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Competitive (im)balance and the 2020 season

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Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals
Why not use a sunset picture with...people?! In the crowd?! Ah, good times.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I’m not even going to bother leading off with a detailed update on the Cardinals’ COVID-19 situation. At this rate, who knows what will have changed between now (Monday night) and Tuesday morning when you’re reading this?

The Cards have positive tests...lots of them. The earliest we might see a return to play is Friday at Busch against the Cubs. For now, though, we’re left to speculate while the team isolates “in that haunted ass hotel in Milwaukee.”

Before I get too much further, I think it’s worth briefly discussing the casino debacle. All contact tracing signs are pointing towards the outbreak originating in St. Louis before the recent road trip began. I suppose people could try to spin that to support whatever claim their heart desires, but, in my unsolicited opinion, this shouldn’t influence the way you view a trip to the casino. Does this mean the casino—which, according to the rumor that John Mozeliak has denied, is in Minnesota—isn’t to blame for the index case? Probably. But patient zero definitely could have spread the virus to others at a casino.

Either way, if a Cardinal(s) did go to a casino, then they did a very stupid thing. At the same time, this type of situation was entirely predictable (if not inevitable) and MLB did a very stupid thing by providing mere “recommendations” and not establishing a proper accountability system. Both of these statements can be true.

But I digress. Questions regarding the blame game aside, there is still a baseball season happening. For how much longer, I have no idea. I’ve made my stance pretty clear: I do not believe we should be playing baseball right now. Rob Manfred, on the other hand, is insisting that we play on unless the ‘competitive integrity’ of the season takes a nosedive.

As of this writing, teams have played anywhere between 3 and 11 games. If MLB is going to complete the regular season with each club in the vicinity of 60 games, teams like the Cardinals and Marlins will need to load up on doubleheaders to make up for whatever catchy name we decide on for the pandemic equivalent of rainouts. The schedule was already brutal because squeezing 60 games into 9 weeks was always going to be brutal. Reducing doubleheader games from 9 innings to 7 helps, but teams affected by postponements—including the Phillies, for example, who by all accounts were following safety protocols—will face an on-field disadvantage if and when the season drags on.

There are competitive inequities in the short term as well. Clubs returning from lockdown will essentially be asked to suit up for the first time in a week-plus against fresh competition. In many cases, players stuck in their hotel rooms are unable to work out and stay sharp like they normally would. Or if you’re Jack Flaherty:

This is obviously not a meaningful comparison for many reasons, but I looked at the results of every World Series since the LCS series expanded to a best-of-seven format in 1985. On 4 different occasions, a team that swept their way to the pennant met a team that took 7 games. The team with the longer layoff between the LCS and World Series lost all 4 times, twice in 4 games (2007 and *sighs* 2012) and twice in 5 (1988 and *grins* 2006). Again, this has little to no bearing on the 2020 regular season or, quite frankly, any season given the small sample size, but I figured I’d throw the info out there for curiosity’s sake.

Another factor to consider is the heightened injury risk for players that suddenly go from playing no games to playing full-intensity MLB games. I’m not a doctor nor do I have any numbers to prove or disprove this, but you would intuitively expect an uptick in injuries for teams in their first few games back after an extended hiatus.

All of this (on top of the 16-team playoff format featuring a best-of-three first round) adds up to a season in which team quality is arguably less important to championship odds than it ever has been. As with most weird aspects of baseball in 2020, how this affects your fan experience is ultimately up to you.