The start of the 2020 MLB regular season was delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in North America. On the assumption that MLB will play baseball in 2020, a question to address is what is the minimum number of games for a MLB season to be considered legitimate?
Certainly the health, economic, and other impacts due to COVID-19 greatly outweigh the effect on fans who miss their favourite teams. However, with time on our hands and the need for a little diversion, let’s give some thought to how short should the 2020 regular season be?
A short history of shortened seasons
For a more detailed description of the history of shortened seasons, please refer to the Appendix. Also, a tip of the cap to Jays Journal Commentator Terry Mesmer for suggesting this article topic.
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In 1982, the players conducted a 57-day strike that resulted in the reduction of the 16-game schedule down to nine.
In the last 20 or so years, the NBA has experienced two labor disruptions of note. The first started with the players locked out from July 1998 until January 1999. The schedule was shortened from the planned 82 games to 50. Labour peace lasted in the NBA until July 2011 when the owners locked out the players again. A new collective bargaining agreement was signed in December 2011. The schedule was reset to 66 games, 16 fewer than normal.
Leaving aside the 2004-2005 campaign that was wiped out due to an owners’ lock-out, the NHL has locked the players out on two other occasions: during the 1994-1995 and 2012-2013 seasons. The start of the 1994-1995 campaign was delayed until January 1995; the schedule was reduced from 84 games to 48. The players were again locked out in 2012. The planned 82-game schedule was reduced to 48 games.
1981 was notable for the players’ strike that lasted from June 12 to July 31; the campaign resumed on August 10. Due to the in-season strike, MLB made the decision to split the season into two halves; Opening Day to June 11; and August 10 to October 5. Accordingly, for each division there was a first-half winner and a second-half victor. On average, each team played 107 games in 1981.
The World Series was not played in 1994 due to a players’ strike, which started on August 11. The strike continued into 1995, which resulted in the playing of a 144-game schedule.
What is a credible number of regular-season games?
I will attempt to answer the question noted above by taking into account the following factors:
- The lowest percentage of standard regular-season games used by the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB when they were required to shorten their respective regular seasons
- The relationship between regular-season success and same-season championships
Table 1 summarizes the shortened seasons of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB for the 1979-2019 period. Of the four leagues, the NFL’s reduced schedule of 1982 translated into the league playing 56.3% of the games originally scheduled; that is the lowest percentage of any league presented.
Regular-season success and same-season championships vary between sports
In the task of determining how many games are needed for a MLB campaign to be considered legitimate, one must examine the historic relationship between success in the regular season and success in the playoffs. Table 2 is a presentation of a fairly simple analysis. It shows what the average regular-season ranking of teams that won a championship in the same campaign. The ranking is based upon winning percentage in the case of the NFL, NBA, and MLB; team points was used for the NHL. The conclusions are as follows:
- For the period when all four leagues had a least eight teams in their respective playoffs, the strongest connection between regular-season success and postseason success is in the NBA
- The weakest link between regular-season achievement and winning a championship in the same campaign occurs in the NHL
- The NFL and MLB lie between the NBA and the NHL in terms of the strength of the connection between regular season record and same-season championships
What does all this mean?
Let’s postulate that the primary objective is to determine what is the fewest number of games that would generate a list of postseason teams worthy of a championship. Therefore, the stronger the connection between regular-season success and postseason success would require a higher percentage of originally scheduled games that should be played in a shortened season compared to a league with a weaker connection.
Let’s further submit that the NBA got the formula correct in their 1998-1999 campaign when they played 61% of the originally scheduled games. Given that the NBA has the strongest connection between regular-season success and postseason achievement, 61% can be the upward bound for the MLB in 2020. That works out to be 99 games.
What should the lower bound be? I think the NHL is a good benchmark for two reasons. First, it plays 82 games like the NBA does so there is some symmetry there. Second, for most periods, the NHL has the weakest link between regular-season success and same-season championships. Accordingly, applying its 1994-1995 percentage of 57.1%, results in a lower bound of 93 MLB games in 2020.
Therefore, by this methodology, the number of 2020 MLB games should be between 93 and 99 games.
I have assumed that it is preferable if the 2020 regular season ends on a date that is near what has occurred in previous seasons. Using the 2015 campaign as an example, the season started on April 5 and ended on October 4. The April 5 season-start date works for this analysis because it is near the publication date of this article. Based on the 2015 season, the following dates should be noted:
- June 15 – 99 games remained on the schedule
- June 21 – 93 games were left to be played
- July 4 – 81 games remained on the schedule
I used the New York Yankees schedule for the analysis above because it is a good proxy of a team that plays in an open-air stadium that could be affected by inclement weather.
It is uncertain when or if the 2020 MLB season will start. Also, teams will need approximately 30 days to hold a mini-Spring Training before they should play a real game. Accordingly, because of likely governmental restrictions, I think that the goal of either a June 15 or a June 21 start-date cannot occur if Spring Training had to resume on May 15 or May 21. Therefore, it appears unlikely that MLB can start the season before July 1, which puts the season game total closer to 85 games, at most. Certainly MLB can extend the regular season past October 5, but then you either have to compress the postseason schedule (fewer days off) and/or push the World Series into November. The 2015 World Series started on October 27; if the World Series combatants are North Eastern teams, then one has to consider the integrity of World Series games that could be played in frigid November temperatures.
I think a minimum of 93 MLB regular season games is needed to provide a sufficient test to determine which teams should qualify for postseason play. Given that this is not a number cast in stone, there can be a little leeway. If forced to proclaim what the absolute minimum number of regular-season games should be, I would uncomfortably say 81 games. Anything less would tarnish the prestige of winning the 2020 World Series.
The last word
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected North American professional sports teams. Seasons have been interrupted or the planned starting date was delayed. If MLB can play in 2020, it has to implement a regular-season schedule with a meaningful number of games that would identify worthy World Series candidates. In my view, at a minimum, 81 games is needed but the closer that figure is to 90, the better.