Houston Astros: Why a short MLB season hurts their playoff odds

FanGraphs’ updated ZiPS projection shows that a shortened MLB season could actually hurt the Houston Astros.

A week ago, MLB announced its decision to delay the start of MLB’s 2020 season indefinitely following CDC recommendations that groups of people be limited to 50 or fewer for the next eight weeks. For the Houston Astros and a number of other teams, this could be bad news.

Right now, nobody knows when we’ll return to “normal” in the United States, nor is it possible to take a great guess about when MLB will schedule Opening Day. The best guess we can make right now is that we’re at least three months away, when you consider that a second “spring training” beginning no sooner than two months from now will need to include ample time for pitchers get back into proper shape to start the season.

We also know that MLB cannot push the end of the season back much further; it gets cold in the northern climates and can affect the health and outcome of games, too.

The Astros’ playoff odds

Knowing all that, Dan Szymborski, the father of the ZiPS projection system, ran models for MLB seasons shortened to 140, 110, and 81 games and published the results at FanGraphs. The Astros were originally projected to have an 84.1 percent chance of making the playoffs and 10.7 percent chance of winning the World Series. That gave them the third-best shot at taking hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy, behind the Dodgers (18.5 percent) and Yankees (12.7 percent).

Shortening the season to 140 games, a little more than three weeks’ of baseball less, the odds look much the same. Houston’s odds fell to 82.5 percent chance of making the playoffs and 10.4 percent chance of winning the championship.

Take another month’s worth of games away, the Astros’ odds dropped to 69.1 percent with 8.6 percent chance of a title. The Dodgers and Yankees still remained the only teams more favored, but their odds decreased by quite a bit, too.

If you take the season all the way down to 81 games, erasing an entire half of the baseball season (a depressing thought), the Astros’ playoffs odds fell to just 59.3 percent, for a drop of 24.8 percent from a full year. Again, the Dodgers and Yankees remain slightly more favored, but their overall chances were hit even more.

Why a shorter MLB season hurts the Astros, Dodgers, and Yankees

You might wonder why teams that should be considered all-but-locks suddenly have something to fear from a shorter season. Aren’t the athletes all the same?

The answer is that baseball is a sport that is always most predictable over the longest period of time. When a batter hits for a .600 average and four home runs in the first week of the year, we all joke that he’s on pace for a hundred home runs or more. We know that isn’t true though. We also know that his average isn’t going to look remotely the same at the end of the year.

You can think of an example pretty much any year where a team started off hot for the first month or two of the season, but began to lose steam as the year went on. Last year the Detroit Tigers were actually just one game under .500 in early May. They went on to finish 47-114. Everyone knew they were an awful team before the season, and that eventually caught up to them.

Teams like the Astros (or the Dodgers or Yankees) are built for the long haul. They can absorb a slump or two and be fine. They can absorb an injury or two without missing a beat. They’re good top to bottom. Over 162 games, their talent and deeper roster will have a chance to show through.

When you start to remove games, each slump, each injury becomes more important. A bad month can sink a team when there’s only about three month’s worth of games. Each game just becomes that much more important, and the “luck” that can happen doesn’t have a chance to even out.

A shorter season, like a shorter series, can offer all kinds of chaos. That might sound great for a team with nothing to lose, but it could be pretty costly for Houston.

But hey, it’s not all bad. At least Justin Verlander’s surgery came at the right time.