Without stepping on the field, the Red Sox got a lot closer to being a playoff-caliber team Thursday.
Major League Baseball and the Players Association agreed Thursday, just before the first pitch of the season, to expand the playoff field from 10 to 16 teams. That is a considerable alteration to the postseason hopes of teams, with the compressed season now far more forgiving of mediocrity.
In a typical season, each league has five playoff teams, three division winners and two wild cards. The wild cards play a single game to advance to the four-team Division Series round.
This year, each league will have eight playoff teams: the three division winners and three second-place teams as well as two wild-card teams. All playoff qualifiers will take part in a best-of-three round, with all three games to be played in the home park of the higher seed.
In the event that two or more teams are tied either for the second spot in the division or the second wild-card spot, there won’t be any tiebreaker games. Instead, a host of NFL-style tiebreakers will resolve the ties: head-to-head record if applicable, then division record, then the last 20 division games, then the last 21 division games, then the last 22 division games, etc., until the tie is broken.
If 2019 is any indication, that format lowers the bar considerably for what it will take to qualify for the playoffs. Baseball-Reference.com’s Streak Finder allows a comparison of team performances over every 60-game stretch of the season (i.e. Games 1-60, 2-62 … 103-162).
In the 103 distinct 60-game stretches of 2019, the average cutoff to qualify for the playoffs in a 10-team field was 34.4 wins in the American League and 33.2 wins in the National League. Over those 60-game stretches, the worst record that would have qualified for the playoffs out of the AL was 32-28 (.533), while there would have been instances of 30-30 teams reaching the postseason in the NL.
The addition of six more teams into the postseason drops the standard for qualifying quite a bit. Under the 16-team format, the last seed in the AL would have required, on average, 29.8 wins; the last NL seed would have been claimed, on average, by teams with 30.1 wins.
On one hand, the expanded field decreases the likelihood that a bad start will doom a very good team. Under the 10-team format, the 2019 Nationals — who overcame a brutal start to surge into a wild card spot and then won the World Series — would have missed the playoffs in roughly 25 percent of last season’s 60-game stretches. Under the 16-team format, they would have missed the playoffs in roughly 15 percent.
Under the 10-team playoff field, last year’s Red Sox (84-78) would have made the playoffs in 30.1 percent of the season’s 60-game stretches while tying for the second wild-card spot 16.5 percent of the time. Under the 16-team format, they’d have made the playoffs 97.1 percent of the time, and tied for the second wild-card spot in the other 2.9 percent of stretches.
Unsurprisingly, with more than half of MLB’s 30 teams in the playoff pool, teams that played .500 ball or better over the course of the full season had strong odds of making the postseason. Every team that finished 2019 with a record of .500 or better would have qualified for the expanded playoffs in at least half of the season’s 60-game stretches.
But while such a format protects good teams, it also could reward some very bad teams. The Royals (59-103) and Blue Jays (67-95), for instance, went 26-34 over one late-season 60-game stretch, a performance that tied them for what would have been the eighth seed in the AL. In another 60-game stretch, the Royals tied with the Angels (72-90) for the eighth seed with a 25-35 performance.
Some 60-game stretches would have generated considerable drama and tiebreaker chaos, though with a somewhat uninspired race to the bottom seed. Games 50-109 of last season, for instance, would have yielded five clear playoff teams (Washington, Atlanta, the Dodgers, Giants, and Cardinals) and six teams — including three in the NL Central — tied at 29 wins.
Lost in such scenarios is the possibility of outstanding teams slugging it out in a race for a postseason spot. Under the 10-team format, there were instances where a team needed to go at least 38-22 (.633) in order to qualify for the playoffs in a 60-game stretch. Under the 16-team format, the highest cutoff point by a second wild-card team was more modest — and more broadly attainable — at 33-27 (.550).
In other words, excellence is no longer a prerequisite for the postseason in 2020. Assuming that this most unusual of seasons proves capable of being played to its conclusion, the door to October has been opened to teams that aspire to baseball’s broad middle in the regular season — and who will then have a chance to upend everything once the playoffs commence.
|10-TEAM PLAYOFF FIELD||AL||NL|
|Average wins of lowest playoff seed||34.4||33.2|
|Maximum wins of lowest playoff seed||38||38|
|Minimum wins of lowest playoff seed||32||30|
|16-TEAM PLAYOFF FIELD||AL||NL|
|Average wins of lowest playoff seed||29.8||30.1|
|Maximum wins of lowest playoff seed||33||33|
|Minimum wins of lowest playoff seed||25||28|