Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Heresy: The Case For A 100 Game MLB Season

Professional baseball players and the league they represent currently labor under the weight of meaningless games played for no purpose other than to get to the offseason. The MLB schedule consists of 162 games, which the National and American Leagues adopted in 1962 and 1961 respectively. The allotment of opponents within those 162 games has changed several times with expansion teams joining the fold, as well as divisional restructuring and the introduction of inter-league play. What would happen if you cut 62 games from the currently protuberant 26.5-week marathon?

This would be a cataclysmic upheaval to the sport. The National League has played 100+ games per season since 1884, and since the inception of the American League in 1901, there has never been a season with less than 140 games played. For comparison, the NFL expanded to a measly 16 game schedule in 1978, while the NHL and NBA both have 82 game schedules, albeit with wildly different origins. Over the course of a single season, a reliable starter in the MLB will play twice as many games as a hockey or basketball player.

Player and Team Impact

This takes a tremendous toll on players over the course of their seven-month endurance trial, and that’s not including spring training. Removing 62 games from the schedule alleviates 362 innings of collective stress on a staff of starting pitchers, assuming an average of 6 innings per start. In a world where doe-eyed rookies and grizzled veterans alike fall prey to Tommy John surgery at an alarmingly prevalent rate, an innings reduction could save players needless pain and months of recovery time. Imagine a world where Stephen Strasburg never went under the knife and could still melt radar guns at 98-100 mph consistently, which he did prior to his injury. He might look a lot like current Gerrit Cole, who reigns atop the PitcherList rankings due to a dominant array of pitches led by a turbo-charged fastball.   

If one digs deeper into Strasburg, the advanced stats will concur with the eyes. The graphs below convey a decade’s worth of consistently great pitching as measured by FIP, against the majors as a whole and every pitcher the same age as Strasburg. The remarkably low age 22-season total is impressive and highlights the kind of trajectory Strasburg could have embarked upon had his experience risen to meet his body’s natural talent without injury derailing him. However, with only 24.0 innings pitched after a year of recovery the small sample size for that season bears less statistical significance. Instead, the focus should be on his return to full duty in 2012 and every season since in which his FIP creeps much closer to league average than his rookie season would have suggested was possible. This trend carries over to other simple and advanced stats such as ERA, ERA+, K/9, and xFIP.

The question becomes if Strasburg would have ever damaged his UCL in a 100-game season, or if that was inevitable, would he still have been shut down midway through the pennant race in 2012? It is impossible to give a definitive answer to either, but reducing the stress on player’s bodies should at least improve their quality of life and possibly increase their proficiency on the field.

On a macro level, the detrimental effect of a season-ending injury affects the team’s performance and the overall watchability of the on-field product, but at a micro level, it can have devastating effects on the individual. The surgery isn’t always successful, and the most optimistic of measures indicate 80% of recipients reach their previous level of pitching prowess for at least a single pitch. For those that never return to their peak, the toll can be extreme. Hung-Chih Kuo endured 4 UCL reconstructions from 2002-2005, and though he would later make an All-Star game, he developed an anxiety disorder from his repeated injuries and sadly retired. Reducing the wear and tear on players’ bodies would be of obvious benefit, but how would a truncated season affect the playoff and draft outlooks?

2019 Playoff Bracket Implications

The playoff dust settles much the same after 100 games as 162, with only the two fifth-seed wildcard positions changing hands. If you take the record of every team in the MLB after their 100th game, 80% of the teams currently in the postseason would still be there, though the seeding does fluctuate. In the AL, Cleveland replaces Tampa Bay in the Wild Card while the Yankees, Twins, and Astros shuffle seeding order. Across the league in the NL, the only new team is the Cubs, and the Nationals still reside in the Wild Card game so they can make their magical run to win the World Series. In fact, the Cubs are the only team outside the top 2 in their division (based on the 162 game schedule) to make the playoffs under the modified 100 game format.

A Look Back: What Would Have Changed in the AL?

