Finding a Team to Watch Without Baseball

In lieu of baseball in 2020, rewatching a fun team like the 2018 Brewers, with 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich, could be entertaining. (via Ian D’Andrea)

Given the state of our society, baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world right now. Obviously. But, for those of us who rely on the games for entertainment and stability six months a year, and then to have something to think about for the remaining six months, a suitable replacement might allow the opportunity to settle into familiar rhythms of the season and provide a much-needed distraction.

For now, maybe re-watching Ken Burns’ Baseball satiates the usual pre-season malaise. Or playing The Show, or re-reading The Art of Fielding. But what about when the games should be on? Imagine the emptiness while cutting the grass on a mid-June evening. It’ll be warm enough to be in short sleeves then, and you’ve decided pushing that mower around for an hour is close enough for earning 200 extra calories for your post-mow pale ale after dinner. Something will just feel missing without the headphones in, settling in for the first few innings.

The uncertainty might be the worst part of it from a baseball perspective, not knowing if they’ll start on July 1, or maybe not at all. It will be impossible to know more than a month or so ahead of time, and that’s as it should be, but it won’t make waiting easier when you’ve had a pork shoulder on the smoker all day and there hasn’t been any checking in on games periodically on TV as you wait to hit your perfect temperature. (“Can’t right now, gotta keep an eye on the pork,” you tell your significant other as Gary Sanchez hits a grand slam for your fantasy team.)

While not a perfect replacement, there is an archive of over 4,000 games, both radio and television broadcasts. MLB.TV has announced it is (temporarily) opening its archive of games from 2018 and 2019 available to stream at no cost. So let’s take advantage of that. There are 30 teams available for the 2018 and 2019 seasons that one can watch, listen to, and generally use to pretend like things are normal when they’re very much not. Knowing the outcome of the season ahead of the time ruins quite a bit of the fun, and to what extent probably depends largely on the person. So again, it’s not a one-to-one substitute, but in looking to get through the uncertainty, we don’t have to achieve perfection, just another option to add to the podcasts, bookshelves, and fantasy rosters we’re continuing to consume in an unusually long offseason.

On the other hand, a 9,000 game slate of options– some of which (at least 1/30th, in fact) will include the Orioles, sounds like a slog and would test the patience of the most ardent baseball fan. So, how to narrow it down?

The goal is to find one team to follow beginning with the start of the 2018 or 2019 season. Unfortunately, the MLB.TV archives don’t go any farther back, or at least are not publicly accessible. Apparently, it is possible to watch each (or at least most) major league games since 2009 on youtube for free, as this Reddit thread details. While the youtube option presents benefits such as being free and gives us the opportunity to remember some guys, for our purposes we want the option for radio feeds as well to make it as close to how we would normally consume a 162-game season. Perhaps the majority of games will be streamed from the original TVbroadcasts, but we can also prepare for putting a game on from the radio stream in the car, or on a walk. So, let’s make the most of the 2018 and 2019 seasons available to us while recognizing this process could be expanded to include any teams from 2009 and on if one were so inclined.

The chosen team should be exciting, and good, but maybe not the “best” team. Picking the World Series winner feels a little like cheating, so we’ll eliminate the 2018 Red Sox and 2019 Nationals from consideration. We’ll already know the outcome of whatever team we pick, but there’s just something different about knowing that the team will win the ultimate prize at the end. Hardship is part of the season, and knowing that there’s no hardship in the end is a little less riveting.

Fans could, of course, just re-watch their favorite team’s season from one of those years (and it would in fact be hard to convincingly persuade the aforementioned Red Sox or Nationals fans from doing so). Again, knowing the full outcome of the season and having been through the ups, downs, and beats of the year make the idea less interesting, so our goal here is to find a random team with which to spend the spring and summer, and perhaps rally around a new shared experience with fellow baseball die-hards, given that we’re isolated from our nearest neighbors and hometown fans as it is.

So that leaves us with 58 teams to consider.

The team we choose to follow should be “good.” A broad definition here will suffice. The point is that the team has something to play for and that the games matter for the team and the franchise, at least going into the last month of the season. For our purposes let’s assume that (1) the team we’re looking for went into the season with at least a 10% probability of making the playoffs, per the historical FanGraphs playoff odds page, and (2) finished with at least a .500 record, to prevent picking a team that just didn’t have it and quickly was eliminated from the playoffs. How long the delay of this season will be is unknown, and we want to maximize our time with our new communal baseball team in case we need it.

