Expanded Playoffs Always Made Sense for 2020on July 24, 2020 at 4:35 pm

Expanded Playoffs Always Made Sense for 2020

Just ahead of the start of the season, MLB and the MLBPA announced an agreement to add an additional round of playoff games to the postseason, eliminating the Wild Card as we knew it for this season only. While they were reportedly part of several of the proposals to resume play, when the players and owners didn’t revise the March agreement, expanded playoffs fell to the wayside. But the lead-up to the regular season apparently gave the sides more time to work out a deal (any changes to the playoff structure have to be collectively bargaine), so here we are. As detailed last night when we frantically changed our playoff odds page, there will be:

  • 16 Playoff Teams
  • Division winners will receive the top three seeds in each league
  • Second-place division finishers will receive the 4-6 seeds in each league
  • The two teams in each league with the best records apart from those six will be the seventh and eighth seeds
  • The top four seeds in each league will host every game in a best-of-three Wild Card Series to advance to the division series

In terms of the agreement, players will receive a playoff pool totaling $50 million; competitive balance tax money will not be collected this season, which should save the Yankees $8 million to $10 million. The television rights to seven of the eight first-round series will go to ESPN, with the other series going to TBS. The revised 60-game regular season schedule ended up giving FOX and FS1 the same number of televised games, with TBS missing out on a handful of games and ESPN losing a significant part of their regular season schedule. Providing TBS with an extra game or two and ESPN with somewhere between 14 and 21 playoff games (they were previously paying $27 million for a single Wild Card game) likely allows MLB to recover the bulk, or potentially all, of the lost national television revenue for the 2020 season despite the shortened schedule.

As for the ramifications on the field, the extra round of playoffs blends multiple purposes with respect to the season. A shortened regular season means more variation and makes it more difficult to determine who the best teams are. There’s a much greater chance of an otherwise good team missing out on the playoffs due mostly to dumb luck. Take the Dodgers as an example. In a 162-game season, our playoff odds put their chances of making the playoffs at 97%. When the season is shortened to 60 games, those odds go down to 86%. There’s no change in talent between those two situations, but the shorter season makes it so that talent mixes more with luck, resulting in the Dodgers not making the playoffs as often. Adding an extra round and three more teams per league puts the Dodgers odds of making the playoffs back up to 95%. Good teams missing the playoffs because of a shortened season is something probably best avoided if we want the best possible showcase in October.

On the other side of the coin is the obvious fact that teams that might not be very good will make the playoffs. The Rangers and Rockies would have made the playoffs after 60 games in this format last season. While potentially undeserving teams might make the playoffs, the odds of an undeserving team winning the World Series remain quite low. Maybe a team will sneak into the playoffs with an unhealthy dose of luck, but if that same team then plays and beats four decent-to-great teams on the way to the title, it’s hard to argue they don’t deserve it.

Here’s a look at the change in playoff odds by team compared to the old format. The new playoff odds are highlighted in orange:

Almost all of the teams seeing big boosts in playoff odds already had a decent shot at making the postseason. They were all essentially decent or better teams. At the bottom of the table, we see the teams we don’t expect to make the playoffs; those clubs still don’t have a great shot at making the playoffs. Where the changes have the biggest impact in the playoffs is in making it to the divisional round. A division title used to guarantee passage, but now a three-game Wild Card series, even with all the games played in the more-highly seeded team’s home park, takes a chunk out of the odds for the best teams:

For the most part, the changes aren’t dramatic. Teams that see their chances of making the playoffs increase are then subject to three road games, which cuts into their odds of winning the next round. More than half the teams see a change of five percentage points or less. Only the teams with the best projections see a significant dip, but keep in mind this model helps make sure those talented teams don’t miss the playoffs due to dumb luck in the first place. By the time we get to the World Series, most of the odds have evened out:

We see mostly small increases for a majority of teams and all but two teams within one percentage point of their prior championship odds. The Astros and Dodgers see bigger changes in their odds than most teams due to the extra round, but it seems like a small price to pay to help make it more likely they don’t miss the playoffs entirely, and give more teams a chance to compete and eliminate some of the variation associated with the short regular season.

A short best-of-three might not be the ideal expanded playoff solution, but given the present limitations, it’s better than the old format for this season. Putting in at least two teams from each division also helps eliminate the potential lack of fairness posed by unbalanced schedules (I’m looking at you, Central Divisions). Teams are facing significantly different levels of competition during the 60-game season, increasing the randomness that the season could present. Evening that out and giving more teams the chance to prove themselves in a potentially grueling playoff run is about the best we can hope for this season.

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