In a 60- to 65-game season, a cold start from a key player could doom his team.
A 65-game season would allow for 13 starts from each member of a five-man rotation. Last season, Aaron Nola had a 4.63 ERA through 13 starts. It wasn't until his 16th start that he went on an extended stretch of excellence, posting a 3.19 ERA the rest of the way.
Zack Wheeler, in each of the last two seasons, hasn't gotten going until the midpoint of his season. He had a 4.94 ERA through 15 starts in 2019 and a 3.04 ERA the rest of the way.
Bryce Harper, through 65 games last season, was hitting .251/.356/.469 with 11 homers and 44 RBI. His production picked up significantly as the summer wore on — Harper hit .267/.384/.539 with 24 homers and 70 RBI after his 65th game. That's an OPS difference of 99 points.
Similar story for J.T. Realmuto, who hit 15 of his 25 home runs and increased his OPS by 67 points after those first 65 games.
Pretty much every year, we see the pitchers start faster than the hitters. It takes hitters time to get into a rhythm because there are few substitutes for live pitching and the pressure of an at-bat that counts. It stands to reason that the same thing will happen whenever the 2020 season begins. Sure, the weather would be warmer than in late March or early April, but hitters will still be working through the rust.
Historically, Harper has been a fast starter. His 1.025 in the opening month of the season is 123 points higher than in any other month. He has also homered more in April and May than in any other month.
Jean Segura has also done his best work early. He's a career .309 hitter in April and .320 in May. His batting average in the second halves of seasons is .269 compared to .299 in the first half.
On the flip side, Andrew McCutchen has hit just .248 in March/April, 30 points lower than in his next-worst month. His best work has come in June (.315/.387/.525) and July (.293/.378/.514), from about Game 55 through 110.
The Phillies were 37-28 last season through 65 games, leading the NL East by a game over the Braves. They were seven games in front of the Nationals at that point. The Phils nosedived when McCutchen went down and the bullpen injuries kept coming.
With the expected 16-team playoff format this year, the Phillies have a much better shot to end their nine-year playoff drought. A team that was supposed to open the season with a payroll north of $180 million should certainly be one of the best eight teams in its league. If not, there's a serious problem.
In a 65-game season, each night is critical, especially when matching up within the division. The Phillies can't afford for Nola and Wheeler to just start clicking around Game 50, or for Harper to be hitting .230 with fewer than 10 homers around the 50-game mark.
The teams that start fast will reap the rewards because the sample size isn't large enough for significant correction.
The shortened season also places even more importance on bullpens because starting pitchers won't be going six-plus innings for at least the first third of the season. They will need to build up, and teams will not want to risk blowing out their top pitchers' arms early in the season.
For the Phillies, that isn't great news because the bullpen is the weakest area of their roster. They will badly need at least one more right-handed reliever after Hector Neris to step up, whether that is Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez, Tommy Hunter or Bud Norris, Drew Storen or Anthony Swarzak. Even with the DH, NL teams will still be using plenty of relievers in the early going with starters not expected to pick up more than 15 or so outs.
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