As an abbreviated 2020 season begins to come into focus, there’s been a lot of discussion about what will define such a short season. Will pitchers or hitters find their groove earlier? What kinds of crazy stats could we see? And, perhaps most importantly, how much of an effect will the sprint have on the season?
This past Sunday, Josh attempted to tackle this question, arguing that the short season will decrease the importance of depth as teams will be less likely to sit their stars except for injury- or pandemic-related concerns. Today, I’m here to discuss the other side of that coin, and highlight how depth can be the difference between a contender and a pretender in 2020.
I’m going to start with a quote from Josh’s article: “High-ceiling players like Judge, Sanchez and Cole can carry teams themselves.” Yankees fans have been familiar with that in recent years: Gary Sanchez’s breakout in 2016 stands out, James Paxton won ten straight starts down the stretch last season, Gerrit Cole was arguably the best pitcher in baseball for the final two months of last season and Giancarlo Stanton hit 33 home runs in 60 games during his 2017 MVP campaign. Over the course of a full season, these stretches are balanced out by cold stretches, requiring teams to have multiple players capable of this performance. In a short stretch, however, a dominant stretch by one or two players can be the difference.
More likely than not, these types of performances are likely to come from a team’s stars. However, these same players face the highest injury risk. A good pitcher is more likely than a bad one to go deeper into a game, face more batters, and put more strain on his arm. An elite defender is more likely to attempt more acrobatic defensive plays, diving for a ball or jumping into a fence, simply because they’re more likely to put themselves into the position to even attempt these plays. A good hitter will be batting higher in the lineup, coming to the plate more often, and, furthermore, gets on base more. You want your best players in these positions to give them the greatest chance to impact the game, but the very nature of playing makes them more likely to get hurt, or worse.
Injuries are a normal risk, of course, but in this short season, even the smallest injuries are magnified. Remember Judge’s broken wrist in 2018? He missed 45 games; two weeks into the season, suddenly that’s a season-ending injury. Add on the fact that doctors anticipate a spike in arm injuries among pitchers and soft-tissue pulls among hitters due to the abbreviated ramp-up period, and it’s quite likely that every team will see some very important players sitting on the sidelines for much of, if not the entirety of, the 2020 season — and that’s before we even start talking about the pandemic!
Having quality depth that the manager trusts will go a long way to preventing these situations. Having backup players that can replicate some semblance of the starter’s performance will encourage the manager to be proactive, rather than reactive, to dealing with minor injuries and potential health concerns. Seeing the likes of Clint Frazier, Mike Tauchman and Tyler Wade starting once or twice a week, with Judge, Stanton and LeMahieu in the lineup daily would be the ideal situation. That’s not guaranteed to happen; already, LeMahieu is out for the foreseeable future with a positive COVID-19 test. More injuries, and more positive tests, are almost a certainty. Having depth is critical, more so than ever, both to keep players healthy and serve as injury and health replacements.
Furthermore, quality depth pieces increases the likelihood of a player going on a hot streak. While players like Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez are the most likely to carry a team, there’s no guarantee that any of them will. In such a short stretch, managers are going to ride the hot hand even more so than they usually do, with each game taking on nearly-playoff levels of importance.
All in all, we’re barreling into a great unknown with such a short season. Having more players capable of both slotting into the lineup as a quality starter or going on a hot streak will, however, help set the truly good teams apart from the rest of the league.