The spread of the novel coronavirus has done more than delay Major League Baseball's 2020 season: it has forced the league to reimagine what the game will look like. The sport most wed to the past is now weighing all kinds of fundamental shifts, each designed to improve the odds of a season being played at all this year. A shorter season? Obviously. Seven-inning doubleheaders? Maybe. Home-run derbies to decide extra-inning contests? You can't rule it out.
The latest leaked proposal is arguably the most iconoclastic yet. The league would forego the traditional American and National League format in favor of something more pragmatic: geographical leagues tied to the team's location in either Florida or Arizona. USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported on Friday that this could be the arrangement for the 2020 season:
NORTH: New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates.
SOUTH: Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles.
EAST: Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins.
NORTHEAST: Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics.
WEST: Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels.
NORTHWEST: Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals.
The "Cactus League Northeast" doesn't roll off the tongue as easily, or as familiarly, as the "National League East," but that's life in the present. Although it's no certainty that the above comes to fruition, we decided to provide a distraction for curious minds by answering an obvious, fundamental question about the proposed change: which teams will have an easier path to the top of the division than they would have had otherwise?
Rather than guess, we decided to turn to math for a more legitimate conclusion. Basically, we took note of every team's projected winning percentage, according to Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA. We then calculated the expected winning percentage for every team's divisional opponents, under both the normal arrangement and the altered arrangement. We then compared the differences in percentages and prorated that over 162 games -- we know the season won't be 162 games, and we know that they wouldn't play those teams that many times even if it was; 162 games is just an easy-to-grasp scale in baseball circles.
In case that isn't clear enough, let's use the defending champions as an example. The Washington Nationals' NL East rivals are projected to win 49.1 percent of their games in 2020. The Nationals' GL East opponents, conversely, are pegged to win 52 percent of their games. Therefore, the Nationals' divisional strength has improved by nearly five wins over 162 games, making their return to the postseason a little tougher, in theory.
We'll note that this isn't a perfect methodology. PECOTA's win totals are based on simulations of the original 2020 schedule. That means some teams have skewed numbers due to the unbalanced schedule, and, as such, might be a little over/underrated as compared to their genuine true-talent level. Still, the projections should be close enough that it doesn't undermine everything here. Besides, this is for entertainment as much as anything, right?
Now onto our three major takeaways from this exercise.
Cactus League Northwest teams would face easier division
That means the Brewers, Padres, Mariners, Rangers, and Royals, for those still trying to wrap your heads around the proposed alignments.
On average, these five teams would have their division opponents decline by nearly 10 wins per 162 games. Intuitively, it makes sense because the Padres, Mariners, and Rangers each get away from a superteam -- be it the Dodgers or the Astros, each projected to win 98-plus.
Of course, this doesn't appear to be a strong division. If the 2020 regular season had happened as planned, the odds are that none of the five would have qualified. PECOTA, for its part, had them all pegged for losing seasons. That probably wouldn't happen under this scenario.
Cactus League West teams would face tougher division
The inverse of the Cactus League Northwest is the Cactus League West, or the Dodgers, White Sox, Reds, Cleveland, and Angels. These teams had their division rivals improve by nearly 10 wins on average. That's rough sledding.
It's an unfortunate twist of fate for the White Sox, Reds, and Angels. Each spent resources to make a run at the 2020 postseason, only to be stuck in the same division as the Dodgers, the best team in the sport. Comparatively, scaling one of the Centrals looks much easier.
To borrow a term from the world of soccer, this is baseball's group of death. PECOTA has all five winning at least 83 games. The last-place team here could have, whomever it ends up being, could have conceivably competed for a postseason spot under normal conditions.
Grapefruit League South teams wouldn't notice a difference
We'll end with the great unchanged, or the Grapefruit League South: the Red Sox, Twins, Braves, Rays, and Orioles. The average divisional opponent gained just one win over 162 games, an irrelevant amount compared to everyone else.
Fans of the Twins might reject the idea that their division chances are the same, but there's some clear logic at play for the Rays and the Braves. The Rays benefit, statistically anyway, from getting rid of a superteam like the Yankees. The Braves, meanwhile, were already in a fairly deep division, so this isn't that much of a change.
As for the Red Sox, well, at least there's still the Orioles. And for the Orioles? The perspective that even a bad baseball team is, all things considered, a welcomed distraction.