How a shortened 2020 MLB season would make Mookie Betts even more important to the Dodgers


Major League Baseball, like many sports leagues around the world, has been shut down indefinitely because of the growing threat that is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Opening Day will be pushed back to at least mid-May, though that is subject to change as the situation develops.

MLB and the MLBPA recently resolved several shutdown-related issues, include service-time considerations. Players will be credited with the same service time they accrued in 2019 in 2020 if the season is canceled, and service time will be pro-rated if a shortened season is played. So, if 100 days are played, 100 days would equal a full year of service rather than the usual 172 days.

The service-time agreement is significant because it ensures players who are scheduled to become free agents following the 2020 season will still become free agents even if the season is canceled. The group of impending free agents includes Trevor Bauer, DJ LeMahieu, Marcus Stroman, George Springer, and of course, Mookie Betts, the 2018 AL Most Valuable Player.

The Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Betts in a blockbuster three-team, nine-player, 10-asset trade in February. Given the service-time agreement, it is entirely possible Betts will never actually suit up for the Dodgers. He would still become a free agent if the season is canceled and while Los Angeles figures to be among his top bidders, re-signing him is hardly a guarantee.

For the Dodgers, that would be the nightmare scenario, giving up two high-value assets (Jeter Downs and Alex Verdugo) and a third piece (Connor Wong) only to get zero games from Mookie. Sure, Los Angeles would still get two years of David Price and six years of Brusdar Graterol, so the trade wouldn’t be a total loss, but Betts is the real prize. Losing his 2020 season would really hurt.

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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mookie Betts may never play for the Dodgers.
USATSI

Any time a team trades for one year of a player, there is a risk that year turns into a zero-value year. Usually that risk involves injury or poor performance. With the Dodgers and Betts, 2020 could become a zero-value year because of a global pandemic. The good news is we are a long way from a canceled MLB season. There is a long way to go between now and July, August, September, etc.

MLB and the MLBPA agreed to make a good-faith effort to play as many games as possible in 2020 — remember, MLB wants to play games to make money and the players want to play games to get paid — as long as COVID-19 is sufficiently contained and it’s safe to play. I’m hopeful we’ll have baseball at some point. When? I don’t know, but I’m optimistic games will played in 2020.

The Dodgers certainly hope games are played because they don’t want to get nothing out of Betts. At this point a shortened season feels inevitable, and as much as getting only, say, 80-100 games out of Betts would sting, it’s better than nothing. Los Angeles didn’t make this trade with the regular season in mind. The franchise made the trade to get over the hump and win the World Series.

In that sense, the trade calculus is unchanged. The Dodgers are really good and would go into the 2020 regular season, no matter how long it is, as overwhelming favorites to win their eighth consecutive NL West title and a near lock for the postseason. Consider their 2020 outlook before and after the Betts trade (via SportsLine):

Without Betts

102.7

63.4

89.9

98.2

41.1

24.0

With Betts

106.6

65.8

95.4

99.6

45.5

29.2

Change

+3.9

+2.4

+5.5

+1.4

+4.4

+5.5

The Dodgers were already so good that Betts barely improved their division and postseason odds. Their World Series odds though? That’s why the Dodgers made the trade. Mookie improved the club’s World Series odds 5.5 percentage points to a whopping 29.2 percent overall. The Dodgers are almost a quarter more likely to win a title this season than they were before the Betts trade. 

The thing is, those World Series odds (and division and postseason odds) are calculated based on a 162-game season, which is unlikely to happen at this point. The 162-game season is the greater separator. The long season typically separates the contenders from the pretenders. The shorter the season though, the more small-sample-size randomness could wreak havoc on the standings.

Following the shutdown last month, FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski used his ZiPS projection system to generate postseason odds for regular seasons of various length. Here’s what his system says about the Dodgers:

162 games

92.7

98.7

18.5

140 games

90.7

98.0

16.8

110 games

71.3

85.9

12.6

81 games

56.0

71.4

9.8

An 81-game season would cut the Dodgers’ division title odds roughly 40 percent and their World Series title odds basically in half. They’d still be overwhelming NL West favorites and the World Series favorites — the Yankees have the next highest World Series odds in an 81-game season at 8.1 percent — but that is a significant decline. The shorter the season, the more weird stuff happens.

Because of that, Betts will be more important to the Dodgers during a shortened 2020 season than he would have been prior to the shutdown. Before the shutdown, Los Angeles was in position to cruise to another NL West title. Not a lock, certainly, but the clear cut favorite. The Dodgers didn’t need Mookie to win the division, and the success of the trade would’ve been decided in October.

Now the regular season component of the trade carries much greater weight. Betts is an elite player who will negate some of the randomness that exists in a shorter season — Los Angeles was 3 1/2 games out of first through 81 games two years ago — and help the Dodgers secure that eighth consecutive division title. They have to do that before focusing on the World Series. 

In the end, the Betts trade will be declared a success or a failure based on whether the Dodgers win a championship. That’s just the way it is. With a full 162-game season, the Dodgers’ talent would’ve likely carried them to a postseason berth, and then it would have been all eyes on Mookie in October. Now, with a shortened season, Betts will have to play a greater role in simply getting the Dodgers to the postseason.





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