It won't actually happen, right? A 50-game season?
Not when there's still time for so many more. Shoot, the players union was originally pushing for a 114-game season.
But according to the agreement the two sides reached in March — or at least MLB's interpretation of that agreement — the league can set the length of the schedule as long as it's following through on paying players a prorated portion of their 2020 salaries. And since the players seem unwilling to accept further pay cuts, doubling down on that stance at every proposal, a 50-game schedule (or even 48, as some have reported) is what the owners say is financially viable.
The players, according to reports, would be compelled to follow through on it.
Now, there's still time for the two sides to find common ground. A compromise would still be preferable, creating some good faith before the bigger negotiation to come next year, but with neither side showing a willingness to budge at this point, we Fantasy Baseballers have to take seriously the possibility of a 50-game season.
As weird as it would be.
Here are six ways it would challenge what we know about the game.
We talked about this on the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast earlier this week. Listen below:
Any team could win it all
Through 50 games last year, the eventual World Series champion Nationals were 19-31.
They obviously wouldn't have made the playoffs with that record, much less hoisted the trophy. And yet there was nothing fluky about the victory they ultimately won. It's just illustrative of how long it takes for the numbers to normalize.
So if a great team could be bad after that many games, could a bad team be great? Well, there isn't an example as extreme on the other end, but the second- and third-best teams in the NL through May 24 were the Cubs at 29-20 and the Phillies at 30-21. Neither ended up making the playoffs.
That's not to suggest the standings were totally random through 50 games. The Nationals were more the exception than the rule, as by that point, the good teams and bad teams had mostly distinguished themselves. But the short schedule certainly gives the good teams a much lower margin for error, potentially allowing a middling one like the Rockies or Blue Jays to sneak through. And once a team is in the playoffs, all bets are off.
I can't in all honesty envision any of the seven rebuilding teams making the playoffs, as in the Orioles, Tigers, Royals, Mariners, Marlins, Giants or Pirates. Then again, there has been talk of expanding the playoffs to seven teams from each league as a way to generate more revenue. You know which NL team had the seventh-best record through May 24 last year? The Pirates, even though they had been outscored by 50 runs at that point.
Any player could do anything
It's only a mild overstatement.
Let's run the calendar back to May 24 of last year — the point in the season when most every team had played right around 50 games. Remember how Zach Davies was 5-0 with a 2.43 ERA? Or how Martin Perez was 7-1 with a 2.95 ERA? What about Caleb Smith with his 2.38 ERA and 12.1 K/9? Or Spencer Turnbull's 2.68 ERA? Or that Zach Eflin (2.76) had an ERA nearly two runs better than higher-profile teammates Zack Wheeler (4.74) and Aaron Nola (4.53)?
Do the same thing with hitters, you say? Happy to.
Remember how Jeff McNeil had hit just two of his 23 home runs? Or how Yuli Gurriel, DJ LeMahieu and Nick Castellanos each had only four before finishing with 31, 27 and 26, respectively? Even Rafael Devers, who went on to hit 32, had only six at the time.
You know how Marcus Semien made a run at AL MVP honors with a .285 average and 33 home runs? He was hitting .259 with five homers through May 24. And need I remind you Jose Ramirez was hitting just .199 with four home runs?
Meanwhile, Daniel Vogelbach (1.017) had a higher OPS than Freddie Freeman (.994), and Tommy La Stella (.313 with 12 home runs) had better numbers than teammate Mike Trout (.288, 11). As for stolen bases, Tim Anderson's 13 were the second-most in the majors. He'd have only four the rest of the way. Can you imagine how valuable he'd be if he was also an elite steals source? Mercy!
All in all, I expected these short-season numbers to look even worse than they do. Turns out the leaderboards were still dominated by players we consider great. But the smaller the sample, the weirder the results. Extremes are more extreme, and so some players won't deserve their statistical fate. It's fair to say, then, not every Fantasy Baseball decision would get the payoff or penalty it deserves either. We may just have to accept that luck would play a greater role in the outcome of our leagues.
The handling of pitchers would be "anything goes"
I have no idea how to account for this one in drafts. It would depend how forthcoming teams are with their pitching plans, and as frenzied as the second spring training figures to be, I honestly don't know how much we would hear. I don't know if it would be a topic of focus for the beat reporters. I don't know if managers would have entirely figured it out yet.
But it's a big freaking deal. In Fantasy Baseball, we depend on starting pitchers sticking around in their starts. It's what allows them to pile up strikeouts, and it goes a long way toward determining whether they get the most valuable stat of all, a win. They have to last at least five innings to get one of those, and lasting six greatly improves the odds. Six is also the bare minimum for a quality start, in leagues that reward those.
We see how pitching staffs are handled in the playoffs. Starting pitchers have short hooks. They sometimes come back on short rest to pitch in long relief. Closers throw multiple innings, often not in save situations. Anything goes, as long as it improves the team's odds of winning that day. The more that's riding on any one game, the less decisions are made for the long haul. And it helps when that haul isn't quite so long.
That urgency to win wouldn't be as extreme in a 50-game season as it is in the playoffs, but it would be far more extreme than in a 162-game season. And with fewer tomorrows, there would be far less concern about overworking pitchers as well.