Here are those teams:

“Good” Teams
Year Team Pre-season Playoff Odds Final Team Win Pct
2019 HOU 95.1% .660
2019 LAD 89.8% .654
2018 HOU 98.0% .636
2019 NYY 96.8% .636
2019 MIN 35.8% .623
2018 NYY 89.7% .617
2019 OAK 32.3% .599
2019 ATL 38.1% .599
2019 TB 28.2% .593
2018 MIL 21.2% .589
2018 CHC 95.7% .583
2019 CLE 94.6% .574
2018 LAD 94.0% .564
2018 CLE 96.6%  .562
2019 STL 44% .562
2018 COL 18.8% .558
2019 MIL 27.9% .549
2018 STL 61.6% .543
2019 NYM 39.6% .531
2019 ARI 11.0% .525
2019 BOS 90.3% .519
2019 CHC 64.2% .519
2018 ARI 24.0% .506
2018 WAS 89.3% .506
2019 PHI 48.5% .500

Just from this simple sort, already some intriguing teams jump out. The 2018 Rockies and 2019 A’s beat expectations significantly to surprise playoff runs. The 2019 Phillies and Red Sox were huge disappointments compared to their preseason projections, and would be entertaining in the way “Married At First Sight” is. You want them to do well, but really are just biding your time in between the moments of blowups and meltdowns.

Now with the “good” teams in place, we need to find a way to narrow them down by the enjoyment to be gained from the actual games themselves. What makes a game “fun?” An obvious but still subjective starting point would be that the games are close. A lot of one-run games from a team that had decent preseason expectations and was in playoff contention for most of the year sounds like a good enough proxy.

Using Baseball Prospectus’ Team Record by Run Difference, in the 2018 and 2019 seasons major league teams played an average of 44 one-run games. The lowest number was the 2019 Cleveland team, which played in 31 such contests, and the highest was the 2018 Rays, with 59. Let’s further narrow our query to teams that played 50 or more one-run games in a season, which would represent the top 20% in one-run games over those years.

That leaves:

Top One-Run Game Teams
Year Team 1-run games
2019 ARI 50
2018 ARI 51
2018 CHC 51
2018 MIL 52

Out of the top one-run game teams that met our initial criteria, Arizona did it twice! Somewhat unbelievably, those 2018 Cubs and Brewers, in addition to having so many one-run games also had to play a Game 163 for the division. That’s a compelling division race, and it would be understandable to pick one of those two and follow its 2018 season. But is there a way to further narrow down with data?

Here is where some tough choices have to be made in terms of subjective preferences. To separate the teams, the edge will be given to the team that is more aggressive. Aggression for its own sake could be argued to be in opposition to the goal of an entertaining team– after all, a lot of swings for the fences are often also misses. The reason aggressiveness can be a criterion for this exercise, however, is that it worked. The team was aggressive, and yet still won a lot of games.

Consider, then, the following attributes to which we might assign “aggressive behavior.” Measuring how much a team swung and ostensibly tried to put the ball in play, ran on the basepaths, made remote-possibility catches, and used pinch runners covers at least a proxy for hitting, running, fielding, and managerial tactics.

Aggressive Teams
Criterion 2018 ARI 2019 ARI 2018 CHC 2018 MIL Advantage
Swing %* 45.5% 47.5% 47.3% 46.5% 2019 ARI
SB Attempt / PA** .0172 .0177 .0163 .0251 2018 MIL
Pinch runners used** 13 21 18 17 2019 ARI
Five-Star Outs*** 4 1 0 8 2018 MIL

The results are extremely close, with the aggressive edge going to the 2018 Brewers in two categories (base running and defense), and the 2019 Diamondbacks leading in two (hitting and managerial strategy).

There is more to consider in determining the best 2018 or 2019 team to follow in the absence of baseball, however. The on-field product is important, but given that we’re hoping to settle in with a team for an indeterminate amount of time, perhaps the presentation of the game itself should be taken into account.

To do so with the two remaining teams, we can look at the annual broadcaster ratings from Awful Announcing, which crowd-sources ratings for local broadcast teams. The 2019 Arizona team received a 1.98 average rating (23rd in the majors), and the 2018 Brewers received 2.63 (eighth in baseball).

The Brewers have the higher ranking and thus, a slight advantage in the overall analysis. It’s unfortunate there isn’t as much data around the local radio broadcasts, because we are, after all, looking for multimedia experiences as outlined earlier. However, the Brewers broadcast has Bob Uecker and I am unwilling to consider any ranking, arguments, or data to suggest any listening experience would top Milwaukee’s national treasure.

While there’s no replacement for a 2020 season, there’s a lot to be enjoyed in getting acquainted with a different team and having baseball on. Come March 26, consider queuing up the Brewers at the Padres from March 29, 2018, maybe with a hot dog on the grill if it’s nice out. Then we can watch the next game, and the day after that. pretending things are normal. Until they are again.

Sean Roberts writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. You can find him on twitter at @sean_hq or at
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Dennis Bedard
3 years ago

For those of us who came of age pre Ron Blomberg, there are other options:
1. Youtube has a great collection of WS games. You can watch Koufax dismantle the ’63 Yankees.
2. Play Strat-O-Matic. I still have my game box and pieces from 1975 and have collected about 100 different teams. You can re-play every WS game.
3. I have amassed a pretty good array of old Sporting News from the ’60’s and ’70’s. You can get lost dissecting old box scores and reading arcane details about players you thought were long gone down the memory hole.
4. Read. Last week, you had a piece on The Boys of Summer. Highly recommended. Also on any baseball fan’s must read list are “1949” and “1964” by David Halberstam. As good a history of baseball as you will ever read.