In a year where even an inch of progress seems to require monumental effort, MLB owners and players have finally cobbled together a regular season format. The unofficial official theme of 2020 — “unique circumstances” — will be a prominent part of baseball’s 60-game campaign.
There are multiple one-off provisions that have been put in place to accommodate the myriad of health and competitive concerns inherent in playing baseball during a worldwide pandemic.
For MLB bettors, these will have a near-universal impact – the strategy in everything from standard single-game moneyline wagers to player props to team-based futures could be altered to varying degree.
Here are five of the unique aspects of MLB’s “lighting-round” 60-game season that bettors should be most cognizant of:
Considerably shorter schedule
A season that is just over a third of the usual length has the potential to impact player performance in multiple ways:
- Clubs with above-average pitching and/or deep bullpens may well have an even greater advantage than usual. The old adage of pitchers being ahead of hitters early in a season could carry unprecedented weight in terms of team fortunes.
- Pitchers should have lively arms through the entirety of the season, barring injuries. However, the extremely choppy nature of regular season prep the last few months will likely lead to shorter-than-normal outings for starters their first couple of turns through the rotation.
- It’s also important to note bat speed and overall power — and not just pitching arms — can atrophy to an extent over a 162-game marathon. Once sluggers hit their stride during the short season, bats should remain quick and powerful for the duration.
- A 60-game schedule equates to considerably less room for managerial error. This may not only lead to fairly liberal personnel turnover, but more aggressive in-game strategies as well.
Even in a compact season where variance has a higher chance of rearing its head, betting on talent still shapes up as the most prudent path to take.
Multiple key injuries can naturally derail any team over any given period. That looms even larger this season with the persistent specter of possible COVID-19 infections. However, factors such as expanded rosters and exponentially larger player pools (more on that in the next section) help mitigate those types of disastrous scenarios. A shorter season also significantly reduces the cumulative opportunities for non-illness-related injuries.
Therefore, with a run of good health, the most loaded clubs should be in as good or even better position to fulfill expectations compared to a standard season. An already talented group of players that has the added benefit of a brisk 60-game slate arguably enjoys an elevated chance of maximizing its potential.
To accommodate teams, MLB will allow clubs to field 30-player active rosters for the first two weeks of the season; 28-player rosters for the subsequent two weeks; and 26 players for the remainder of the campaign, which is slated to end in late September.
There will also be a “taxi squad” of up to 30 additional players that will train off-site and be available for addition to the active roster.
Combined with the natural urgency of a much shorter season and a standard-sized postseason field, this significantly expanded player pool could have a few ramifications unique to 2020:
- Managers will have the luxury of robust bullpens that will allow them to keep starting pitchers’ workloads modest, especially early.
- The same flexibility extends to position players; slumping hitters aren’t likely to be cut much slack with a short season and more options than usual available.
- In turn, this could lead to a wider variety of pitching staff usage and lineup combinations that make advance scouting a less precise practice than customary.
Futures bets based on metrics such as pitchers’ win, innings pitched or strikeout totals could have considerably more volatility during the shortened season. For example, many starters may not even go a full five innings until their third or fourth start of the season. Likewise, the 60-game schedule magnifies the impact of a couple of hard-luck no-decisions or losses on pitchers’ projections. Conversely, a 162-game campaign is extensive enough to accommodate that type of variance.
Season-long prop bets for hitters should carry less risk overall. Yet as alluded to earlier, the razor-thin margin for losing streaks is going to likely see most managers wield a quick hook with slumping players. Notably expanded rosters over the first four weeks could also simply lead to more fluid lineups. Just a handful more days off than expected during a shortened season could wreak havoc on a wager based on statistics such as home runs or stolen bases.
There will be no “free squares” in the opposing lineup for National League teams and American League clubs playing in NL ballparks this season; the designated hitter is universally implemented for 2020.
The presence of another viable bat in the order can lower expectations for many NL pitchers in particular, both from a start-to-start and season-long perspective.
In turn, the offensive outlook brightens to an extent for each NL team. For some contenders, it could certainly make the difference between a division crown and wild card spot, for example.
This change should have a multi-pronged impact in the betting realm.
