The world is on fire, or something like it. Nothing is normal right now as it seems the entire globe is combating the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Sports are shut down almost world wide. Major League Baseball is hardly alone in not being able to play right now, and they are hardly alone in trying to not only figure out when they may be able to resume, but where and how. Everything is basically in a “brainstorm ideas” and “talk it out loud” stage rather than a full-on “plan it out” stage.

This past week we’ve seen leaked ideas that involved bringing every Major League Baseball team out to Arizona to try and play at least part of a season in the greater Phoenix area. The other plan was to essentially have a Cactus League and a Grapefruit League, where the two spring training leagues would become the de facto leagues for the 2020 season, replacing the American and National Leagues for the year.

It’s that latter plan of having two leagues playing at their respective spring training parts of the country that I wanted to dive into today. If that’s the plan that eventually happens, it’s going to lead to some real interesting things on the statistical front.

We don’t exactly have Major League stats of value from spring training because there’s just so much variance in the level of competition. But we do know how each league generally plays, and we do have minor league stats from the stadiums that will be used – and they tell two different stories.

Let’s first talk about playing in Arizona. We’ve all heard the stories about how breaking balls don’t work as well in Colorado, right? Well, they don’t work as well in Arizona, either. It’s not quite as drastic as in Coors – but the ball simply doesn’t break as well in Arizona as it does in many places where they play regular season baseball. The ball also flies better in Arizona, too. So you’re going to get a combination of less effective breaking balls and baseballs that travel further. That’s a bad combination for pitchers, but the hitters are going to love it.

On the opposite side of the country is the Grapefruit League. While there’s nothing there that alters how pitches work, there is the fact that the ball simply doesn’t travel as well there, particularly as the year moves along and the weather begins to change in the summer.

There are three baseball leagues that play in these ballparks, or at least some of them, during the Minor League Baseball season. The Arizona Rookie League takes place at the spring training complexes in Arizona (duh Doug, it’s called the Arizona Rookie League) and most of the games are played in the big league stadiums (some are played on the back fields at a few sites), the Gulf Coast League and the Florida State League are played at the spring training sites in Florida, mostly.

With two equal levels of play – complex level rookie ball – between the AZL and the GCL, we can see how different the two leagues are when it comes to offensive output. We looked at the two leagues over the last five minor league seasons and here’s the results:

Florida .244 .328 .343 .671
Arizona .254 .334 .365 .699

That’s nearly a 30 point difference in OPS between the two leagues. If we assumed that games in Florida were league average, that would make the .699 OPS in the games in Arizona good for a 108 OPS+.

That situation, if it were to come to fruition, would be interesting to see play out. We’d all have to be doing park factor math in our heads without actually having a strong grasp of which parks were what based on the historical context that doesn’t really exist for big leaguers, along with trying to compare the stats between the two leagues.

But in this scenario, this could also have some impact on future earnings for players, too. Arbitration is based on numbers put up and past cases. Guys in Arizona are more likely to hit for more power and a higher average than guys in Florida. Likewise, pitchers in Arizona are more likely to post higher ERA’s than guys in Florida. That’s not going to hit starters, it’s going to hit relievers. And where that could really come into play with relievers is the saves category. If ERA’s are going to be up, that means blown saves will be, too. Which could mean fewer saves. Relievers get rewarded, heavily, for saves in arbitration.

And then there’s also how it could alter things a little bit in free agency, particularly for those players hitting the market following the season. While teams are certainly smart enough to understand how to adjust for park factors and all of that, of course there are also going to argue that “you only hit 27 home runs last year” or “you only slugged .457 last year” for guys playing in Florida. Likewise, pitchers that were in Arizona might hear about their 4.10 ERA last year – or hitters may hear things like “you hit 38 homers, but that was in Arizona and we don’t plan on playing there in 2021 through 2025, so we don’t plan to pay you based on that expectation.”

