Professional sports are tabled indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic and if they resume in 2020, it will likely be with limited travel and possibly without fans at all. Major League Baseball has delayed the start of its season indefinitely and the best-case scenario is likely to start an abbreviated season in June that would run to November in nearly complete isolation.
How would this work? This article details some of the logistics behind a shortened MLB season to be held in Arizona or potentially in host cities without fans. Plus, we look at the betting impact at sportsbooks.
What would a shortened MLB season look like?
There are a couple of hypothetical plans in place and as of April 28, the most likely scenario would be to bring all 30 MLB teams and personnel to hotels in the Phoenix area and keep them in isolation while they play a shortened season at Chase Field, various colleges, and at the 10 spring training facilities in the area.
The logistical problems are manifold, beginning with how to test all players and support personnel (hotel workers, broadcast crew, grounds crew, etc) for COVID-19 before beginning an extended period of joined isolation. The MLB Players Union might have to sign off on a proposal for the players and managers to isolate from their families for several months, but with nearly 10,000 people likely involved with the logistics already, that could be a necessary sacrifice.
So, let’s say there is widespread testing available and government support in place to keep this small city fed, functioning and isolated. If that’s all possible, MLB could create a contained environment in Arizona to play baseball without travel.
In late April, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported a new scenario that could allow teams to stay at their in-season homes with their families and play more of a traditional MLB schedule.
The latest scenario
Major League Baseball officials admit there are still several hurdles to clear for public health officials to clear their optimistic plan, but the hope is for a 100-game MLB season to begin no later than July 2.
The preliminary plan would divide the 30 MLB teams into three divisions based on geography and teams would play all 100 games within those geographic divisions, possibly to avoid air travel and contain team environments with bus travel.
Games would almost certainly be played without fans, but there could be an expanded postseason following the regular season. Teams would reportedly have two to three weeks of spring training in Arizona or Florida prior to the season openers.
Here is a breakdown of those theoretical divisions:
- New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Rays, Miami Marlins
- Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers
- Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros
This realignment would keep most of the traditional divisions intact while providing opportunities for interleague opponents to reignite old rivalries. Imagine the Yankees and Mets playing for the top spot in the East in September, or the Dodgers and Astros coming to blows during their first series in August.
More importantly, this scenario could have the backing of both players and owners, who would have to negotiate on how to split the revenue from broadcasts. There were some high-profile names protesting the Arizona scenario, including Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, so perhaps this re-alignment would be a working compromise.
If MLB re-aligns in this fashion, sportsbooks will have to adjust their MLB futures page and open markets for East, Central, and West overall winners.
“We would certainly have to take a look at the [MLB] Futures market and make the appropriate changes,” DraftKings Head of Sportsbook Johnny Avello said.
Originally, there was consideration for two separate “baseball cities” in Arizona and Florida and the re-alignment of the A.L. and N.L. into the spring training divisions known as the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues.
Here is a quick breakdown of how that would look:
- NORTH: New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates
- SOUTH: Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles
- EAST: Washington Nationals, Houston Astros, New York Mets, St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins
- NORTHEAST: Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Oakland Athletics
- WEST: Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels
- NORTHWEST: Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals
There would be significant betting implications if leagues were realigned in this fashion. There could also be key rule adjustments, such as the implementation of a universal DH and the use of an electronic strike zone to keep umpires away from home plate.
This alignment would keep the top World Series Favorites apart with the Dodgers (+375 at DraftKings Sportsbook) in the Cactus and the Yankees (+400) in the Grapefruit. At first glance, the Dodgers would seem to have an easier road to the championship with the Astros (+550), Braves (+1200), Nationals (+1600), Twins (+1800), Phillies (+2000), and Cardinals (+2000) all in the Grapefruit. The next favorite in the Cactus League would be the Cubs (+2500).
Some of the divisions in the Grapefruit are simply stacked. Imagine the Red Sox, Twins, Braves, and Rays battling for supremacy while beating up on the lowly Orioles. The Nationals, Astros, Mets, and Cardinals would also form a logjam in the East.
According to simulations run by FanGraphs, the Yankees would still win the Grapefruit with the Astros, Rays, Twins, Braves, and Nationals all close behind. The Dodgers would win the Cactus by a comfortable nine games with the Indians, A’s, Padres, Cubs, and Brewers coming in as runners-up.
FanGraphs also provides a useful table showing the difference in playoff odds for teams in the Grapefruit/Cactus versus the AL/NL format. The Padres would see an 8.6% jump in odds with teams like the Angels (7.6% increase) also seeing a boost by getting separated from a powerhouse division.
Teams like the Cardinals, Twins, Braves, Astros, and Nationals would see a marked decrease in playoff odds by getting thrown into tougher leagues.
The betting impact
At most books, Season Win Totals have already been refunded and the market has been changed to Season Win Percentage. Other futures markets like Home Run Totals have been refunded and then taken off the board until a plan of action is confirmed by the league.
Most futures markets, though, have seen little movement. That could change as soon as the league announces a decision.
DraftKings Head of Sportsbook Johnny Avello recognized that MLB futures bets on his site would have to be completely re-organized if MLB resumes with new leagues. While World Series odds would remain intact, bets on League and Division winners would be refunded.
If a shortened season is announced, player futures (such as MVP and Cy Young awards) would remain intact as long they don’t have a stipulation regarding the amount of games played or playing at neutral sites.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and this is certainly unexplored territory for me,” said Avello. “This is a total adjustment and we’re going to have to initially make changes and then we’re going to have to adjust on a daily basis as we move forward.”
Avello also pointed out that losing a true home field advantage and other rule changes could weaken the prospects of consensus favorites such as the Dodgers, Yankees, and Astros.
The Arizona scenario
If all 30 teams are slated to stay in Arizona throughout the season (the more likely scenario), MLB would likely maintain its usual alignment with divisions and leagues.
Ken Rosenthal reported that MLBPA officials are discussing rosters of around 50 players to account for injuries and performance-related promotions, so some minor leaguers would also be in isolation waiting for a chance.
The weather in Arizona during the summer would force teams to play almost all games at night, with Chase Field serving as one of the few domed locations that could hold doubleheaders during a 100-degree day. Some of those doubleheaders could be seven innings long to ensure timeliness.
Games played without crowds could have a completely different feel. The White Sox and Orioles played the only crowdless game in MLB history in April of 2015 due to civil unrest in the area, and starting pitcher Chris Sale said the game played much faster.
Teams with deeper pitching staffs would likely have an advantage in a shortened schedule, and seven-inning games would allow powerhouse bullpens to dominate. National League teams with stud hitters on their bench would see an immediate boost if a universal DH is implemented in the Arizona scenario. Organizations that lean more heavily on advanced metrics would almost assuredly have an advantage if there is an electronic strike zone and any other measures that might make the game more consistent.
We would consider those aspects heavily when considering MLB futures bets and game lines if the Arizona scenario ever gets cleared for planning. As of mid-April, DraftKings and FanDuel Sportsbook are still offering team and player futures along the traditional A.L.-N.L. alignments, but those bets could be refunded or adjusted depending on the parameters of a shortened season.
According to the Arizona Republic, state Governor Doug Ducey has had discussions with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and is “open to the idea” of hosting all 30 teams “at the time it would be appropriate for public health”
Stay up to date with developments on a potential MLB season by checking back to TheLines. We will promptly update if one of the above scenarios becomes a reality.