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Winners and losers: Who gets an easier World Series route if MLB schedule limits travel?

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The coronavirus pandemic is making travel all but prohibitively risky for now and the near future. Which means that even if Major League Baseball is able to clear the many, many hurdles ahead of starting a 2020 season, the league will minimize the long flights typical of a sports calendar by keeping regular season competition confined to regions — East, Central or West.

According to multiple reports on the league’s plan, a schedule of 78 to 82 games for the delayed 2020 season would consist only of division opponents and interleague opponents from the same geographical division. So each team would only face nine opponents.

We don’t have the precise machinations of how this regional schedule would work, but it’s clear it would amplify the effects of divisional imbalances, shaking up our understanding of postseason races and World Series chances.

An informed guess at the opponent breakdown of a 78-game season, put forth by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, involves 48 games against four division rivals (61.5 percent of the schedule) and the remaining 30 games against the five teams in the opposite league’s corresponding third. Suddenly, the strength or weakness of the two divisions your favorite team will face could be crucial.

There’s no illusion of a perfectly balanced competition or an egalitarian fair shake in any baseball season. Third place in the NL East (last year, the 86-win Mets) can and often does mean something entirely different than third place in the AL Central (the 72-win White Sox). But usually, each team plays each divisional opponent 19 times for a total of 76 games — about 47 percent of a 162-game slate. Then, 66 games are spread among the other 10 teams in the same league, and 20 more are interspersed against interleague rivals and rotating matchups. This shortened, regional schedule would create even more dramatic divisional differences.

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 20:  Mookie Betts #50 and Cody Bellinger #35 of the Los Angeles Dodgers look on during a workout after Photo Day on Thursday, February 20, 2020 at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Teams in either the AL or NL West would be stuck playing a greater percentage of their games against Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger and a stacked Dodgers lineup. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

So which teams suddenly have a rosier outlook to win the 2020 World Series, if it comes to pass? We asked Baseball Prospectus to use its PECOTA projection system to calculate a new strength of schedule for each team based on the regional scheduling proposal. That means taking the system’s existing projections of team strength and re-crunching the numbers based on who each team will face, and how many times, to get the projected winning percentage of each slate of opponents.

By comparing the offseason expectations and the new calculations, we can tell whose road to the title just got easier — and whose World Series odds might be undervalued — and whose road got harder.

Winners: Minnesota Twins

Playing fewer games makes baseball more prone to extremes. A half season is more likely than a full one to produce wild and unexpected results. Just since 1981, six teams have matched or beaten the 2001 Mariners record-setting 116-win pace over half seasons that didn’t stand alone like this one would. If this schedule takes effect, the Twins will get a boost toward ripping off an elite winning percentage. They experience the most dramatic shift from this idea, replacing a lot of games against the Houston Astros and New York Yankees with the moribund Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals.

FORT MYERS, FL- MARCH 11: Josh Donaldson #24 of the Minnesota Twins looks on and smiles during a spring training game between the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins on March 11, 2020 at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
Big ticket offseason addition Josh Donaldson already gave the Minnesota Twins a boost in their pursuit of a World Series berth. MLB's region-based schedule proposal could help even more. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Dodgers had the easiest schedule heading into the normal 162-game season, with a projected .485 opponent winning percentage (meaning their average opponent would be a 79-win team). Now, the AL Central favorite Minnesota Twins, projected to be the third-best AL team, would have the league’s smoothest path, with their regional schedule amounting to a .481 projected winning percentage.

It’s worth noting that any shortened season would normally hurt a favorite’s overall odds, but the weakness of the central divisions might counteract that effect at least partially, and put the Twins in the race for the league’s best record. That could be even more important in the context of a potentially altered postseason format. Right now, Minnesota’s +1600 World Series odds at BetMGM are much longer than those Yankees and Astros clubs who will likewise be vulnerable to more randomness, but without dramatically easier schedules.

Winners: The State of Ohio

As we established, fewer games also makes baseball more conducive to the underdog. Whether it be a short postseason series or a half season, talent gaps take longer than seven games — and often longer than 78 games — to manifest on the field. The 2018 Dodgers, who won the NL West and went to the World Series, would have faced a tiebreaker for the second wild card slot had the season ended after 78 games.

Enter the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians. Postseason entry and seeding will still be determined by records — because how else would it work? — and these teams will be better positioned to pad their records than the second-tier contenders in other regions.

Preseason PECOTA projections actually viewed the revamped Reds — who spent the offseason bolstering their lineup with free agent acquisitions Mike Moustakas and Nicholas Castellanos — as the slight favorites in the NL Central, but there is reasonable skepticism over their chances to top the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. The Indians, clear second fiddle to the Twins, were projected to wage a tight battle with the Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics for wild card entries.

The huge surge of winnable games against the AL Central, however, makes toppling division favorites less imperative for both clubs, as they will have a new edge over wild card rivals who will spend more of their time facing multiple juggernauts instead of just one.

Losers: Texas Rangers

Speaking of teams that have to face multiple juggernauts: Spare a thought for the Rangers. After swinging a coup of a trade for former Cy Young winner Corey Kluber in a potential bounceback year, Texas had hopes of a darkhorse run at a wild card.

A shortened season without the regional scheduling idea … may have benefited them more than any other team, according to ZiPS at FanGraphs. But playing only AL and NL West teams puts them in a tough spot. Whatever boost they get from the equalizing randomness of a 78-game slate, they probably lose from heavier doses of games against the Astros and the addition of the loaded Dodgers. Plus, a swath of games against the underbelly of the AL is largely replaced with more competition from worthy division rivals like the A’s, and competent NL contenders like the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Losers: Washington Nationals

This, truthfully, could be any of the four teams pouring money into vying for the NL East. It was already going to be a bruising scrum, but ratcheting up the number of divisional games could make it a demolition derby.

At least one of these four contending clubs — between the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and defending champion Nationals — will make the postseason, but the elevated competition could mean lesser teams in easier divisions wind up with better records and perhaps even prevent the division from launching multiple October (or November) bids. The Nationals — who carry uncertainty in the infield after Anthony Rendon departed for the Angels, and questions in an ever-worrisome bullpen — were projected to finish second by PECOTA in the preseason, but see the greatest increase in strength of schedule of any eastern team in the regional plan.

Defending the crown is hard to begin with, and this won’t help.

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