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Handicapping shortened baseball seasons

They might not have been pandemics, thank God. But Major League Baseball has experienced significant delays and unscheduled interruptions in its not-too-distant past.

 

Instead of a disease, labor strife led to shortened schedules in 1972, 1981, 1990 and 1995. A lot less spring training or a sudden restart to a long-interrupted season will feel familiar in 2020.

 

Somewhere in those abridged baseball years lie numbers that might provide lessons for gamblers trying to get a strategic jump on a shotgun start to this season. But laid against a modern game that bears little resemblance to the 20th century, parsing meaningful trends from statistical anomalies is not easy.

 

In short, the last time spring training was significantly reduced was 1995, when about one more total run per game was scored in April than the entire season’s average. But that reversed a trend from 1981 and 1990, when scoring was down early and up late.

 

 

This clearly requires a deeper dive into baseball history and that indispensable resource known as BaseballReference.com.

 

How to choose the pertinent stats

 

The methodology was pretty simple. Take the three years when spring training was cut way down. Find the overall batting average and ERA in the majors plus the average number of runs, home runs, walks and strikeouts per game, not per team. After doing that for each season, go back and find the same numbers just for April. The two seasons before and after each of those years, and each of those Aprils, were also sampled to draw comparisons.

 

The 1981 sample is different, because the average 107 games per team were split by a seven-week strike after which no “summer” training was held. Instead, the All-Star Game was played, and the season resumed quickly. The same numbers were gleaned from that season as a whole as well as from August, which has been treated like the other Aprils. (To create another comparative figure, the full April 1981 was also sampled.)

 

The statistics from 2019 were also taken to show how much the game has changed and how much the old numbers might have to be adjusted for the game now predicated on power pitching and launch angles.

 

The accompanying chart shows the raw data. Now that the numbers are in hand, here goes the analysis. Bettors, prepare to read a lot about run totals.

 

1972: Baseball’s ’tweener year

 

Even without the unprecedented 13-day strike that suspended spring training and cut about seven games per team off the beginning of the season, baseball was already in the throes of major changes in 1972. Overwhelming dominance by pitchers in 1968 led to a lowering of the mound and a shrinking of the strike zone in 1969. That was also the year pitching talent was diluted by the addition of four expansion teams.

 

The year after the strike, the American League added the designated hitter, resulting in a rise of more than one run in the average 1973 game total, a collective 13-point spike in batting averages and a half-run jump in ERAs.

 

But back to 1972. Players still had a head of steam from a spring training schedule that was cut short by only about a week. They were, however, off the field for two weeks before opening games were thrust upon them two days after the strike was settled.

 

Scoring was marginally higher in April at 7.48 total runs per game than the 7.38 for the whole 1972 season. But it was also down from the year before (7.59 April, 7.79 season) and way down from 1970 (8.40, 8.69), the second season of expansion. Comparisons with 1973 and 1974 are foolhardy, since the DH pumped up the numbers. If all those years had one constant, it was the Oakland Athletics, who won three consecutive World Series.

 

Pitchers, led by eventual Cy Young Award winner Steve Carlton, were ahead of the hitters in April 1972, but only marginally. If totals were being booked back then, the hook on a seven might have been more challenging those first two weeks of the season than it would have been afterward.

 

1981: Parsing the split season

 

After 34% of the schedule was cut out of its middle, the season was split. Each of the four divisions declared a first- and second-half champion. (Oakland won both halves of the AL West, so second-place Kansas City was added to the playoffs.)

 

The strike that began June 12 was settled July 31. After a few days of hurried intrasquad workouts, the 26 teams got in three weeks of their August schedules on the way to the Dodgers riding Fernando Valenzuela mania to a World Series title.

 

At 7.59, there was about a half-run drop in the average game total in August 1981 compared with the rest of the season’s 8.03. As was the case in April 1972, pitchers appeared to be ahead of the hitters when baseball resumed. But nine years after the first strike, a 7½ total could have been the norm in August, with the number more likely to be eight before the season was interrupted and by the time it ended.

 

1990: Steroids are kicking in

 

We did not know then but we certainly know now that the steroid era got started in the late ’80s. On their way to becoming the faces of performance enhancers, Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire led the Athletics to the 1990 American League pennant.

 

Six months before the juiced-up A’s were upset by the Cincinnati Reds “Nasty Boys” in a four-game World Series sweep, a 32-day lockout had wiped out all but two weeks of spring training, pushing back opening day to April 9. Still, a full 162-game season was completed.

 

Scoring totals that April (8.38) were marginally lower than the full season (8.51), but both averages continued a trend of more offense that lasted into 1991. Power pitchers were finding their stride, too, with an average of 11.22 total strikeouts per game in April and 11.33 for the 1990 season. It had been 20 years since those numbers were that high. Little did we know that they provided a window into baseball’s future.

 

1995: The strike to end all strikes

 

This was a continuation of the 1994 nightmare that left baseball without a World Series for the first time in 90 years. Replacement players were on the field to begin spring training. After the strike was finally settled April 2, striking players were welcomed back for an abbreviated schedule of 10 to 15 exhibition games.

 

Even with the season cut from 162 to 144 games, 51 more home runs were hit than in 1993, the last full season before the strike. Cleveland’s Albert Belle accounted for 50, the first of eight consecutive years when the leader would hit at least that many.

 

That trend may be the biggest reason for the statistical quirk coming out of the strike. In April 1995, with a tiny sample size of only 66 games, an average of 10.64 total runs were scored per game, but the season total settled to 9.70. Though strikeouts were up slightly to 12.50 in April and 12.61 for the year, power hitters were clearly ahead of the pitchers coming out of a long work stoppage.

 

It is not that pitching was rendered worthless the whole year. On the contrary, future Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz led the Atlanta Braves to their only World Series championship in a run of 14 division titles in 15 years.

 

Let the debate ensue about whether steroids have been replaced by harder-to-catch designer drugs. But one thing that has lasted from the mid-’90s into the 21st century has been the romance with the home run. To expand on what Maddux said in a 1999 Nike commercial, everyone digs the long ball.

 

In the nearly half-century since the beginning of this study, only a two-point difference exists in the major-league batting average. It, too, peaked during the steroid era. But home runs are more plentiful than ever, reaching a record 2.79 per game in 2019. Strikeouts did the same at an average of 17.63.

 

Conclusion: Pitchers will start better

 

If performance enhancers are judged to be an abstract influence on numbers coming out of the last big baseball interruption 25 years ago, it is reasonable to believe scoring will be down a little in the early weeks of the 2020 season. If history repeats itself without a narcotic asterisk, it will come down from where it was last year — and from where it will eventually be for all of this year.

 

Bookmakers looking at 2019 numbers might set their sights on average totals of 8½ or 9, higher if the Angels or Rockies are involved. But if history minus hypodermics are any indication, a half-run could come off those Over-Unders early in the season, whenever it may be.

To see an accompanying chart, visit “Point Spread Weekly” at vsin.com.

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