To complete this season, MLB has needed an algorithm and Alvin Ailey’s spirit. Scheduling could not be done in 2020 without a computer and choreography.
What already was going to be difficult — shoehorning 60 games into 66 days — had the degree of difficulty intensified by games postponed due to coronavirus cases, social justice protests and extreme weather conditions. In a 162-game season, there are roughly 30 doubleheaders. The three scheduled on Monday made it 44 already this year with 10 (and probably an 11th) still on the docket.
MLB also was near finalizing postseason plans in which eight series will be played in the higher seed’s home park before the NL playoffs shift to Texas and the AL to Southern California, culminating in a World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
Yet with all the one-two, cha-cha-cha needed to play this season, the postseason that MLB would choreograph if it could was still viable:
1. The Astros don’t make it.
2. The five teams that have gone the longest without reaching the postseason get in.
3. The Dodgers and Yankees play in the World Series.
Let’s take them one at a time:
1. The Astros have lost nine of 11 to fall under .500 (23-24). Houston has dealt with tons of injuries, particularly to its rotation, and its offense has an OPS 118 points lower than last year (.848 to .730). If your first thought was that it is harder to hit when you don’t know what is coming, then you know why MLB would just as soon not have to deal with this storyline in October.
In a time of physical distancing, does the sport really want the jokes about who is going to frisk Astros players to check for buzzers? In an empty stadium, you would really hear the bang of a garbage can.
That said, 10 of Houston’s final 13 games are against the last-place Diamondbacks and Rangers. Plus Justin Verlander, who has not started since Opening Day due to a forearm injury, has been throwing and could make it back for the postseason. So tell all the Astros jokes you want, but would any team want to face a pedigreed playoff team with Verlander in Game 1? So I bet beyond the MLB offices, there also are a lot of AL playoff clubs rooting for the Mariners to pass them.
2. Besides Arizona and Texas, the other three games left on Houston’s schedule are three at Seattle — and who in February saw those being huge? The Mariners went into a doubleheader Monday vs. the A’s just 1½ games behind the Astros for second in the AL West and an automatic bid. The third-place team almost certainly will not get in.
The Mariners have not made the playoffs since 2001 (the longest drought in the four major North American team sports). The next four longest would be in if the playoffs began today: the Marlins (out since 2003), Padres (2006), White Sox (2008) and Phillies (2011).
The White Sox were the AL’s top seed and the Padres were only 2½ games behind the NL top-seeded Dodgers, who are beginning a three-game series in San Diego on Monday.
Any sport loves when teams that haven’t been in the postseason for a while return as a way to rekindle a fan base. That makes the lack of spectators this year even sadder. It would have been particularly fascinating to see if the Marlins would have been able to generate crowds after being last in the NL in attendance every year since 2013 and under 1 million fans each of the last two years.
3. No one at MLB would admit this publicly, but the officials love a good underdog story. You know what they love better: the two biggest markets giving Fox exactly the World Series it would want to sell. That would be Dodgers-Yankees. The two mega-teams. Representing the two coasts. Enormous fan bases, history and star power. The Dodgers are without a title since 1988, the Yankees since 2009 — since it is the Yankees, that is counted like dog years.
The Dodgers are the team to beat, but the crapshoot element of the playoffs becomes more so with a best-of-three to open. Right now, the Dodgers would have to play the Giants in that round. Even with all the history between those teams, Los Angeles is fine with that matchup. You know whom I bet the Dodgers wouldn’t want to see? The other New York team. With everything wrong with the Mets, they could have Jacob deGrom and Seth Lugo positioned to try to win two of three games plus a lineup that — while frustrating — is deep.
The Mets, though, were 21-26 with perhaps a one-in-four chance to make the playoffs. The Yankees, conversely, had righted themselves to go to 26-21 and return to pretty much 100 percent to get in.
The Yankee starting pitching has looked its best all year and their long injury list is starting to empty back out on the active roster. The Yankees would probably prefer not to see any version of the Astros in the playoffs, having been eliminated by them three times in the previous five years.
But there remains a reasonable chance the Yankees could get the Twins in the first round and we will see what that means in 2020 and a pandemic year. Minnesota has lost 16 straight playoff games, 13 to the Yankees, who have eliminated the Twins from the playoffs six times since the turn of the century.
Will the choreography produce a seventh playoff matchup between those clubs?