The proposal for finding a way to start the baseball season around the July All-Star break carried with it the potential of 80 or so games, or half a season.
One solution that has been brought forth is three 10-team divisions across both leagues, based on geography. From the Nationals’ point of view, that would mean playing all teams in the National League East and the American League East, plus Pittsburgh.
MASN broadcaster Bo Porter, a former big league manager, coach and player, likes the idea of baseball returning as long as everyone is placed into a safe environment. But he cautions that making huge changes to division alignments for the sake of convenience of travel could provide an unfair advantage for one team over others.
“Some form of baseball at this point is obviously going to be better than where we are at right now,” Porter said recently from his home in Houston. “My only concern is if you go too radical, what does that do for overall future of the game? A lot of times when you make adjustments like this - and we all kind of have the fear of the unknown - you don’t know what it’s going to reveal. You don’t know if it’s going to go great or if it’s going to be an absolute debacle.
“To me, if I was to have a vote here, I would say that if you are going to start the game and we are going to exercise this schedule then we should try to stay as close to normality as possible. Obviously, this season, this year, this pandemic will be a part of our history. But as we set out to make this decision, try to capture as much of our normal as we possibly can.”
Porter likes the idea of neutral sites for postseason games, similar to the National Football League and its Super Bowl venues.
But what will baseball be like if there are no fans in the stadium? Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman spoke last month about how important fans are to the games. Porter believes that having no fans in attendance will have a major impact on the players on the field.
“I think this may be one of the biggest topics that is not talked about enough,” Porter said. “We have all the analytics in the world, and analytics is great for our game. The one thing that analytics can never measure is what another man is thinking and feeling.
“I’ve been in these situations enough, I coached for the Florida Marlins when we played in Dolphins Stadium. I managed the Houston Astros to a straight rebuild where we had announced attendance of 10,000 people but you could look around and there was probably not 10,000 people sitting in the stadium. I also coached the Washington Nationals when we won the National League East and we played the Cardinals in the playoffs and there was a sold-out stadium and you couldn’t hear yourself think. That adrenalin flow or lack of excitement in a ballpark, players feed off of that.”
Some players will have no problems with empty stadiums.
“You are going to have the self-motivators,” Porter said. “Max Scherzer, he is living in a bottle. In his mind, there’s probably 50,000 people screaming. The next person may not have that ability. The next person may need the actual crowd in order to download that into his psyche. That dynamic will have a huge impact on the game.”
Having 50,000 fans breathing down their necks is all the motivation some players need to excel in high-leverage situations. But Porter also looked at the other side, saying that a quiet stadium might help other players to just play their game.
“When you think about performance, there are some players that, realistically, this will probably help because you know how they say ‘the moment got too big’ for some guys?” Porter said. “Normally when that happens, it’s because of all of the other elements surrounding the game. So you can eliminate that in some guys. We call it ‘white line fever’. That may go away for some guys. They may end up performing better.”
But fans are critical to the game. Porter said that having crowds at games is an important part of baseball, and when it is safe to have them return, they should be able to attend.
Porter also offered an alternative to a straight geographic solution to the schedule. He argues that if clubs in put into three 10-team divisions, some teams will have strength-of-schedule advantages over others.
“When you look around the game, we have been in the game long enough to identify teams that are positioned to win now and teams that are in transitional rebuilds,” Porter said. “I understand rebuilds better now because of my experience that I had in Houston and in Atlanta. I understand the global view of the organization.
“But when you are faced with unprecedented times, sometimes you do things that are unprecedented. Why not take a hardcore look at the league. Let’s just say you have ten teams that are simply in transition, they are in a rebuild. They did not invest heavily in the free agent market, and you say for this season, we are going to take (these) 10 teams and we are going to put you over here. You are going to play a competitive schedule against teams that are in similar position that you are.”
Then, Porter said, the other 20 teams that are built to win and trying to win would play against each other.
“If we were to go division by division, you can probably pick the 14 to 16 teams that literally have a legitimate chance, roster construction-wise and investment-wise to be in the postseason,” Porter said. “You can have a complete debacle, but for the most part, our ability to understand talent and understand what wins Major League Baseball games, you can take those 20 teams and put them in two divisions and have more competitive baseball with the teams that are built to win now, and it may be more exciting for the fans. The teams that come out of those two divisions, they are clearly the best teams.”
Porter said this scheduling solution prevents a potential playoff team from being locked into a division based on ease of travel and being forced to play four or five other playoff teams every day while another team gets to play five or six creampuffs and enjoys an easier road in 80 games to a postseason berth, untested.
“Now if you keep the regular structure of the six divisions, now no one can argue (unfair advantage) because it is the normal that we are used to,” Porter said. “But if you are going to exit the normal, to me you do something unprecedented and you try to award the teams that made a conscious decision last November to January as they constructed their roster, award those teams with opportunity to play for a World Series title, best against the best, throughout the abbreviated schedule.”
To maintain that fairness in a shortened season, it is still possible to play within your division for the final 76 games of the season at 19 games per opponent. For instance, the adjusted schedule can stay in the National League and try to keep everyone they play geographically close.
Porter said that any of these solutions to an abbreviated season are workable. He wants baseball to return regardless of the schedule, as long as it is in a safe environment for players, staff, workers and fans.