Things aren’t going to be normal for a while, even in sports. If they wind up playing baseball this year, it’s going to be different than we’ve seen in the past for more than the location. This particular plan, though, got the gears moving in my head about how different the two leagues would play, though, and what some of the ramifications for that could be.

21 Responses

  1. DIck Paterson

    Very interesting and well-thought-out article. I do question the notion of saves being down. There will be the same number of wins and losses (1 each per game). Unless starting pitchers suddenly start throwing complete games, or there are more games with lopsided scores, the number of saves should not change.

    • Doug Gray

      It may not lead to fewer saves for the league, but it will lead to fewer saves for closers.

  2. Steve Schoenbaechler

    Thank you for the statistical expectation, Doug. We do appreciate it.

    One thing, though, is nothing was really brought up as to whether we should or shouldn’t do one of these options, or even possibly another option.

    For instance, if we bring all the teams to Arizona, or if we have a GF league and Cactus league, if/when all the teams move North, we have to stay in that same format, I believe (as in, none of this first half, second half stuff like that one strike-shortened season).

    • Doug Gray

      I think that it’s fairly obvious at this point that there’s no chance teams are playing games in their home cities with fans this year short of an absolute miracle. MLB isn’t planning for that kind of scenario because they seem to understand it’s not going to be happening (IMO).

  3. Tom Mitsoff

    Some points to ponder that I have been pondering regarding baseball, sports, and “normal” life:

    1) As I write this, the number of confirmed COVID cases in the US according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID tracking website is 530,000.
    2) The population of the US is somewhere around 350 million. Currently much more than 99 percent of the US population has not contracted COVID.
    3) Social distancing is succeeding in “flattening the curve,” but it alone will not result in a cure/vaccine. Only medical research and testing can create a cure/vaccine.
    4) Allowing society to return to “normal” prior to a cure or vaccine will only result in repeated flare-ups like we have been experiencing over the past several weeks. That means repeated overwhelming of the health care system and horrible death tolls.
    5) It’s almost impossible to believe that large crowds will be allowed to gather at stadiums, arenas, etc., until there is a vaccine/cure.
    6) The Florida/Arizona options make sense for MLB because they would mean tremendous savings on travel in a year when there will be little or no revenue from ticket sales.
    7) The only way sports will be permitted is for every participating player to be tested every day or two at a minimum. Players who test positive will of course be quarantined.
    8) Do not expect sports (or anything else) to return to normal for quite awhile.

    • Tom Mitsoff

      What you say may be true … but it may not. We just don’t know. If you assume that the 530,000 number of known cases from Johns Hopkins is multiplied by 10, you would still have 53 million exposed and 300 million as yet not exposed. If we assume that we’ve had 53 million exposed and only 20,000 deaths, that would put a different slant on the scenario. But the risk would still be very high.

      Respectfully, the statement was not an attempt at fearmongering. It was an attempt on brainstorming and drawing conclusions on data that is known. Clearly much is not known, and open for interpretation and discussion.

    • Stock

      Tom is just stating facts off the website. What John Hopkins site doesn’t tell us is a lot more scary than what it tells us.

      1. USA has been very slow to react and to this day has tested less than 1% of the people in the USA.
      2. People who have COVID and have been tested still have not received results back after 2 weeks. Why is this?


      • Doc

        I thought this site was to be devoid of political statements.

      • Doug Gray

        I didn’t see it before your post, Doc. I’ve edited the comment.

  4. Mike

    Why not move all national league teams to Florida and all American League teams to Florida or vice versa. Eliminate inter league play. Teams play their normal schedule against their normal opponents. That way, should it be deemed safe to play in their home ball parks by August it would be a seamless transition. Just my thoughts

    • Doug Gray

      Because teams have their own infrastructure, offices, and technology at their own facility and the Reds don’t want the Astros in their space looking at what they do, just like the Cardinals don’t want the Indians looking at what they do. There’s almost no way teams are going to go for something like that.

      • Mike

        I gotta disagree on this. Teams change spring training sites all the time. It’s just a facility. All the technology is in laptops and file cabinets. My plan would save the integrity of the schedule and the season.