One of the biggest should be projected run totals for NL games. Those should see a boost across the board with pitchers out of the batting order. Another is season-long prop bets on wins and strikeouts for NL pitchers. These numbers should also take a slight tumble when factoring in more potent lineups league-wide.
Then, NL teams that happen to have at least a modest surplus of offensive talent and would have normally sacrificed a strong bat due to lack of a designated hitter now see their expectations brighten.
Already formidable clubs such as the Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers and defending-champion Nationals — which have the luxury of sliding in the likes of Avisail Garcia (or Ryan Braun), Matt Carpenter, A.J. Pollock and Howie Kendrick, respectively, into the DH slot — all carry the potential for higher game-to-game projected run totals and season win totals. Moreover, they could also see at least slightly improved odds on division, pennant and World Series futures than they would have without DH availability.
Extra inning rule
Every extra inning in 2020 will begin with a runner on second base. The aim is to reduce the chances of marathon contests that increase the risk of COVID infection.
Teams with more talented bullpens should once again have a heightened advantage — not only will each extra frame begin with pitchers in a jam, but the three-batter minimum rule for relievers slated to debut this season remains intact.
The primary ripple effect here from a betting perspective should be on game-to-game projected run totals.
The fact the odds of an extra-inning game being won on a two- or three-run homer, for example, go up with this rule means there’s likely to be a scoring uptick overall. Naturally, we could see some anomalies, especially with such a short season and what might well be a small overall sample of extra-inning games. Perhaps an inordinate amount of these contests end with the home-team pitcher getting out of the top of the 10th unscathed and his offense winning it in the home half of the frame with a single or double. Nevertheless, oddsmakers are likely to factor in the enhanced opportunity for offense into their totals.
A trend pertaining to extra-inning contests bettors may want to at least keep in mind — the Giants have been part of more of them than any team since 2017, including 16 in 2019. They led MLB last season with 0.17 extra-inning runs per game. The Pirates, participants in 18 games that went into extras in 2019, were second with 0.14 runs. Three more NL teams — the Padres (0.12 runs), Nationals (0.11 runs) and Braves (0.11 runs) — rounded out the top five.
Scheduling and travel
Each team’s 60-game slate will break down as follows:
- 10 games against each of their division opponents (total of 40 games).
- Six games against each team’s interleague rival in the corresponding geographic division.
- 14 games against the other four teams in the corresponding interleague geographic division.
This formula allows the AL East and NL East teams to never leave their time zone this coming regular season. Thus, none of the cross-country travel that can often lead to sluggish bats in the first couple of games during a West Coast road trip, for example. In the past, opposing pitchers have often taken on a bit of additional betting luster in those scenarios.
AL and NL West teams won’t be quite as fortunate. Their travel will encompass three time zones (West, Mountain and Central), although that still wipes out full cross-country jaunts for them as well. Additionally, with 102 fewer regular season contests to contend with, bodies should still be much more refreshed than they would be otherwise.
Given the aforementioned scheduling structure, certain teams will see their path to regular-season success made easier on paper.
According to Jayson Stark of The Athletic, the 2020 schedule format will favor the Twins and Indians the most when going by 2019 opponent won-loss records. Playing in an AL Central that also features the lowly Royals and Tigers, Minnesota and Cleveland will face just four teams that finished last season with a winning mark. Meanwhile, the Marlins, Orioles and Blue Jays, three squads already facing monumental odds heading into the campaign, have the thorniest road. They’ll encounter seven teams that finished above .500 in 2019.
The favorites to come out of each league and meet in the World Series are also in strong position.
Already favored to secure the AL pennant, the Yankees have the luxury of 20 total games against the Orioles and potentially displaced Blue Jays. That pair of teams went a combined 121-203 in 2019. In interleague play, they draw an NL East that includes a Marlins squad which won an NL-low 57 games last year.
Over in the NL, the Dodgers are in good shape as well. Presently slim favorites to win it all, L.A. saw division mates San Francisco, San Diego and Colorado each win 77 games or fewer in 2019. All three could similarly struggle this season, especially if the Rockies opt to part ways with star slugger Nolan Arenado at some point before the Aug. 31 trade deadline. Additionally, when the Dodgers face their AL divisional counterparts, they’ll have a crack at a rebuilding Mariners team that could well be a cellar dweller once again.