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OC Register: Angels hoping that anything can happen in a shortened MLB season

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ANAHEIM — It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Baseball lifers like Angels manager Joe Maddon have likely been saying that for decades, because it is one of the enduring truths of the major league season.

Until this year.

In 2020, with the coronavirus pandemic having shut down Major League Baseball for more than three months, teams are about to begin a 60-game season, virus permitting.

Now what are they saying?

It’s a sprint, not a marathon.

“I think getting off to a decent or good start is going to be very important just for morale and the ability to stay engaged mentally,” Maddon said. “It’s the kind of typical stuff you talk about, but when you talk about this stuff in a 162-game season, there’s recovery time. You know  you’re going to go through some really bad moments and some really great moments. There’s not a lot of time to recover from the bad moments right now.”

It’s going to make for a season that is something of a high-wire act. One slip could knock a team out of the running. That’s obviously dangerous for any team, but may actually work in favor of teams like the Angels.

The more games are played, the more chance that the best team will come out on top. But in a shorter season, there is more randomness, and that works out for teams like the Angels, who were projected to play somewhere around .500 baseball and finish just outside of the playoff party.

FanGraphs upped the Angels’ playoff chances from 18.9 percent to 32.4 percent, which represented the sixth greatest increase for a 60-game season compared with a 162-game season.

And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that Shohei Ohtani and Griffin Canning — who would not have been available in March — are starting this season as healthy pitchers.

It is, however, a reflection of the fact that shorter seasons give each team a wider range of outcomes.

The 2019 Angels were a 91-loss team when the season ended, but during their best 60-game stretch they were 34-26, which is a 92-win pace. They played .567 baseball during that stretch, in contrast to their .316 winning percentage during their worst 60 games, which is a .251-point spread.

As you would expect, most teams have large gaps between their best and worst 60-game stretches. The Houston Astros (133 points), Oakland A’s (200), Texas Rangers (184) and Seattle Mariners (167) all had wide spreads in the way they played over particular 60-game stretches.

The Washington Nationals, who won the World Series last year, famously started off 19-31 and were just 27-33 after 60 games. In fact, four of the previous six World Series winners had a stretch of 60 games in which they played .500 or worse.

All of which means that anything can happen this year, which ought to be the mantra for the Angels and every other team that is considered an underdog in its division.

The shorter season, however, also magnifies scheduling quirks.

The Angels were scheduled to play the Dodgers — arguably the best team in baseball — in just four of their 162 games on the original schedule. Now, with the schedule reworked to reduce travel, they’ll play the Dodgers six times in 60 games. They went from having 2.4 percent to 10 percent of their games against the Dodgers.

Each game essentially has the value of 2.7 games during a normal season, so Maddon is going to have to manage with greater urgency from Day 1.

“It’s September baseball starting in late July, August,” Maddon said. “You’re going to make decisions more aggressively. Players will need thicker skin. You’ll get more pushback from starters as you relieve them and hitters that you pinch-hit for.”

Maddon said that doesn’t necessarily apply to decisions with the lineup and players’ roles, though.

“There’s still gonna be a certain amount of patience with tried and true guys and maybe platoons, maybe more so than those that have not had the same kind of track record,” Maddon said.

The Angels will start off with 19 straight games against divisional opponents, which further amplifies the importance of a fast start.

“In a regular 162-game season, teams win divisions by two or three games,” Andrew Heaney said. “In a 60 games, it’ll be even bigger. It’s gonna be magnified so I think it’ll be, it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.”

The sprint of a season means that many people will lessen the value of the championship at the end.

Maddon, who led the Chicago Cubs to the World Series title in 2016 and was a part of the staff when the Angels won in 2002, said that would be a mistake.

“I think people that denigrate what may occur and the achievement of winning the World Series based on factors that are different, they’re not showing up every day and working under the circumstances that our guys are,” Maddon said. “It’s not that easy. So, yeah, I think when it’s all concluded, all of us will look back and realize how difficult a trek it was, and for the last team standing, what a magnificent job they did to pull it off.”

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