How do you solve a problem like a shortened season?

Depending on when the MLB gets the okay to start playing again, we could be at a point in the year where the numbers of days left means a severely shortened season. If we get to that stage, there are many options available to the MLB to try and complete as fair a as season as possible. In this piece I am going to go through some possible solutions they might take, some of which are much simpler than others. But first what are the possible timelines for MLB returning.

Back for June

This overly optimistic scenario has the teams back up and playing again by some point in June, I don’t believe this will be the case but if it did MLB would just run a shortened season with around 100-120 games being played being dependant on how much they want to mess with the postseason and the All-Star game.

If we lose June

If all games from March, April, May and June are lost there would be space for a normal schedule to do 80 odd games before the scheduled end of season date. With the addition of probably canning the All-Star break, pushing the postseason back and a few extra double headers MLB could probably engineer a schedule which had around 100 games in.

If they can get to 100 games, I suspect they would do as normal a season as possible. Teams would still qualify for the postseason in the standard method, but we may see the World Series in a neutral venue.

This is where the current online rumour mill is at with regards to the plans of MLB

If we lose July

This is where MLB will need to start to get creative. MLB would have 3.5 months, till mid-November (using some warm weather neutral venues), to play out a fair system to crown a champion.  I will call this scenario A and will refer to it as such going forward when I describe my potential solutions.

If we lose August

With only one traditional regular season month left MLB might just choose to call it quits and move to 2021. I also think, they could be inclined to run some tournament even if it wasn’t for the Commissioner’s Trophy but just to put the sport back in everyone’s memory. I will call this scenario B.

Potential Solutions

If we end up in either scenarios A or B MLB will have to get creative if they want to crown a champion fairly. Here are my suggestions on how this could be done.

Option 1 – Division only regular season games and a 12-team play-off

One of the main reasons the baseball season is so long is that we need that many games so the better teams can rise to the top and qualify for the postseason. But even though we play 162 games we still decided that the six teams who win their division qualify with only four spots going to teams which have good records but didn’t win their division.

This method removes all unnecessary regular season games and add in a few extra postseason ones to make sure it is fairer across leagues. With teams only playing their division rivals you can cut down a lot of regular season games to how ever little you require.

My 12-team play-off system would have the top two teams from each division qualifying with the first & second placed teams ranked (1-3 & 4-6) based on record. The top 2 teams would get a first-round bye and the others (3v6, 4v5) would play a 3-game series all at the team with the best record. The post season would continue as normal after this, just with the top ranked teams playing the lost ranked team that made it out of the previous round like the NFL.

For scenario A you could have 48 or 56 game regular season (six or seven home and away against each team) and the slightly expanded post season.

For scenario B you could maybe push for a 32-game season followed by the postseasons.

Option 2 – Knockout Tournament

This is slightly ludicrous but depending on how short the season is it could be a method MLB may have to go for. Effectively you need just five rounds of knock-out series to go from 30 teams to one. In round one, you give a bye to the two Divisional winners and then everyone else is seeded by last season’s record for both divisions. Seed two would play seed 15 and so on, e.g. the Dodgers would play the Marlins.

The length of each series is them dependant on the time available to play games, which means this is more suited to scenario B when the season has been severely shortened. A seven-game series with travel could be completed in nine days and if there is a day between the rounds this format could be completed in around 50 days.

Teams who lose will continue to play so that full rankings, for draft purposes, can be determined.

Option 3 – Double Elimination Tournament

Double elimination brackets are knockout tournaments which as the name suggests you must lose twice before you are eliminated from the competition. The main method of arranging a double-elimination tournament is to break the competitors into two sets of brackets, the winners (W) bracket and losers (L) bracket after the first round. The first-round winners proceed into the W bracket and the losers proceed into the L bracket. The W bracket is conducted in the same manner as a single-elimination (knockout) tournament, except that the losers of each round “drop down” into the L bracket.

This is generally considered fairer than single elimination when you are uncertain around the seedings which, based on my method of using last season some might be. The main con of this is that generally twice the number of games need to be played but if we are playing series, we could reduce the length of the second elimination games to save some time.

This is an example of a possible 15 team bracket and it takes eight or nine rounds, depending on if a team loses first for the first time in the final series and you replay it (some tournaments remove this so you have an actual final). Complete this for both leagues and this takes us to a “normal” World Series.

Ten seven-games series rounds with travel and a day’s rest in between would last around 70 days which actually achievable in the small time window of scenario B if we had a warmer weather neutral location for the World Series.

And as with the knockout tournament there would be additional games to rank the teams that were eliminated at the same stage to determine full rankings. One could spice things up here and make eliminated teams must win the games to get the higher draft picks to make sure the games aren’t dead.

Option 4 – Swiss-system tournament + Short Postseason

A Swiss-system tournament is a non-eliminating tournament format that features a set number of rounds of competition, but considerably fewer than that of a round-robin tournament. It is generally used when the number of competitors is large and that a traditional round-robin isn’t feasible. Now that wouldn’t normally be the case with MLB but with a shortened season it could work.

The first round is either drawn at random or seeded and then all participants then proceed to the next round in which winners are pitted against winners, losers are pitted against losers and so on. In subsequent rounds, each competitor faces an opponent with the same, or almost the same, cumulative score.

So, if everyone played six games in the first round and two teams won them 6-0 they would play each other in the next round as would those who lost all six. Teams who draw 3-3 would play others who drew 3-3. This continues till you have finished all the rounds of the tournament then the teams would be ranked on their record.

Determining who makes the play-offs is a bit more difficult in this method as I would personally just choose the top two from each division and have a championship series and a World Series. But you could do it so that the top team from each division qualifies and then the top two other teams have a wild card game.

This method is very flexible as the number of games played per round, the number of rounds played, and the format of the postseason can all be adjusted to fit into the timescale available.

So, there you have it. Those are my four suggestions for some non-normal MLB seasons. If we end up in scenario A my favourites are options one and four. For scenario B my picks would be three or four.

Logistically quite a few of the methods described may have teams not knowing where or when they are playing until a few days before it and while that is handled in the postseason well enough I am not certain how that will be handled if all 30 teams had to do it simultaneously. There is however one factor which could make this all easier. That’s the elephant in the room which I haven’t spoken about yet though, which is the prospect of these games being played behind closed doors.

Now the agreement between MLB and the MLBPA said that they would attempt to play in front of fans first before considering playing in empty stadiums. But if the MLB got the go ahead from the national government then this may become an option. What may occur is that on a federal level some states may not want games to go ahead and this may very well drive teams to play at their spring training facilities.

If that occurs then we could see some interesting decisions being made by MLB, could we have the first crowned Cactus and Grapefruit Divisional champions because logistically that would make much more sense than teams going to and from Arizona and Florida.

What are your thoughts, what interesting/crazy format would you like MLB to take up?

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