 games

Year Wins after 60 games Extrapolated to 162 Actual wins after 162 games Difference (Actual-Extrapolated)
Year Wins after 60 games Extrapolated to 162 Actual wins after 162 games Difference (Actual-Extrapolated)
2019 31 83.7 91 7.3
2018 33 89.1 88 -1.1
2017 28 75.6 83 7.4
2016 32 86.4 86 -0.4
2015 39 105.3 100 -5.3
2014 31 83.7 90 6.3
2013 39 105.3 97 -8.3
2012 31 83.7 88 4.3
2011 35 94.5 90 -4.5
2010 33 89.1 86 -3.1

The average difference in extrapolated wins versus actual wins per 162 games was 4.8, ranging from practically identical in 2016 to an 8.3 win gap in 2013. For as much as we might typically think of the Cardinals as being prone to slow starts but strong finishes, St. Louis actually performed worse down the stretch than in their first 60 games in six of the 10 seasons.

More importantly, here is how those records translate in terms of the standings.

Cardinals playoff status: 60 vs. 162 games

Year Division rank after 60 games Actual division rank after 162 games Playoffs after 60 games? Playoffs after 162 games?
Year Division rank after 60 games Actual division rank after 162 games Playoffs after 60 games? Playoffs after 162 games?
2019 3rd 1st No Yes
2018 3rd 3rd No No
2017 4th 3rd No No
2016 Tied for 2nd 2nd Yes* No
2015 1st 1st Yes Yes
2014 2nd 1st Yes* Yes
2013 1st 1st Yes Yes
2012 3rd 2nd No Yes
2011 1st 2nd Yes Yes
2010 2nd 2nd No** No

* indicates a tie for the second wild card.

** indicates a tie for the second wild card. However, MLB did not expand the postseason to include two wild cards until 2012, so I did not consider this a playoff berth.

60 vs. 162 games overview

Metric After 60 games After 162 games
Metric After 60 games After 162 games
Playoff berths 3 (plus 2 ties) 6
Division titles 3 4
Average wins per 162 89.6 89.9
Average division finish 2.2 1.8

When looking at the 162-game season instead of just 60 games, St. Louis’ division rank improved four times, remained the same five times, and worsened once, so there is some truth behind the Cardinals’ reputation as a late-surging club. Ironically enough, the one time the Cardinals slipped in the NL Central standings after their 60th game was in 2011.

Here are some other notes from how the season results change under a 60-game campaign:

  • The Cardinals miss the playoffs in 2012 and 2019 (both seasons that ended in the NLCS in real life), and possibly lose out on 2014’s NLCS run as well after tying for the second wild card instead of winning the division.
  • The Cardinals do extend their season in 2016, however, rather than falling a game short like they actually did. The Cubs remain the top seed in the NL playoffs, but the Cardinals, Pirates, and Dodgers enter a three-way tiebreaker for the second wild card with the Mets awaiting the winner in the Wild Card Game.
  • The 2014 playoff picture is even more chaotic. The Marlins and the Braves play a 61st game to decide the NL East, with the loser settling for the first wild card. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Nationals (who would all go on to win their respective divisions after 162 games) are tied for the second wild card. This scenario would be miserable for everybody involved. Three additional games are needed just to sort out who will play in the Wild Card Game, and that’s before considering how brutal this travel schedule would be given the mix of East and West Coast teams. For example, the Cardinals could have theoretically found themselves in the following situation:

Sunday: location of final regular season game

Monday: at Washington (second wild card tiebreaker game)

Tuesday: at Los Angeles (second wild card tiebreaker game)

Wednesday: at Miami or Atlanta (NL Wild Card Game)

Thursday: No game

Friday: at San Francisco (NLDS Game 1)

  • The Cardinals hold onto the #1 seed in 2015, but the Cubs and Pirates meet for a 61st game to determine the second wild card instead of facing off in the NL Wild Card Game. The winner must then head to San Francisco to take on Madison Bumgarner and the Giants, with the winner of that contest drawing St. Louis in the NLDS.
  • In 2018, the Diamondbacks win the NL West with just 32 wins while the Cubs (36 wins) and the loser of an NL East tiebreaker between the Braves and Nationals (35 wins) play in the Wild Card Game. The Cardinals fail to reach the playoffs despite posting a 33-27 record.
  • The 2019 regular season ends with a tie atop both the NL Central (Brewers and Cubs) and the NL East (Phillies and Braves). The losers play in the Wild Card Game, with the NL Central runner-up hosting.
  • The 2011 NLDS matchups feature the #1 seed Phillies against the Brewers; the #2 seed Cardinals face the Giants.
  • Thanks to 2013 and 2015, the Cardinals are the only NL team to post multiple .650 win percentage seasons in the decade, a mark only the 2019 Dodgers reached in a 162-game season. The 2016 Cubs break .700 with a 42-18 record while the 16-44 Marlins of 2013 post the worst win percentage (.267) by any NL team since the 1962 Mets went 40-120.
  • No NL playoff bracket after 60 games included every team from the actual 162-game season.

TLDR: if baseball does come back—and stays back—in 2020, get ready for lots of down-to-the-wire playoff races and the possibility of tiebreaker scenarios we’ve never seen in action. As we all know, things can change quickly over the course of 162 games. They change even quicker in just 60.