So let's get blissfully ahead of ourselves, shall we? Negotiations between players and owners over the structure of the 2020 season -- which has been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic -- are. That means we don't know when or if that 2020 season will begin (the virus itself will also have a say in those matters).
Those qualifiers duly noted, let's talk about one of the most compelling wrinkles of the one-off season potentially in our midst. That's the restructuring of divisions. In order to limit travel during the pandemic and to simplify testing and contact tracing,. That is, teams in the NL East would play only each other and opponents from the AL East this year in the regular season. The same goes for the NL and AL Centrals and the NL and AL Wests. That would make for three 10-team regions with no regular season competition across divisional lines and each team's playing games in its usual home ballpark. The six divisions will still remain.
Very likely, we're going to see a 14-team playoff field, and that means an abundance of postseason berths will be in play. Given that and given those regionally confined schedules, strength of schedule will matter a great deal when it comes to determining the playoff field. And that's the topic at hand: divisional strength and our estimations of it for 2020.
First, let's take time for the obvious and lay out how these divisions will be sorted in 2020:
Last season, here's how these loops fared against competition from outside their 2019 divisions:
- The teams of the NL and AL East had a cumulative record of 16 games above .500 and a cumulative run differential of plus-138.
- The teams of the NL and AL Central had a cumulative record of 58 games below .500 and a cumulative run differential of minus-299.
- The teams of the NL and AL West had a cumulative record of 42 games above .500 and a cumulative run differential of plus-161.
As you can see, the combined Central fares very poorly based on last year's results. Of course, in this exercise we're looking forward, not back. As such 2020 projections will very likely be a better indicator of divisional strength in the season to come.
In order to get a broader picture of how teams forecast in 2020, we've averaged their win totals from three projection systems -- FanGraphs, PECOTA at Baseball Prospectus, and our very own SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter). From there we arrived at average team win totals for each new 2020 "super division." Note that these projected win totals are for the standard 162-game regular season, but this year we're going to have maybe half that total ( ). The implied win percentages still apply, though. To the digits:
|Division||Average projected 2020 win total per team||Projected cumulative games above .500|
The margins have tightened relative to 2019 results, and that's to be expected since the size of the divisions has doubled and since projection systems are conservative by nature. As well, keep in mind that these projections reflect the usual schedule, in which a bit less than half of a team's games are played within its division. In 2020, all regular season games will be played within the region. As such, Central teams like the Twins, Indians, and Cubs (and potentially Cardinals, Brewers, White Sox, and Reds) will be able to fatten up against three of the worst teams in the league -- the Pirates, Tigers, and Royals. Meantime, among Central teams only the Twins projected to play at a 90-win pace in 2020. In contrast, the East and West each have two teams projected to top 90 wins.
Here's a full look at the averaged win projections by team:
It's not just that the Central has three of the six projected worst teams, it's also that wedge of mediocrity in the middle. The Cubs, Reds, White Sox, Cardinals, and Brewers also project for between 82 and 85 wins across a 162-game slate. Again, the overall margins aren't striking, but they add up considering teams will play all games within their respective region.
We can only make educated guesses at the eventual playoff structure, but it will almost certainly entail teams competing across divisions -- despite not playing across divisions -- for an unprecedented number of wild card spots. If that's indeed the case and these projections are realized (or, perhaps more likely, are realized and then some), then the relevant teams of the Central may be at an advantage.