Why Shorter MLB Season Could Hurt Yankees and Dodgers' World Series bid

Bookmakers believe the shortened MLB regular season could prove to be fertile ground for upsets, with underdogs set to benefit from the reduced number of games.

After a four-month delay caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic and a bitter labor dispute between the MLB and the players, baseball makes its long awaited return on Thursday night, when the defending World Series champions Washington Nationals host the New York Yankees at Nationals Park, before the Los Angeles Dodgers welcome the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium.

While the postseason will follow the traditional format consisting of three rounds leading up a best-of-seven World Series, the four-month postponement has pushed baseball into uncharted territory as far as the regular season is concerned.

The number of games teams will play during the regular season has been trimmed from the usual 162-game slate to 60, effectively turning a marathon into a sprint and leaving almost no margin for error for teams that don't hit the ground running.

Bookmakers believe the unusual nature of the season could benefit the underdogs, as in a shorter campaign each game has a greater bearing on the final outcome.

Over the course of a normal, 162-game regular season, there's more time for regression to the mean, which ultimately sees the cream rise to the top.

On the other hand, in a shorter season—particularly one which could be influenced by several unprecedented factors due to the COVID-19 outbreak—there is increased volatility.

An analysis of how World Series odds have changed since the turn of the year paints a revealing picture.

The Yankees were installed as 13/4 favorite to win the World Series in December after signing Gerrit Cole to a record nine-year deal worth $324 million—the richest for a pitcher in terms of both total money and annual average salary and the fourth-largest in MLB history.

However, according to data via betting firm Unikrn, their odds have since stretched out to 4/1 after the MLB announced the 60-game regular season.

Similarly, the Dodgers were 7/2 favorite in March, but have seen odds lengthening to 15/4 after the MLB confirmed the shortened season last month.

The same scenario applies to the Houston Astros, who were 9/1 third-favorite after losing Cole in free agency in December and are now 10/1.

On the other hand, odds have moved in the opposite direction for second-tier favorites such as the Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Mets , Cincinnati Reds and Oakland Athletics.

The Twins have gone from 20/1 in December to 16/1 this week, while odds on the Rays have shrunk from 20/1 to 18/1 and the Mets, Reds and the Athletics are all 20/1 outsiders after being 25/1, 33/1 and 25/1 shots in December.

Aside from the abbreviated regular season, baseball will look distinctly different this year because of the lack of fans. As it's been the case for the major European soccer leagues and the MLS and as will be the case for the NBA, it will require the players to adjust to a whole new environment.

Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers, MLB
Dave Roberts, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, celebrates the run of Mookie Betts #50 from a Justin Turner #10 sacrifice fly, for a 5-1 lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the third inning, in a preseason game during the coronavirus pandemic at Dodger Stadium on July 19 in Los Angeles, California. Harry How/Getty

Home field advantage isn't as much of a factor in baseball as it is in the NFL, where home teams have won an average of 56.4 percent of games over the last five seasons.

According to industry figures, oddsmakers apply the least amount of bias when modelling games in baseball, with the maximum applied for a home field edge normally between 2 and 3 percent.

Small as it may be, the impact of playing behind closed doors is nevertheless likely to be felt. Notably, the teams with three lowest home average attendances last season—the Rays, Baltimore Orioles and Miami Marlins—all have seen their World Series odds shorten.

The Marlins and Orioles admittedly remain 300/1 and 400/1 long-shots respectively, but it is nevertheless a significant change considering they started out at 500/1 and 700/1.

While the absence of fans will make for an usual experience, two time MLB All-Star Harold Reynolds believes baseball will find the transition smoother than some of its counterparts.

"I think baseball is built for this more than any other sports," the MLB Network analyst said during a roundtable interview organized by BetOnline and hosted by former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Bram Weinstein.

"If anybody can adjust, the baseball players should be able to adjust to no fans."

That belief will be put to test from Thursday night. After four months of questions, it's time for baseball to start delivering some answers.