Let’s start by identifying the massive elephant in the room - COVID-19. With the Phillies, Blue Jays, and Rockies facing outbreaks among their players and staff, I have serious doubts that there will be major pro sports in 2020. Yes, they all have plans to play, but it’s really hard for me to see that actually happening.
That being said...
Let me cut to the chase: I completely disagree with the negativity going around about the 2020 MLB season. If it gets played (see elephant discussion at the start), I predict that it’s going to be one of the most exciting and interesting baseball seasons in a long time. And, importantly, fans of all stripes are going to absolutely love it.
The negativity about the 2020 MLB season has been pretty overwhelming. Some of the complaints are about newly-developed grievances with the game, such as the negotiations between players and owners being too acrimonious and petty or the Astros cheating scandal that still taints the game. Others are more long-standing concerns about modern baseball, such as the slow pace of the game not being solved or the three-true-outcome model of analytics-driven baseball being an uglier, clunkier on-field product that fans just don’t like.
While I understand these concerns and complaints, I just don’t buy that they are going to impact fan reception of the 2020 season. In fact, the 2020 season will be the perfect antidote to all of this for two main reasons.
First, I am a firm believer in this fundamental principle — those of us who follow the game closely (like the writers on this site and the MLB commentators on Twitter and in your local paper) always vastly overestimate how much most other fans follow the ins and outs of the game. Especially in a world rocked by coronavirus and police brutality/BLM uprisings (let alone murder hornets and a Presidential election year), I have no doubt that most people have not followed the negotiations between the owners and the players other than possibly taking in a headline here and there. Yeah, they may have some general sense that the players are overpaid whiners (stupid thought, but it’s out there) or the owners are trying to further profit by exploiting their workers (bingo!), but who offered what package and what were the merits of their rejection — nope, most people just don’t follow that.
Same with the Astros cheating scandal and its fallout in the sport. Who did what and who was punished how long — they’re just details most people don’t absorb or care about anymore. In fact, I’d bet if you asked most fans they’d tell you that this was something that happened years ago. After all, everything in our life that happened pre-lockdown sure feels like it was from a different era.
So I just don’t buy that all the negativity people think will bleed into fan reception of baseball this year will matter at all. Instead, and this is the second point here, what fans are going to get is baseball on steroids. No, not the Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire steroids, but a calendar version of steroids. And, I predict that fans are going to absolutely love it.
Mid-May games where your team loses but it just doesn’t matter? Gone. Late August games played in 98 degree swampy weather when your team is out of first place by 27 games? Won’t happen. An 11 inning game that takes 5 hours in early June between two teams who will, two months later, compete to off-load their superstar for minor league talent at the trade deadline? Nope.
All of this baseball drudgery is going to instead be replaced by a baseball season where every game counts. Yes, in a 162 game season, it is true that every game technically counts. In the final standings, a loss in April is the same as a loss in September. But, as a fan, does it feel that way? No, absolutely not. The loss in April is just another game. The loss in September can break your heart.
But with 60 games, every win — even the early ones — will be a notch in the standings that will feel like it matters. And every loss will make us fear for its implications. No team is going to be that far out of the playoff race for much of the season.
Take a look at the standings last year to see what I mean. At the end of April (roughly 30 games into the season), only the woeful Orioles were behind by double digits. Every other team was within single-digit games of first place, and a whopping 22 out of the 30 teams were within 5 games of first place.
For this year, that would mean that with one month left in the season, 22 teams would have legitimate shots at first place or a wild card spot. There is no way this isn’t going to be exciting, and fans, from the diehard to the casual, are going to love rooting for teams with legitimate chances for much of this condensed season.
Plus, teams that have serious talent deficiencies will still have a chance. A 162 game season is much more likely to reward the best baseball team than a 60 game season. While those of us who care about the best team winning it all might then lament the results of a 60 game season, those of us who care solely about one particular team are now more likely to see our team, even if its roster is not that good, have a chance.
Take a look at last year again. For the Phillies, through 60 games, they were sitting in first place in the NL East, with the 4th best record in the NL. The Nationals, the ultimate 2019 World Series winners, were 7 games below .500 and 6.5 games out of first. Over the course of 162 games, the better team rose to the top and the worse team sunk toward the bottom. But, over 60 games, the Phillies’ roster problems were papered over and they would have finished the shortened season in first place. The beauty of the 2020 season is that could happen to almost any team in baseball this year, giving every fan hope that they wouldn’t realistically have over 162 games.
In fact, as someone who loves the regular 162 game, 6 month-long baseball season, I worry a bit that this short season is going to be too successful with the fans. I admit, as every diehard probably will, that over the course of six months, it’s easy to understand why baseball might, at times, bore the casual fan. The 60 game compressed season should appeal to them. And if it appeals to them too much — the ratings for most teams are too high because it’s so exciting to have almost every team in a pennant race — will the powers that be consider changing the length of the season when our world returns to normal?
That’s a worry for another day. Right now, the big worry is the health and safety of the players. And I really do think that will ultimately thwart the season.
But if it doesn’t? We’re in for one hell of a ride, and damn the commentators who say otherwise — it’s going to be awesome.