There will be a baseball season, it seems
At least as things stand now, baseball should resume July 23rd, The schedule was released yesterday and the Astros begin July 24th against the Mariners. The season will only have 60 games with the normal playoff format.
How does the short season affect the Astros relative to other teams?
One way to look at this is: would the Astros have a better winning percentage in a 60 game season than in a 162 game season? But also, how would a shorter season affect the winning percentage of her potential division and playoff rivals.
Let’s look at the first question.
Short Season: the great equalizer
The #1 negative factor for the Astros is the same one that affects every tier 1 contender. In a short season the small sample size of games can create unpredictable results. Even the best teams can have a bad month, and even the worst teams can look like a champion for a little while. The short season is a great equalizer which therefore has a net negative effect on the stronger teams, including the Astros.
Remember the 2005 Astros? They started out with 15 wins and 30 losses and were famously pronounced dead by the Houston Chronicle. After July 18th they were 45 and 27, eked into the Wild Card slot, and won the NL pennant over the best-record-in-the-NL superpower St Louis Cardinals. Will the Astros in 2020 be the the early 2005 Astros, or the late 2005 Astros? And will some otherwise mediocre team have a strong two month showing that would not have been sustainable over a long season?
Good Gawd. Even the Mariners have a chance in a 60 game season.
What?????????????? The most valuable Astro? The second most valuable player in the AL? There have been times in the injury-riddled last two Astros seasons when the durable, versatile, and highly productive Alex Bregman seemed to carry the team.
Here’s the problem. The team’s best player is a slow starter. It takes him sixty games to get into his rhythm. In 2017 his wRC+ was only 96 in games 1-60. It was 139 thereafter. In 2018 he hit 125 wRC+ in the first sixty games and 175 for the rest of the season. In 2019 he started off 151, and finished 179.
We would all be satisfied if Bregman hit 151 wRC+ in 2020, but the point of this is that Bregman seems to be a player that requires time to get his stroke and his timing working to optimum efficiency. How will he perform in sixty days without many Spring Training games? Of course this affects all the players, but it seems that it could effect Bregman more than most.
The scheduling for the 60 game season is more compacted than for the long season. To make this possible the league wants to limit travel time. To do this teams will play 40 games within their own division, and 20 games with teams from the other league’s equivalent geographical division.
For the Astros this means they will play half their games in Houston, a few in Arlington, and the rest of the time two time zones away on the West coast. Of course, the Astros’ divisional rivals have the same problem with long travel times between back-to-back games, but it could be a disadvantage if the Astros are involved in a race for the Wild Card.
According to Statista the Astros were the third oldest team in baseball last year with an average age of 29.8 years old. This was just behind the Oakland A’s at 29.9 and the Washington Nats at 30.1. With no youthful infusions into this year’s roster, the Astros are may be the oldest team in baseball for 2020.
A short season helps older teams relatively speaking. Older players usually require more rest but in a short season that is probably not necessary. Over 30 year old players like Michael Brantley, George Springer, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel could play in a higher percentage of games in a sixty game season than they would in a full season.
Another advantage of an older roster in a short season is that such a team doesn’t rely very much on rookies or sophomores. Newbies tend to be more inconsistent and can take time to adjust to the league. Think Alex Bregman, 2016. In his first ten games he had only two hits in 42 AB’s. Obviously, it’s been all uphill for Alex after that. But such a start could seriously hurt a team in a 60 game season.
Injuries are unpredictable but in a short season even a short stint on the IL to any of the best players, say Mike Trout, for example, could be devastating to the hopes of the team affected.
But the Astros have three key players who have experienced chronic injuries in recent years. Carlos Correa has missed large portions of the last two years due to recurring back problems, and Jose Altuve has missed portions of the last two seasons due to knee problems.
Hopefully this period of prolonged rest has helped in the continued recovery of both these injuries and that in a shorter season there will be less chance of a recurrence of these issues.
The third key player is Yordan Alvarez, whose knee pain seemed to limit his effectiveness at the end of last year, and was still an issue during Spring Training. Hopefully, these few months of additional rest have helped his knees to heal.
This is the big one. The Astros lost the best pitcher in baseball to free agency last winter, (Sorry Justin Verlander) but still have two future Hall of Famers to headline the rotation. Trouble is, as every Astros fan knows, they are both in the waning years of their careers, Verlander is 37, Greinke will turn 37 during the playoffs.
So how does a short season favor the Astros pitching?
Last season Justin Verlander won the Cy Young award, but after the first game of the playoffs he was ineffective the rest of the post-season. The Astros were in a quandary with Verlander. With even less pitching depth in the rotation and bullpen compared to last year, and with Verlander still another year older, they would have had to limit his innings if they were to expect him to maintain his effectiveness in the playoffs. If there were any playoff challengers in the division, a real possibility, that would not have been possible.
Now he only has to pitch 12 games before the playoffs. No need to hold back. Greinke, like any other pitcher in his upper 30’s, should also be able to let it rip and still be strong for the playoffs in a short season.
Furthermore, Verlander had groin surgery in March. He would not have been ready before June anyway, and then he would have had to work his way back into shape. 2020 was not shaping up to be a good year for the Astro ace.
Now he looks ready to rock again.
Then there’s Lance McCullers Jr.
McCullers had never pitched more than 128 innings in a season in his career, and that was before he had the Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of last season. The Astros were going to have to take it easy on McCullers as well, but now we can hope that he can be an effective third starter for the entire season.
During Spring Training the Astros’ erstwhile fourth/fifth starter, veteran Brad Peacock, came down with the dread dead arm disease. Hopefully with four more months of rest, Peacock will be ready for a full short season of productive pitching.
How a short season affects the Astros relative to the AL Western Division
The Astros won the AL West by ten games last season on their way to winning 107. They face stiffer competition this year while having to compensate for the loss of Gerrit Cole and relief ace Will Harris.
The A’s pitching staff was decimated by injuries last year. And while the Astros are losing an ace, the A’s are getting their’s back, Sean Manaea. Daniel Mengden is also returning from injury, and two young, strong prospects, A.J. Puk, and Jesus Lazardo, will have full seasons to contribute. After relying on the opener gambit last year, the A’s expect a full five man rotation this year.
The Astros look poised to backtrack this year. The shortened season just makes this backtrack possibly less severe. The A’s look to move forward.
The Angels also look to be improved for 2020. They have added one of last year’s leading NL MVP candidates, Anthony Rendon at third base, and they figure to get a full short season of Shohei Ohtani at DH. And 10 starts from his 100 MPH arm coming off Tommy John surgery sounds reasonable...and a little frightening.
A sixty game schedule means chances are it will be a very tight race in the AL West, and any number of foreseeable and unforeseeable factors could have out-sized influence on the final outcome.
Every game will have triple the importance of games in a normal season.
Can’t wait for the games to begin.