Predicting the effects of COVID-19 on the 2020 MLB season is basically impossible because the virus will drastically alter the schedule and also player performances. It’s unrealistic to expect players to perform at their peak level when access to training resources is scarce and actual competition is impossible. Regardless, the latest ZiPS projections attempted to model the effects of COVID-19 on a truncated season.
The question this new ZiPS model answered is, “What does a 112-game season do to the Cubs’ strength of schedule and playoff chances?”
In a normal 162-game season, ZiPS projected the Cubs to win 81.2 games on average while facing opponents with an average win expectancy of .502. In other words, ZiPS thinks the Cubs would’ve been the definition of mediocre. That mediocrity, though, still gave the Cubs a 48% chance of making the playoffs, the best odds in the NL Central ahead of the Brewers (30.4%) and Cardinals (25.6%), respectively.
But let’s say the first 50 games of the 2020 season are completely wiped out, limiting the season down to just 112 games. Granted, even that long season seems like a wild dream at this point, especially since MLB still has no concrete plans for a return and ideas for a reboot have now involved to include as many as three separate hubs. Still, the reality is baseball can’t plan for a season until uncertainties become…less uncertain (e.g., testing, population surveillance, etc.).
In the unlikely scenario that a 112-game season does occur, the Cubs’ strength of schedule is hardly affected. Despite having 13 of their 19 games against the Pirates eliminated, the win expectancy of their opponents goes from .501 to .500. The Cardinals, however, drop from .502 to .497, a small number that could have significant nonetheless.
It’s this strength of schedule difference that increased both the Cardinals and Brewers’ chances at making the playoffs. The Cardinals get an extra ~8% in playoff probability, while the Brewers get an extra ~5%, all of which steals about 4% away from the Cubs’ odds (i.e., 48% down to 43%).
The big takeaway from ZiPS’ updated 112-game season projections is that the Cubs’ playoff chances are negatively impacted by their division rivals potentially having easier paths. But, again, expecting MLB to actually play 112 games is unrealistic at this point. And to assume each player will resume a normal level of performance is unfair.
The reality is no computer model has enough information to confidently predict the effects of a global pandemic, let alone how they will impact the timing and quality of a rebooted MLB season. As such, any projection of wins and losses is futile at best. But hey, even that futility at least offers a sliver of hope that there will be some sort of season in 2020.