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The Asterisk Question, and How Many Games Are Needed for a “Legit” Season?

Chicago Cubs

I’ve seen this discussion and question a lot, what with the hoped-for season now just two weeks away. I figured you might want to see a little conversation, and a little data, on just what makes a baseball season sufficiently “legit,” when it comes to the length. There’s a reason a typical MLB season is 160+ games, because the nature of baseball is such that it takes a whooooole lot of games for true talent levels to shine through. Individual baseball games simply include a boatload of randomness.

But at the outset, let me just say, regardless of the “legit”-ness of the 60-game season, I don’t really see it as an asterisk moment. To me, the “asterisk” is about when you’re comparing uneven situations. The Astros bang-banging themselves to a title. Barry Bonds juice-juicing his way to a home run record.

But in a short-season situation, every team is even. It’s weird and it’s different and it’s not going to be the same as other seasons, of course, but the teams – relative to each other – are all in the same boat.

So the better question, to me, isn’t whether a title this year would come with an asterisk. Instead, to me, the better question is just how much confidence can we have that the season actually brought the right teams to the postseason, and then crowned a champion from that pool.

Thankfully, there’s a bit of research and data we can peruse on that front.

Eno Sarris studied this question back when the possible lengths of season still represented a wide range, from as few as 48 games to as many as 80. Of course, every additional game teaches you a little bit more about a team. Yet he interestingly found that the cut-off point where you start to learn more about a team’s true talent level at a greatly reduced pace is right there at Game 60:

To be sure, 60 games is absolutely not enough to tell you how good teams truly are, especially when compared to what you’d learn in a 162-game season. But the difference between 50 games and 60 games is apparently huge, whereas the difference between 60 games and 80 games is much smaller. In that respect, 60 games represents something of a bare-minimum quality cut-off for “legit”-ness. And again, all this research came well before we knew that 60 games was where this thing was gonna land.

All that said, Russell Carleton took his own look at the question, and reminds us that yes, there will still be substantial noise in a 60-game schedule. But most of the worst randomness starts to smooth out as early as 30 games in:

Can we take away from the data that a 60-game season is as definitive as a 162-game season? Of course not. But is it going to be SO subject to randomness that we cannot call it “legitimate”? It doesn’t seem so.

The reality is that we’re always going to remember the 2020 season, if it concludes, regardless of whether there’s an asterisk there or not. The context of what this year was will always be burned into our memory, and moreover, whatever we actually see play out is probably going to factor into how much we think, from a narrative perspective, this was a “legit” season. If the Dodgers run the table and beat the Yankees in the World Series, people will be less likely to remember this being a bogus year than if the Pirates get into the playoffs at 31-29 and then win out over the Rangers.

So I guess I’ll leave open for myself the possibility that, when we actually get into this thing, I’ll feel differently than I do now. But at the moment, I look at the research and I think about every team being on an even playing field for the season, and I say: the playoff teams are going to be some version of legit. The champion is going to be some version of legit. And the 2020 season will always be “holy crap, that 2020 season was ridiculous …. ”

This is all especially true if the Cubs win it all. I have, however, auto-set this post to delete if the Brewers or Cardinals win the World Series.



Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.