MLB Announces Altered 2020 Postseason Formaton September 16, 2020 at 1:00 pm

MLB Announces Altered 2020 Postseason Format

If you like last-second changes to the postseason structure, this has been the year for you. Hours before the season started, MLB announced an expanded playoff format that will see 16 teams qualify. Yesterday, the league announced another structural change:

The bubble-like-substance playoffs (more on this in a moment) require some unpacking, so let’s unpack. The National League playoffs will take place in Texas — in Houston and Arlington for the NLDS, then Arlington for the NLCS. The American League playoffs will be their mirror in California — the ALDS will be in Los Angeles and San Diego, with the ALCS exclusively in San Diego.

It sounds weird, offhand, to have the NL playoffs in AL stadiums and vice versa. It’s a necessary step, however, to avoid creating home field advantage in a system designed to create neutral sites. Play AL games in Houston, and the Astros could find themselves “at” the Rays in a game played in Minute Maid. While home field advantage has been subdued this year, it also hasn’t been zero. The season is already going to be extremely weird, but MLB — rightly, in my opinion — drew the line at some playoff teams playing in their home cities.

That’s not to say it can’t happen — at least theoretically. The World Series will be played in Arlington, too, and the Rangers are not yet mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. As the only one of the four host cities not currently in playoff position — and fortuitously for MLB, the team with the newest stadium — Arlington was a natural choice for the World Series.

Oh yeah — though most news releases have called these bubble cities, and the playoffs a bubble system, that’s an inaccurate characterization. Teams in postseason contention will move to hotels next week for the final stretch of the regular season to “quarantine,” which I’ve placed in quotations because that’s not a great description of staying in a hotel but continuing to travel between cities and go to the ballpark. Many of us call that “business travel,” though baseball prefers the pandemic nomenclature.

From there, the league will establish “bubble sites” — again, quotations because of characterization — in each city. These will consist of locations near the ballpark where each team is sequestered. MLB has not yet announced a protocol for the various ballpark staff in each city, but they’ll be involved somewhere in the process as well. The teams will still travel between rounds, which further makes the term “bubble” confusing. It’s a permeable bubble that is sometimes not a bubble, I suppose.

Bubbles, or lack thereof, aside, there will be one major structural change to the postseason. For this year — and presumably this year only — the divisional and championship rounds will be played without off days. The divisional round will take place over five consecutive days, followed by a day off, followed by as many as seven consecutive days of championship series play.

To a far greater extent than the “bubble” system, this will change the way the postseason works. The former cadence of the playoffs lent itself to shortened rotations. The fifth game of the divisional series took place six days after the first — two travel days, one after the second and one after the fourth game, accounted for the time.

The way the math worked, it was hardly “strategy” to switch to a four-man rotation. It was simply the only way to do business. The starters from Game 1 and Game 2 were always available on full rest for Game 5. It’s not rocket science to use one of those two instead of a fifth starter. The two off days in the championship series enabled the same strategy.

With no travel days this year, a potential Game 5 would only be four days after the first game of the series. That would be three days’ rest for the Game 1 starter, with the alternative being a fifth starter or bullpen game. In isolation, that might lead many teams to go with the three days’ rest plan. The fifth starters for the 16 teams with the best playoff odds aren’t exactly an imposing group:

Your mileage may vary on which of these pitchers are actually their teams’ fifth starters, but it’s a rough cut of the kind of pitching talent that would show up in these games. Most teams would jump at the chance to use a top starter on short rest over them if that were the entire equation.

Due to the compressed nature of the second round, however, it won’t work that way. After a travel day, the championship series will begin. It, too, has no rest days, which puts you in the same bind, only with your best starter unavailable to start the series. To make two starts in that round, a pitcher who threw in Game 5 of the divisional round would need to start Game 3 (on three days’ rest) and then Game 7 (on three days’ rest again).

Quantifying the cost of consecutive short-rest starts is beyond the scope of this article, but it’s not free. Use a fifth starter, and you can get two full-rest starts from your ace in the second series. Is upgrading from short rest to full rest twice in the next series worth the difference between pitching your fifth starter and pitching your ace on short rest? The answer likely varies by team, and that’s an interesting tactical consideration where none previously existed.

Of course, just because something creates interesting tactical questions doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. If your opponent could choose your best player and force them to bat once and once only in each game, choosing when to use them would be interesting, but it wouldn’t be fun, or fair, or desirable in more or less any way.

The rollout of this new structure isn’t as capricious as that, but it’s close. Per Aaron Boone, teams only learned of the new structure this week, after the trade deadline. This means that no team had a chance to prepare for this style of playoffs — fifth starters have traditionally carried less trade value than their regular season value would indicate because the playoff structure diminishes their value, which won’t be the case this year.

I’d love to see this playoff setup in coming years, because the decision between short-rest aces and fifth starters is an enjoyable decision to consider. It also amps up the drama of the game — if one team uses their fifth starter and the other their ace, there’s a great risk-reward story to be told. If one team jumps out to a lead, they might consider pulling their ace early — the Jack Flaherty gambit. There are plenty of opportunities for shenanigans.

Dropping this rule on September 15 doesn’t mean that the shenanigans won’t happen, but it does feel like it unfairly changes the rules of the game at a late stage. The Dodgers happen to have Tony Gonsolin — for my money the best fifth starter of the bunch — but other teams would likely have pursued rotation upgrades had they known this detail. The 2020 season has been full of rules changes and convenient one-season gadgetry, but that was done out of necessity. Nothing prevented MLB from making this tweak before the trade deadline, which would have made it feel far more reasonable to me.

Regardless of a random internet baseball writer’s opinions on fairness, the new postseason format is set. The games will be fast and furious, wall-to-wall baseball: as many as 24 games in four days to settle the Wild Card round, followed by another blitz of between 12 and 20 games over a six-day span.

One silver lining: this plan likely covers enough contingencies that it makes further alterations unnecessary. Bad air quality in California? The league is leaning toward using Phoneix as an alternate site. Want to bring in a player from your alternate site? You can’t — teams will submit 40-man rosters to MLB by September 20 and “quarantine” the whole group. Fans in the stands? Uh… okay, this one isn’t settled yet.

For the most part though, the structure of the playoffs is set, at long last. All that remains is a sprint through the last two weeks of the season, followed by a second sprint through the postseason. May your fifth starters be ever in your favor — at least for 2020. Oh, and — also maybe 2021 and beyond. Rob Manfred told The Washington Post that the expanded postseason is likely to remain beyond 2020 if owners get their way, a distressing possibility for a sport that still plans to play 162-game regular seasons.

Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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