You don’t have to consult a mathematician to know that 60 games is significantly less than 162. Nor is a numerologist necessary to determine the shorter season behaves a lot differently than a longer schedule. How? Well, 2020 would/should have been my 13th season as a broadcaster in Rookie-level short-season Minor League Baseball, where seasons last no longer than 76 games. If you’re wondering what to look out for during a two-month sprint, allow me to offer some insight.
1. You can’t win a playoff spot in the first two weeks, but you can lose it.
A Rookie-league team that sputters through the first 15 or so games will wind up playing out the string. There just aren’t enough games to make up for a slow start. On the other hand, a good start (while guaranteeing nothing) that puts a team at or above .500 at the one-third mark and puts them (cliché alert!) in a position to contend in the final four weeks.
2. Are your starting pitchers giving you the innings you need?
In low-level, short-season leagues starters are usually limited to 5-6 innings. That’s to spare young arms, with player development emphasized over winning now.
There won’t be that exact same concern in MLB, of course, but pitchers are coming off a layoff of 8-9 months and have just three weeks to get into form. Starters may be put on strict pitch-count limits, especially in the first half of the season, so those that make the most of their pitches and work deep into games will provide great value to their teams.
3. How good’s your bullpen?
Teams in player development leagues carry more players on their rosters than in The Show, to give as many players as possible a chance to play. For example, the Appalachian League (my old stomping grounds), allows 30 players to dress for any given game, and usually at least 15 are pitchers. Once the season starts it doesn’t take long for a bullpen to sort itself out; the pecking order can make itself clear in as little as a week. You’ll know who can get outs and who can’t.
But, in a player development league, even the worst relievers are going to get regular work. If the back-of-the-back-end guys can minimize the damage of their bad outings and ease the burden on the top arms, the entire pitching staff benefits and will have more in the tank for the stretch run.
4. It’s still a grind.
The Appy League regular season of 68 games is barely over 40% of an MLB schedule. But it can still become demanding. Players on Rookie-league teams have been hard at work for months well before the season starts – either in their final college or high school seasons, or at extended spring training, where some players report as early as March 1. There are dog days in short-season ball.
The upcoming MLB season won’t be exactly like that, with the extra-long off-season and shortened spring training, but teams and players will still run into a wall. How they push through will make or break a season.
5. Enjoy the statistical flukes. They’ll make a difference.
One of the fun parts of the early stretch of a typical baseball season is seeing who gets off to ridiculous starts. Will someone be hitting .400 after the first month? Hit 10 home runs in the first eight games? Which pitcher wins his first five starts with a microscopic ERA/OBA/RAA/FIP/WHIP/RAA?
In a short season, a hot start puts teams in a position to contend (and gets guys promoted). Conversely, the long MLB season mandates that hot starts invariably cool – but that doesn’t apply this year. Guys who pull partial career years out of their you-know-whats can lift expected back-markers to the front.
6. Who emerges from the woodwork?
In Rookie ball, high draft picks and big-money signings play nearly every day, about 5-6 out of every seven games. Low-round picks and free agents get much less playing time – maybe once or twice a week. It’s difficult for them to play their way into a regular spot. But as a season goes along, injuries can happen or top prospects can fade, opening the door for a lesser-known players. Previously unknown guys can make a huge difference.
Like Connor Hollis. Signed as a non-drafted free agent 2018 after the Appy League season started, he was assigned to Princeton and slashed .365/.469/.553, winning the batting title and helping the P-Rays reach the league championship series.
Or Carter Burgess. Drafted in the 28th round in 2014, he hit .270 for Princeton over the first two months of the season. But he caught fire in August, slashing .371/.397/.500 as the Rays won at a .655 clip to take their first East Division championship in 16 years. (He’s more widely known for this, however.)
Short seasons are just different. Then again, so is 2020.