I imagine that you, dear reader, have the same astringent voice in your head accompanied by claxon bells that goes off anytime you see a small sample size used to support an argument. That is why I have (manually) compiled the Win% and playoff appearances for all 30 MLB teams based on a 100 game season back to 2014. I would have gone back to 2010 to get the full decade, but I have a thesis to write and it takes several hours per league to get all this information sorted out. Below are many a graph for you to feast your eyes upon.

Baltimore invents new and improved methods of fan base misery in 2018 as the only team to fall below 30 wins in this simulation, but actually wins the division and is the 2 seed in the 2016 postseason. The Red Sox still owned the American league in 2018, and 69 wins are tied with the 2018 Dodgers for the most in a single season under this new model.

The AL Central is the weakest division in this model, with 2 more sub-40 win teams than any other division over this time span.

As an Astros fan, I am incapable of feeling happy about that three year stretch of dominance due to the emergence of the Cheaty Cheaty Bang Bang scandal. The Rangers would have had a chance to somehow blow a postseason berth again in 2016 and crush my soul once more.

Now comes that part that everyone really cares about: playoff appearances. This graph, and a later one for the National League, confirmed my supposition at the beginning of this article. Good teams win a lot, bad teams don’t, and playoff berths are largely the same even after lopping off a good chunk of the season.

Of course, something was bound to change and there are two major beneficiaries to the new system. Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians fans, you may now petition the league office for my instantaneous promotion to the commissioner of baseball. You are welcome.

A Look Back: What Would Have Changed in the NL?

To be frank, the American League displayed more variance than I would have liked. Most of the teams displayed a perfect correlation, but the Indians and Mariners gaining 5 new playoff appearances between them really rankled me. As a teaser, the National League worked out much better.

The Dodgers still completely own their division. Four division titles and the two years they didn’t win they were a wildcard team. In 2014, the Giants win the division instead of making it as a Wild Card. Unfortunately, the Padres don’t crack .500 in this model and embody the spirit of a 7-9 NFL team.

Even after changing the schedule, Cardinal Devil Magic is still in the works.

Washington, I would like to congratulate you on four consecutive division titles. Hey, with a 100 game season do you think Strasburg would have been shut down?

I love this graph. It is my victory lap. 11 teams see no change, while four others reap a +1 differential in playoff berths after 62 games are removed from the schedule. Essentially, 38% of the season bears little consequence on the end results.

The Draft

As for the bottom feeders of the league, little changes in draft order for teams deep in the rebuilding process. The teams picking top 5 have not changed (bad teams are consistently bad), but the order of the 3-5 picks has been scrambled. Kansas City now picks 3rd, Toronto 4th, and the Marlins pick 5th. League-wide, 14 teams would see no change or +1 shift in their draft position. Since outliers tend to exist in every data set, however, the Mets would move up nine spots to pick 10th overall with only 46 wins on the season by their 100th game. Once again, removing 62 games from the season has only marginally affected the end of season results. I did not check on this trend back to 2014 because the draft is far from a scientific process and therefore draft order is not as important.

Oh, and while I’m taking a sledgehammer to the sport, the draft is now in late February.

In Conclusion

Baseball is currently in a state of flux. The recent surge in youth talent has drastically altered the topography and attitude of the game, the jury on replay is still out, and even the balls themselves, in all of their bouncy, juiced glory, are changing the game. An actual change in the schedule is unlikely, but with star players like Anthony Rizzo supporting the idea, it is not impossible. Major League Baseball has long been couched in tradition, but the recent adaptability on display means there has never been a more conducive time for long-shot ideas like this.

Jacob Hubbard

Jake is a lifelong baseball fan and grew up watching the Round Rock Express MiLB games. He played baseball from ages 2-19, but a 20 graded power tool forced him to retire. Now he spends his days yelling at Fangraphs and Baseball Savant. You can find him on Twitter @FeelSurgical

One thought on “Heresy: The Case For A 100 Game MLB Season

  • Ron Hubbard

    “Cheaty Cheaty Bang Bang scandal”, really?

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