Earlier this week, I wrote about how the upcoming, shortened MLB season is a sprint, not a marathon. That post revolved around the potential for unusual record chases, but it had me thinking about the structure of the 60-game season overall. Specifically, does depth become more, or less, important?
The 2019 Yankees were only successful because of their depth. A historic rash of injuries sidelined most of the team’s best players, and the 103-win season was possible because of Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Cameron Maybin and others we never would have expected to contribute. But of course, the Yankees played 162 games.
Once you go to the playoffs, depth becomes significantly less important. You don’t need your fifth or sixth starter, because they’re not making starts. Fewer games overall means you don’t need to give guys days off - it wouldn’t strike us as odd if Aaron Judge got a random Sunday in August off, but Game Three of the ALDS? No chance.
The more games you play, the more important your depth becomes, because you’re increasing the chance of That’s Baseball, Suzyn randomness. Depth is more important for getting into the playoffs, but star power in the postseason counts more. Howie Kendrick may hit the World Series-winning home run, but the pitching prowess of Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and an earlier dinger from Anthony Rendon all came before Kendrick had the opportunity to make an impact.
So where does that leave us with a 60-game season?
On the pro-depth side, COVID-19 casts a huge shadow over the entirety of the season. Players are already opting out of the year entirely, forcing teams to make decisions about just who gets that now-open roster spot. And then there’s the question of a player testing positive for the virus in the middle of the season:
Phillies pitcher Cole Irvin said he believes catching COVID-19 would cost a pitcher six weeks: two weeks of quarantine, two weeks of playing catch, and two weeks of bullpen work.— Matt Breen (@matt_breen) July 4, 2020
I’m inclined to believe a professional pitcher’s evaluation of how they would get back into game shape, but even if you think that six weeks is the upper bound of time missed, each game lost to illness or injury is proportionally more important. Five games out of 162 is 3% of the season, but 8.3% of the 60-game schedule.
This applies to all missed time, including freak accidents. Yesterday Masahiro Tanaka was hit in the head by a line drive from Giancarlo Stanton in a sim game. This is an occupational hazard of baseball, and can happen any time you’re on the field. Fortunately it sounds like Tanaka is okay, but if that happens in a shortened season, just like a COVID case, the games missed become much more heavily weighted.
However, barring injury - which, I know, is asking a lot from the Yankees after the past couple years - the Yankees will probably lean more on their stars than in previous seasons. The team has used a rest style almost like “load management” in the NBA, giving players key days off in order to ensure they’re as close to 100% as possible. With fewer games to play, and therefore less “grind” to the season, there’s less need for rest and the Aaron Judges and Gary Sanchezs of the team can be asked to do more.
Then there’s the pitching. One of the biggest advantages to signing a guy like Gerrit Cole is his ability to pitch deep into games, sparing you the use of your lower-leverage bullpen arms to soak up innings. We’re not going to see Cole pitch 200 innings, but we’re also not going to see as many starts made by over-35 lefthanders that only last three innings. The fact that Cole has a habit of getting better the third time through the order (!) alone reflects the potential for the Yankees to really lean into their star starter.
So the question about depth really is a question about health. If the Yankees have the track record they had last year, or COVID-19 tears through the clubhouse, the team depth becomes more important than perhaps any other season in history. Each game counts about 2.6x as much as it would in a 162-game season, and replacements being able to replicate production of a star is that much more critical to success.
If the Yankees can stay healthy, depth matters far less. High-ceiling players like Judge, Sanchez and Cole can carry teams themselves, and allowing them to go pedal to the metal for 60 games gives the Yankees a leg up over teams that are full of high-floor guys, like the Rays. As with almost everything else in baseball, the real question is, how healthy will the 2020 Yankees be?