The Reasons a 50-Game MLB Season Is Both a Good and Bad Idea

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJune 7, 2020

The Reasons a 50-Game MLB Season Is Both a Good and Bad Idea

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    As Ken Rostenthal of The Athletic reported Saturday, negotiations between the players and owners to start the 2020 MLB season remain stalled.

    The previously proposed early-July start date is all but gone, Rosenthal noted, while a 50-60-game schedule beginning in August is possible. 

    On the plus side, that would mean actual Major League Baseball at some point relatively soon. We're in favor of that.

    But there would be many ramifications to such a truncated season. Let's examine some of the biggest ones—including the good and bad.

Watered-Down Stats and Milestones

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    In the marathon that is the typical 162-game MLB season, almost anything can happen over a 50-game stretch.

    It's easy to imagine several of the league's top hitters, such as the Milwaukee Brewers' Christian Yelich or Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout, going on a tear and hitting .400 or better. But would that count in the record books as the first .400 season since Ted Williams hit .406 for the Boston Red Sox in 1941?

    The same would apply to any other records or notable milestones in a non-counting-stats category. We'd essentially have to ignore them, or at least apply a huge asterisk.

    This would have been true even if the season was shortened to, say, 80 or 100 contests, but with a 50-to-60-game sprint, those numbers will be next to meaningless.

    That won't ruin the individual games and moments. But baseball, more than any other sport, is built around numbers, and accurately comparing 2020 stats to those from others years would be nearly impossible. 

    Impact on the game: Bad

Every Game Will Matter More, More Teams Might Contend

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    There is a rhythm to the 162-game slate that most baseball fans appreciate. That said, it can be tough to get excited about every midseason game.

    Sure, a win is a win and a loss is a loss. But when there are so many of both for even the best clubs, interest sometimes wanes.

    That wouldn't be true in a 50-game dash. Every contest would matter more and every series sweep would have the potential to dramatically shift the playoff picture.

    Purists may balk, but a shortened schedule would infuse baseball with more moment-to-moment urgency.

    Plus, more fringe contenders will have a realistic shot to make the postseason if they get hot even for a few weeks. That could be viewed as diluting the playoffs, but it will give legitimate hope to more fanbases.

    Impact on the game: Mostly good

A Weird Awards Situation

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    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    As with significant statistical milestones, it'll be tough to know how to contextualize the major regular-season awards.

    Let's say the New York Mets' Jacob deGrom wins a third straight National League Cy Young Award. He'd be the first pitcher to accomplish the feat since Randy Johnson won four straight Cy Youngs with the Arizona Diamondbacks between 1999 and 2002.

    But deGrom would likely do it in a mere 10 or 11 starts, meaning he could conceivably be a five-game-winning Cy Young winner. Even in an era when pitching wins don't mean as much, that just doesn't sound right.

    On the flip side, a shorter season could allow less-well-known players to vault into the major awards races. That could generate interest, but it will look strange in historical context if a relatively obscure guy rides one hot month to an MVP award.

    Impact on the game: Mostly bad

Expanded Rosters

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Most of the proposals for a shortened 2020 season have included expanded rosters, with teams possibly carrying 30 active players instead of the usual 25.

    In addition to providing teams with increased flexibility, it might make some clubs give top prospects a shot earlier than they'd planned.

    One example: San Francisco Giants catcher Joey Bart, who posted an .824 OPS between High-A and Double-A in 2019 but would probably have begun the 2020 campaign in the minors with veteran Buster Posey still ensconced behind the dish.

    With the opportunity to carry five additional players, the Giants could give Bart some big league action, which fans would surely love to see.

    Most teams have at least a few exciting youngsters in similar positions, and expanded rosters could get many of them to The Show sooner than later.

    Impact on the game: Mostly good

Lack of Starts by Star Pitchers

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    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    As mentioned, starting pitchers would take the hill only 10 or 11 times in a 50-game season. 

    Clubs could go with four-man rotations and try to squeeze an extra outing or two out of their top arms. But with such a protracted layoff since COVID-19 cut spring training short, starters will likely be on more stringent pitch-count restrictions, especially early on.

    That will have many implications. For fans, the worst one will be fewer opportunities to watch the game's top aces ply their trade. 

    We want to see more of world-class hurlers such as deGrom, the Washington Nationals' Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole in his first year with the New York Yankees. A 50-game schedule will give us a lot less of them all.

    Impact on the game: Bad

Financial Impact on Players

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    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    Predictably, most of the wrangling between players and owners has revolved around money. Specifically, how much of their salaries players will receive in a shortened season played in mostly empty stadiums.

    We won't know the particulars until—or unless—there's an agreement. But however it shakes out, there's no question a 50-game schedule would drastically impact the pocketbooks of everyone. That includes players making the league minimum and MLB's highest-paid stars, such as the Yankees' Cole.

    For the average fan, this feels like a tiresome dispute between millionaires and billionaires. It's tough to feel sorry for anyone getting paid richly to play a game.

    That said, this is the players' livelihood. It's not unreasonable of them to demand a fair shake and worry about all the money they'll lose with more than two-thirds of the season wiped out.

    Impact on the game: Bad for the players, mostly neutral for the fans

A Chance to Experiment with Lasting Changes

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    With normalcy out the window in a shortened 2020 season, everything could be on the table.

    That includes a universal designated hitter, a long-term change that seems inevitable despite the protests of NL diehards.

    The idea of expanded rosters could also last beyond 2020 if it proves successful.

    An expanded playoff format, with more wild cards and postseason rounds, might likewise become the new normal if it's implemented in 2020 and works out.

    Most significantly, MLB could look to shorten the schedule long-term. A 50-game season would be far too drastic for the reasons we've outlined, but shaving a handful of contests off the current 162-game grind might be an option, especially if it means more playoff baseball.

    Commissioner Rob Manfred has shown a willingness to alter the league in notable ways. Provided the owners and players can reach an agreement and play ball, 2020 could be a fertile testing ground for more changes to come.

    Impact on the game: Remains to be seen 

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