  5. Mike

    Pardon, I meant American League teams to Arizona

  6. Stock

    I think for at least 2 reasons we are looking at this entirely wrong.

    Reason 1

    I feel some pitchers will be impacted more in AZ than others. Brandon Webb proved ground ball pitchers can thrive in AZ. Randy Johnson proved that big K pitchers do well also. Some pitchers will be impacted more than others in AZ. The Reds have three heavy GB pitchers in Gray, Miley and Castillo. In Particular I think Castillo could win the AZ league Cy Young.

    As for closers, I think there will be more blown saves but I think more importantly that some closers will lose jobs because other pitchers in the bullpen have stuff better suited for AZ. Strop, Cody Reed and Amir Garrett do a fantastic job inducing GB. That said if Iglesias maintains the control he exhibited in the 2nd half when he was being used properly then he should be a stud in 2020.

    Interesting that for the Reds the two SP who will be FA at the end of the year are both FB pitchers.

  7. Stock

    Reason 2

    Competition: 5 of the 6 division winners from 2019 have spring training in Florida. Only the Dodgers have Spring Training in AZ. Of course the Reds are slated to be in the division with the Dodgers so this is not the best situation for the Reds.

    DH: Teams with a capable DH have a noted advantage. 7 AL teams play in AZ so they have a built in advantage because they budget for the DH. That said the Reds Could move Votto to DH, Senzel to 2B and Moustakas to 1B and be fine. In fact the defense would be much better (or even move Moustakas to RF and Castellanos to 1B).

    15 players become starters this year and lose their position next year (unless this brings about the DH full time to the NL). Aren’t these 15 players going to want Starting position salaries next year.

    What if Castellanos shines and decides to stay in Cincinnati anyway and clearly the weak link for the Reds offensively is Votto (outside of C and SS). This is without a doubt a possibility. Does Votto remain a starter in 2021?

  8. Gonzo Reds

    No to Dodgers in our division. We spent a lot of money for a team that will be on the field only this season with several key players likely moving on and maybe having replacements in the wings although will those players be ready with little to no action in 2020? Our best shot is winning the central, not at a wildcard this year, adding the Dodgers… I don’t see us making the playoffs.

    And no to DH. As I’ve said many times, eliminating the DH in the NL really takes alot of the fun strategy out of the game, and NL fans don’t want it! If they add it I’ll be yet another former baseball fan.

    • Doug Gray

      This NL fan wants the DH because it makes things fair.

    • TR

      Change happens. It’s time for both leagues to have the DH. I’m tired of the AL having an offensive juggernaut over the NL.

  9. Doug Gray

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  10. Dick Paterson

    Agreed. I’ve been opposed to the DH since it was instigated, but I’ve come around. I’ve always thought it silly to have AL and NL with different rules. I wouldn’t use Votto there; he continues to be a great 1st-baseman. Good place for Winker or Castellanos. Never thought I’d say it, but bring on the DH.

  11. earl

    I got a feeling you are going to see some definite contraction in pro sports. Minor league baseball is the thing that is going to get really decimated out of this thing as MLB was already ready to take an axe to the system.

    Considering the headstrong nature of the baseball players union, I got a feeling they might try to not play ball with this setup. Already a bunch of players saying having to go to some other state to play for a few months is a non-starter.

    Then again MLB and the players have been choking out the golden goose for 30+ years, I think it is just a matter of time before the soft middle of the league falls in.

    I don’t see why any kid growing up now in Cincy would even want to be a fan of the Reds (or Pirates or Orioles or Marlins or Padres). I was a kid when the Big Red Machine happened and in college when they won it in 1990. They have been mostly bad for decades and I think there is some real rot in the fan base that isn’t going to grow back unless they get lucky and somehow have another big team that captures the imagination. Wacky uneven management of baseball is going to make sure that never happens again.

    I’ll still follow it, but I think pro baseball is more tenuous than people realize.