Major League Baseball's Back (Fingers Crossed)

by Larry Ness

After negotiations between owners and players failed to produce a settlement, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred instituted a 60-game schedule. It's expected to begin July 23 or July 24 and last until late September. Teams will play their four divisional opponents 10 times each and five interleague opponents in the same geographical area four games apiece (example: NL East will play AL East). The playoff structure remains the same (10 teams) but significant changes are that the National League games will use a designated hitter and when a game moves to extra innings, teams will begin with a runner on second base (that will NOT apply for postseason games).

Before continuing, let me first address 'the elephant in the room.' Covid-19 hovers over almost all aspects of our lives and each sport has protocols to be followed. However, to face reality, they are all 'flying blind.' As generals say during war time, "Conditions on the ground will dictate." Here are three conditions (according to reports) that could lead to the season being canceled: 1) if restrictions on travel throughout the country are imposed; 2) if the season poses "an unreasonable health and safety risk to players or staff to stage those games,"; and 3) if the competitive integrity of the season is compromised by the number of players who are available.

The above is beyond our control, so let's talk baseball. Before the start of the 2020 season was postponed in March, the Dodgers and Yankees were favored to meet in the 2020 World Series. Following the announcement of a 60-game season, the World Series title odds were released by various sportsbooks. At Bovada, the Dodgers and Yankees were co-favorites at +375, followed by the Astros at +800. No other team was better than 15-1. At the other end of the spectrum, the Pirates were 400-to-1, with the Orioles and Marlins listed at 300-to-1.

When the coronavirus pandemic suspended the start of the baseball season back in March, the Dodgers had the highest season win total at Caesars Sportsbook at 102.5. Caesars' adjusted win totals for the 60-game season look like this (note: teams must play a minimum of 59 games for season win-total bets to be valid, according to Caesars Sportsbook's rules). The Dodgers opened at 37 wins and the Yankees checked in at 36.5. 18 teams had win totals between 34.5 (Astros/Twins) to 30.5 (Brewers/Red Sox). The Orioles (20.5) and Tigers (21.5) had the fewest win-total predictions (five teams had predictions of under 25 wins).

Here's some history you may want to know before you make a future bet. The most wins through 60 games over the past five years were 41, 41, 42, 42 and 39. The average winning percentage of the worst playoff team in each league over the last five seasons is .549 (that translates to 33-27 over 60 games). The worst "playoff" team through 60 games was between 31 and 33 wins in each league in each season (again over the past five years).

The volatility of a 60-games season could see some "surprise teams." Remember, the Nationals (2019 champs) were just 19-31 after 50 games last season and 27-33 after 60 games. I think it's possible to make the case that as many as 15 teams are capable of going 39-21 over a 60-game stretch but most would be incapable of sustaining that over 162 games. There's a pretty decent chance that a 31-29 team will make the playoffs, while a 32-28 team will miss it. Could the "third wild-card" team" (the one just missing out), actually have a better record than at least one division winner? It would hardly be a shocker.

MLB has always been my favorite sport to bet/handicap but clearly we will be faced with unique challenges this season. It's unlikely that starters will pitch 'deep' into games the first few weeks and we could see many more teams turning to the practice of using "Openers," a la Tampa Bay (the depth of the Rays' bullpen could give them an edge in this shortened season).

With the launch of Al's new site this upcoming August, I will feature a daily "Ness Notes" feature, EXCLUSIVELY at bigal.com. It will run Monday through Friday, available by 1:00 ET.

"Let's play ball!" The NBA and NHL are scheduled to join the 'party' in late July as well, virus permitting.

Good luck...Larry

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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