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Don’t Overthink the 2020 Season

by Lincoln Mitchell July 21, 2020

The Yankees, and the 29 other teams, are about to embark upon a season that is without precedent. No season since professional baseball began to resemble its current form has been this short, started this late, been debated this much and occurred in the shadow of a pandemic quite like this one. Given this, it is no surprise that there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding this season. Most obviously, there is no guarantee that the season will be completed. There is also the possibility that some players will get sick or decide at some point that the risk of continuing to play is too great. However, as fans we are not going to be involved in those decisions, so we should try to enjoy the season and root for the Yankees.

The 60 game schedule, strange spring training, Covid related health protocols and larger roster sizes give this year a very different feel than other seasons. There has been much discussion about how teams will and should handle this. For example, the extended rosters makes it possible to either use more openers, or use some kind of a tandem rotation where two pitchers are the primary pitchers for each game, but it is also possible that the shorter season means that pitchers will put less stress on their arms as, even if their team plays deep into the postseason, they will not throw too many pitches. For example, last year Gerrit Cole, the newly acquired ace of the Yankees staff, threw a total of 3,913 pitches including 3,362 in the regular season. This year, Cole will most likely make 12 regular season starts, perhaps 13 at the most. If he then makes seven post-season starts, two in each of the first two rounds and three in the World Series, he will make a total of 20 starts. Even if he averages 115 pitches per start, which is more than he did last year, he would still only throw 2,300 pitches, meaning he might have a lot more gas left in the tank than starting pitchers usually do in late October. This basic math is true of all ace starting pitchers, so that might give the postseason a different feel.

It is undoubtedly true that season will be different, but we should be careful about stressing that too much. Ultimately it is still baseball, and these are still the Yankees. If Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres are healthy for sixty games and if two of the Tanaka-Cole-Paxton group are as well, they will be fine. If not, it may become a long short season. The main way the short season will effect strategy is that every game matters more. One way to think about this is that in a 60 game season, each individual game means as much as 2.7 games in 162 game season. Thus, a three game winning or losing streak this year is equal to an eight game streak in most years. Similarly, an early lead or deficit of even five games in the standings will be more difficult to make up than in most years, so teams cannot wait quite as long to see what is working and to change what is not.

The shorter season also means that an injury or illness can have a particularly devastating effect, but the larger roster means that the teams will have more ability to adapt. For example, DJ LeMahieu may miss part of the season due to a positive Covid test. While we hope he is largely asymptomatic and recovers quickly, there is no guarantee of that, so the Yankees may have to rely on Thairo Estrada, Matt Duffy and Tyler Wade at second base. However, with 30 players at the beginning of the season, Aaron Boone will be able to more easily pinch hit for these weak hitting middle infielders.

Covid remains a major health threat particularly as we do not know if players who test positive will remain asymptomatic or if they will fully recover even from mild symptoms. Although limiting the spread of Covid is an enormous challenge for MLB, and every other aspect of society, a player testing positive can be understood as another injury. All baseball fans, particularly Yankees fans who are old enough to remember last year, know that injuries are common and unpredictable.

My intention is not to minimize the threat or danger raised by pandemic, or even to weigh in regarding the decision to play the short season. Rather, it is to suggest that from a strategic and managerial perspectives, the season is not quite as strange as it seems at first glance. However, while the strategic impact of the short season may be overstated and on the field the game will largely be the same, the larger climate will create stress, concern and uncertainty that we have never seen during a baseball season. Managing around that will be the real challenge for Aaron Boone.

Photo: cc/John Seb Barber


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