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Even the Marlins could contend for playoffs in 50-game MLB season

If league owners get their way and make the 2020 season as short as possible, “rebuilding” teams have far more upside than usual.

Philadelphia Phillies v Miami Marlins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

When previewing the 2020 season on Fish Stripes, my staff and I depicted the Marlins as a much-improved team from last year, but one that still lacked the established stars and the urgency to keep pace with National League contenders. A best-case scenario? Leapfrogging a rival in the NL East to finish fourth in the division, somewhere within shouting distance of the .500 mark. It would be encouraging to see top prospects establish themselves as regular big leaguers. It would be exciting to see Marlins Park’s attendance rise with more genuine Fish fans drowning out the snowbirds. However, there was no conceivable route to snapping the franchise’s October drought (which dates back to the ‘03 World Series title).

Then, COVID-19 hit, putting Major League Baseball on pause. And even now, as the country has passed the pandemic’s peak and health officials and politicians cooperate to revive sports (in a responsible way), MLB owners and players are squandering it all.

After weeks of haggling over finances, the two sides remain very far apart:

The window to play in 2020 is closing. Recent history suggests that the players will make concessions to salvage something from this year, resulting in an abbreviated regular season, expanded playoffs...and an opportunity for the Marlins to be relevant?

ESPN’s Jeff Passan and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic both reported Wednesday that the league is considering a season with as few as 50 games. There would be seven postseason berths apiece in the AL and NL and a universal designated hitter rule. Although it would be disappointing if greed deprived us of a more representative sample, there is one perk of unpredictability: a single hot streak could propel a rebuilding team like the Marlins into the playoff mix.

Keep in mind, this is what it has taken in recent seasons to attain the seventh-best record in the National League:

  • 2019—Diamondbacks, 85-77
  • 2018—Pirates, 82-79
  • 2017—Cardinals, 83-79
  • 2016—Marlins, 79-82
  • 2015—Giants, 84-78
  • 2014—Braves/Mets (tied), 79-83
  • 2013—Diamondbacks, 81-81
  • 2012—Brewers, 83-79

On average, that is a .507 winning percentage. Can the Marlins get there?

Well, the MLB scoring average in 2019 was 4.83 runs per team per game. Bill James’ pythagorean winning percentage expects a team in that run environment to get to .507 if they outscored opponents by about 0.07 runs per game. Over the course of a 50-game schedule, that’s a plus-4 run differential. Among the 27 seasons in Marlins history, 21 of them included a 50-game stretch like that, according to Stathead. The 1994 (best stretch was minus-2 run differential), 1999 (plus-2), 2013 (plus-3) and 2015 (plus-1) teams each came very close to performing at that level, too.

In the immediate aftermath of cost-cutting, rebuilding trades, the 1998 and 2018 Marlins both failed to resemble a league-average team for any sustained period of time during their respective seasons. But those are the lone exceptions. If you trust that the 2020 Fish—with veteran bats like Jonathan Villar, Corey Dickerson and Jesús Aguilar, a deep starting rotation, no severe injuries (that we know of) and a wave of numerous star-caliber prospects on the verge of arriving—are significantly better than they were, then October/November baseball is on the table. Still extremely unlikely, but that’s a dream that wouldn’t even exist under the usual 162-game format.