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Short season presents challenges

The scheduled start of the shortened 60-game baseball season is barely two weeks away with defending World Series champion Washington slated to host the New York Yankees on Thursday, July 23.

Several sports books have already posted a line on the expected matchup of new Yankee Gerrit Cole facing the Nationals’ Max Scherzer. The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has the Yankees a -125 road favorite with the Total 7 with -125 to the Over.

Teams have started to return to training camps, most of which are being held in their home cities rather than having everybody back in Florida and Arizona. Several players have already opted out of playing the shortened season. The latest was David Price, the left-handed starter acquired by the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the huge offseason trade that also brought Mookie Betts to Chavez Ravine.

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But stars such as Mike Trout and Kris Bryant have expressed serious reservations and on Monday Atlanta’s Nick Markakis was the latest to opt out of the 2020 season.

A small percentage of players tested positive for COVID-19 over the past week or so and will self-quarantine prior to joining their teams to resume preparing for the season. Given the virus remains widespread, we can expect there will be disruptions likely affecting all teams due to players who test positive that will require roster adjustments.

MLB has announced that each team will have a 60-player roster from which it can designate 30 active players at the start of the season, a number that will be reduced to 28 after two weeks and to 26 after four. There will also be a taxi squad of three players, one of which must be a catcher, to accompany teams on road trips. The purported purpose is to have ‘emergency’ players available in case a player tests positive during a road trip.

Handicapping the 2020 baseball season will be challenging because it will be played under unprecedented conditions which could change at any time, forcing a further shortening or even cancelation. Still, there are several factors I shall be considering.

Those above roster volatility factors will affect handicapping on a day-to-day basis as moves are made, voluntary or otherwise. Perhaps more important are a few rules changes implemented this season.

Previously set to start this season is that barring injury or illness pitchers will be required to face at least three batters or pitch to the end of an inning. This will reduce the lefty/righty strategy employed by many managers in late game situations. But it also means more pitchers will be available for extra-inning games. It’s hard to state the handicapping impact although it should mean fresher bullpens on a daily basis with fewer relievers being used per game. 

Another change is the Designated Hitter being used in both leagues rather than just in the American League. That means games played in National League ballparks will no longer seeing pitchers taking regular at-bats.

The initial reaction is to expect a scoring increase in games both between two NL teams plus those interleague games played in NL parks.

As a point of reference, in 2019, games featuring the DH averaged 9.8 total runs per game while games without the DH saw an average of 9.4 total runs per game, a difference of just under a half-run per game.

Note that with the DH, NL starters may not be pulled as early with the elimination of the “pitcher due to bat in the next inning” situation.

The more controversial rules change and the one likely to have the much greater impact involves games that go into extra innings. In an attempt to shorten games, beginning with the top of the 10th, each half-inning will start with a runner on second base.

The rule is being used on an experimental basis and will not be used for the playoffs. It’s a gimmick that will draw the ire of traditionalists more than the DH. As a baseball fan I don’t like it. But, in a sense, it’s really not much different in concept than a shootout in the NHL or penalty kicks in soccer. I don’t like those either. Each alters the way games are played during regulation.

It changes the fundamental strategy teams might use with a runner already in scoring position when the inning starts. Does the visiting team sacrifice an out to immediately bunt the runner over to third? Or do they try to go for the big inning? Obviously the quality of the batter will somewhat influence that decision. But, in these days of analytics, so do the numbers.

Going “by the book” several studies have shown it’s better to not have the batter sacrifice. Outs are precious. With a runner on second and none out the run expectation for the inning is 1.17 runs. With a runner on third and one out it drops to 0.98 runs. The difference is slight and managerial temperament may dictate the decision.

But given that both the visiting and home team will start with that situation, scoring should increase the value of playing the Over. It will be interesting to see what the in-play Total will be for the 10th or possibly subsequent innings. One and a half runs might not be a surprise.

Here’s where a potential edge for the visiting team may arise. Should the visiting team take the lead, especially a lead of more than one run, when they take the field in the bottom of the inning they might consider setting up a double play by issuing an intentional walk to the leadoff hitter.

That sets up a situation of none out and runners on first and second which has a runs expectation of 2.02 runs. But if they are successful in turning a typical double play against the next batter the runs expectation drops to 0.36 with a runner on third and two out. From a fan’s and sports talk radio standpoint, it will make for lots of second guessing.

It will be interesting to see how managers approach the shortened season. Will they look at season as if they are playing games 1 through 60? Or will they take to approach that they’re playing games 103-162 with everybody tied for first heading into a typical August for the final two months?

How will managers handle their pitching staffs? Will teams go with a four-, five- or perhaps even a six-man rotation? Will more teams emulate what Tampa Bay has done the past few seasons and go the “opener” rather than “starter” route? Might some managers use key starters several times a week for perhaps just three innings a stretch three times a week?

Over the past half-decade, slightly more than 8 percent of all games go extra innings. At that pace we can expect roughly 75 such games if the season goes the full 60 games.

My overall game handicap has long been based on the starting pitcher. But over the years, the weight I assign to that factor has steadily decreased from nearly 75 to 80% (when complete games were common) to barely above 50% (as starters average fewer and fewer innings).

I shall pay attention as the start of the season approaches for signs from managers as to their plans. I think we will see several styles used in this unusual season in which it will be rare for any starter to throw more than 100 innings (14 starts averaging 7 innings equals 98 innings). Which might make for an interesting prop.