Bob Nightengale of the USA Today reported recently that one of MLB’s ideas to salvage the 2020 season included realigning the leagues and divisions to enable games to only be played in Florida and Arizona, where Spring Training takes place. In this plan, which has not been approved and is just one of many being considered, the American League and National Leagues would be temporarily replaced by the Grapefruit League and Cactus League. This would be done primarily to minimize travel and associated risks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while taking advantage of the existing Spring Training stadiums and infrastructure to host the teams and their games in a shortened season.
For the Twins, gone would be the traditional AL Central division and associated rivalry games with the Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, and Chicago White Sox. In their place would be the Grapefruit League South division, made up of our Twins, the Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, and Baltimore Orioles. In the proposal, the season would consist of 108 games instead of the usual 162. Those 108 would include twelve games against each divisional opponent, and six games against the rest of the Grapefruit League. It also seems that both leagues would implement the designated hitter and there would be no interleague play. It is not clear what the playoff format might be, but it could be structured in a way that would allow for the traditional division winners and wild cards format. It would be different, and it would be untraditional, but it would be baseball. At this point, I think most of us would take baseball. But how might this version of baseball impact that Twins’ outlook for the 2020 season?
When we dug into what the projection systems thought about the 2020 season, we saw that ZiPS was projecting the Twins to win the Central division by four games over Cleveland, with a projected 91-71 record.
The combined projected winning percentage for this division was 0.485, with only Minnesota and Cleveland having at least a coin flip’s chance at qualifying for the playoffs.
According to ZiPS’ projections, two of the other four teams in the proposed Grapefruit League South are clearly playoff contenders – Atlanta (90-72, 66.6% to make playoffs) and Tampa Bay (91-71, 71.5% to make playoffs). Prior to the season, Boston – despite their offvseason salary shedding – was also projected to be better than .500 at 85-77. Only Baltimore, projected to have the worst record in baseball, was not expected to at least be competitive in 2020. Here’s what it looks like when you group the ZiPS projected records together as a division:
Using these projections, this new proposed division is better than the AL Central. You can see there in the table the combined winning percentage of this group is 0.512, even when including Baltimore’s projected 104 losses. That breaks down to 22 more projected wins than the AL Central group. The Twins, Rays, and Braves are separated only by 1 game, and Boston is only 5 games behind Atlanta.
Now there are caveats that apply and should be noted. The projected standings were developed based on simulations of the original 2020 schedule. So just re-organizing the teams will not mean their win-loss projections would remain the same. But for the purposes of this analysis, it’s a simple way to compare and give us a sense of how things might change for the Twins.
I also did this exercise for the remaining re-aligned divisions. Only the proposed Grapefruit League East with Houston, Washington, New York Mets, St. Louis, and Miami and the Cactus League West with Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland, Chicago White Sox, and Los Angeles Angels project to have higher combined winning percentages. However, those divisions don’t project to have nearly as tight of races overall. The Dodgers project to win the Cactus League West by 14 games over Cleveland, and Houston projects to win the Grapefruit League East by 4 games over Washington. Overall, the Grapefruit League (.505 projected winning percentage) projects to be stronger than the Cactus League (.493 projected winning percentage).
There are other ways to look at this to try to figure out what the impacts might be. Bill James, one of the analytics forefathers, came up with a formula for estimating a team’s win-loss percentage based on the team’s runs scored and runs allowed. Before you run off in fear that some complicated math is ahead, let me assure you this is both simple and tested over time. James’ formula has come to be known as Pythagorean Win-Loss and is shown as:
Many analyses over time have shown the actual results of season fit to this simple equation quite well. Although the exponent may vary slightly above and below 2 in a given year, it’s a good place to start.
Luckily for us, Fangraphs makes a projection of each teams’ expected runs scored and runs allowed, which we can use with the above formula to make our own projection of how the proposed realigned division might shake out. This is a better approach than what I did above with the ZiPS projected standings.
Fangraphs, using a combination of projections from ZiPS and Steamer and expected depth charts, projects the Twins to score 5.46 runs per game and allow 4.96 runs per game in 2020. We can take these numbers and extrapolate them to a 162-game season to estimate the total number of runs scored and runs allowed. Then we can plug those figures into the formula above to estimate winning percentage. For our Twins, that turns out an estimated 0.548 winning percentage which equates to approximately 89 wins in a full season. We can then adjust that down to the proposed 108 game season, and develop the below projection of the division:
Using this method, in the realigned division the Rays are one game better than the Twins, who are about one game better than the Braves. For the Twins, this is a reasonably big change from what we expected from the AL Central. With the impact of luck, unpredictability of injuries, and the larger impact of small sample size randomness in a shortened season – this proposed division promises to be very interesting and closely contested. And, it appears to have negative impacts on Minnesota’s chances in 2020. But these are just projections – let’s hope we get to see it played out on the field.