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BenFred: Would shortened season help or hurt Cards' postseason chances? One model suggests the latter

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Cardinals v Cubs

Center fielder Harrison Bader leaps into the pile of Cardinals as they celebrate a season-ending victory over the Chicago Cubs that clinched the National League Central Division title. Photo by Christian Gooden,

Now that everybody and their brother has predicted when Major League Baseball will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic to begin playing games again, what are we supposed to debate?

(My guestimated start date before I headed home from a canceled spring training was July 4, without fans. My confidence in that guestimate: Zero percent. Until we actually get baseball back, that guessing game is settled. Someone will be right, probably those who figured baseball will be on the bench for a long while.)

The sharp minds in the sports department of The Wall Street Journal hatched a more complex topic to think about while we wait: Which clubs would be hurt and helped by a shortened season?

An article titled, "A Shortened MLB Season Would Give Underdogs a Shot," caught my attention over the weekend.

WSJ writer Andrew Beaton and numbers cruncher Conrad De Peuter combined forces to simulate thousands of shortened seasons, starting with different start dates, to attempt to predict how the coronavirus pause would affect the postseason crowd.

The simulations began with March 26, what would have been opening day, and progressed by two-week intervals until August.

"In the simulation, the strength of each team was determined by metrics on FanGraphs, the popular baseball data website," reads Beaton's explanation. "The probability for each game was determined by the proportion of total team strength between the two teams, and the schedule was determined by taking the expected number of games in a shortened season and randomly sampling that many games from a full season. Then each season was simulated 10,000 times, each simulation beginning two weeks after the next"


"Tens of thousands of simulations showed that, as the season shrinks, the best teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees see their chances plummet. Wild-card contenders like the St. Louis Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays see their chances slide. Meanwhile, teams that really have no business playing playoff baseball in a 162-game campaign — such as the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres — suddenly have a chance."

Fans of the rebuilt White Sox probably disagree with that assessment.

Fans of the Dodgers will not like to hear that the model projected their team's chances of making the playoffs falling from 93.5 percent on what would have been the original opening day, to 66 percent on a start date of August 13.

Fans of the Rangers who are missing baseball today might like to hear their chance of making the postseason, per the model, jumped up 18 percentage points during that same span.

I was most curious about what the simulations said about the Redbirds.

Beaton was kind enough to pass along more details via email.

The WSJ simulations figured the Cardinals' chances of making the 2020 postseason would have started at 58.31 percent if the season would have started on time. Those chances, per the simulations, drop steadily the longer the season waits to start, falling to 46.66 percent if the new opening day arrives on August 13. That's a decrease of nearly 12 percent. Here's a closer look, by potential start date.

March 26: 58.31 percent

April 9: 57.33 percent

April 23: 56.31 percent 

May 7: 54.07 percent

May 21: 53.61

June 4: 51.77 percent

June 18: 51.16 percent

July 2: 50.17 percent

July 16: 49.72 percent

July 30: 47.53 percent

August 13: 46.66 percent

The big-picture takeaway of the simulations makes a ton of sense. The shorter the season, the more room for randomness. If the heavyweights don't have as many rounds, they take a small step back, while the teams on the outside looking in take a step forward. The result is a crowded middle. More potential contenders. This would add newcomers to the Cardinals' claimed turf in the land of middle contenders.

There is one thing I think the simulations could have underestimated. Pitching, post-pandemic. It's probably worth treating that as a weighted category, because of the unique stress that will be put on arms if baseball returns in an altered form in 2020. The Cardinals' biggest strength is their pitching depth. Expanded rosters due to more doubleheaders could increase the club's ability to leverage that strength. Beyond that, the Cardinals are better positioned than many of their competitors to overcome some of the unfortunate yet predictable pitching injuries that will attack the league due to such a chaotic spring and season, whatever it winds up looking like, if it winds up happening at all.

The Cardinals are not a favorite. They're not a nobody, either. They are annual middle-ish contenders, and that spot could be more crowded than ever before in a shortened 2020 season.

They better pitch their way out of it.

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