So it could play out in a number of ways. Maybe some teams would go with a four-man rotation. Maybe some teams would lean heavily on openers and treat most of their starting pitchers as long relievers, throwing three innings some days and five innings other days. Maybe some teams wouldn't hold to a strict starting rotation, freeing them to use their ace late in a tight game. I wouldn't expect all teams to do any of these things — it'll depend on the personnel and the manager's creative capacity — but it's difficult to predict exactly who would do what right now. And we still may not know by the time the season starts.
Does it mean you should build your Fantasy team around hitting instead? In this environment, you'd have a much harder time distinguishing yourself that way, but I can't deny a new risk factor would be added to the entire starting pitcher crop.
H2H leagues would have to overhaul schedule
The first week in a Rotisserie league plays out the same as the last week and every week in between. Stats are simply accumulated until the season ends, and the winner is determined from that. The format doesn't depend on the season being a certain length, in other words.
But Head-to-Head leagues are different. They require a certain number of weeks for the playoffs at the end of the year. Let's say six teams make the playoffs in most leagues, with the top two seeds getting a first-round bye. That means three weeks at minimum are devoted to the playoffs. Some Head-to-Head leagues, just to de-emphasize luck, make their playoff scoring periods two weeks long, combining the stats from each week to determine a winner. Some make it a best-of-three series.
None of those options would be appropriate for a 50-game season. The whole thing might last only eight weeks.
Playoffs are only as good as the process that determines who participates in them, right? So you need time for a regular season. Or maybe not. Maybe the more elegant solution would be to make the entire season an elimination tournament. Of course, it gets complicated if the league isn't eight, 16 or 32 teams, so you may have to expand or contract accordingly. A 16-team league would actually be perfect: four rounds lasting two weeks each.
Then again, it would mean half the league would get only two weeks of Fantasy Baseball, which is anticlimactic. So let's consider other possibilities.
Oh! You could have every team play multiple matchups each week. Two or three — whatever it would take to get a reasonable sample of wins and losses. Maybe you make it so only the top four teams advance to the playoffs this year, eating up just two weeks of the schedule. It would leave six weeks for the regular season. With three matchups per week, that's 18 matchups per team, which is getting closer to normal.
Of course, the fairest approach might be to convert your Head-to-Head league to either a Rotisserie league if it's already categories-based or just a straight points league otherwise, but I'm sure that's a no-go if you value the engagement that the Head-to-Head mechanism creates.
All leagues would demand a redraft (but should they?)
Say your league drafted early, before anyone had an inkling a shutdown was coming. Say enthusiasm for sticking with those rosters was initially high, before anyone knew how long the shutdown would last or what form the season would ultimately take. It's fair to say those sentiments might change if the season is only one-third as long.
Why? Well, for all the reasons I've already brought up regarding how random individual player outcomes would be and how differently teams might handle their starting pitchers.
But ... I've already said we won't be able to predict either of those things ahead of time, so ... what would be the point?
You're in for a tough sell if you're among those who wish to keep your initial roster. It would certainly seem like it's a completely different league now, requiring a completely different approach, and chances are most of your competitors don't even remember the team they drafted the first time around. Why not just redo it?
But how much should anyone's approach change, really? Certain players have gotten healthier from mid-March. Pitchers like Mike Clevinger and James Paxton aren't expected to miss any time anymore. A shorter schedule also means pitchers with probable innings limits, like Jesus Luzardo and Julio Urias, aren't at such a disadvantage anymore. But these are the same ideas we've been kicking around since the start of the shutdown. A further reduction to 50 games wouldn't really change the math there.
Might you go harder after Rich Hill or Nate Pearson if you could do the draft over again? Sure, but we're talking about just a handful of players that have seen a substantive change in value. You'd see more than that after just a couple weeks of games, so at what point do you accept responsibility for changing circumstances? Traditionally, that point has always been the draft.
I'd prefer to keep it that way. I've already tipped my hand and have an emotional attachment. I'll accept the challenge of whatever misfortunes have befallen me since then. I don't think it's an unreasonable stance, given how similar that redo draft would actually look, but ultimately, it's for you and your league-mates to decide.
Everyone would wonder if the champion really deserved it
This goes for the real game as well as your Fantasy league. We're having to accept that randomness will play a greater role this year. We're aware that less deserving teams might sneak into the postseason tournament and wreak havoc. We're acknowledging that rosters, and especially pitching staffs, will be manipulated in ways we'd never see during a 162-game season, without a care for attrition or convention. We're resigned to the idea that this year's baseball will be unlike any other year's baseball, and so the winner, while technically a winner, just won't have the same clout.
But why? The idea of a champion is a contrived one anyway. For every league, we've come to agree that the one team that meets a certain set of criteria is the champion, but that criteria is constantly changing. It wasn't too long ago that only two teams from the AL and NL would advance to the playoffs. How many wild-card teams have gone on to win the World Series since then? And don't even get me started on college football. Talk about a shifting goalpost.
Bottom line is that unless it's our team standing alone at the end, we look for ways to undermine the winner, and a 50-game season would make it all too easy. But it wouldn't make it less petty or wrong. Or silly. Agreeing to the criteria means accepting the outcome of it.
And no matter how much you'd try to contextualize it now, supposedly for history's sake, it would still be just a line in an almanac a hundred years from now, the same as all the other champions. So little of what we actually experience matters to anybody once we're gone. Seriously, how many people can you name who were alive in 1920 — and I don't mean just in baseball, but the entire world? It's a laughably low number, I can assure you.
So don't be a jerk. Just let the winner have their fun. We all recognize things are weird right now, but a victory is still an accomplishment and deserves to be celebrated as such.