For the first time in baseball’s storied history, there’s a chance that a team with a losing record could win the World Series. Magical, isn’t it?
On the surface, there’s nothing too crazy about the new MLB playoffs bracket. In the first round (which they are calling the Wild Card Series) we’ll see 1/8, 2/7, 3/6, and 4/5 matchups in best-of-three matchups all at the home team’s stadium. After that round, there’s no reseeding — things will pick up exactly like the Divisional Series format that we’ve seen in years past. Give it a look below.
— MLB (@MLB) September 15, 2020
If the opening round goes chalk, we get the MLB playoffs we’re used to seeing. The best division winner gets the best team that didn’t win their division, and the other two division winners face off.
So what’s the problem?
Why Bother with a Bracket?
I know that you want to argue about the possibility of a 100-win team losing to a team with a sub-.500 record. But put a pin in that. In fact, put a pin in baseball altogether.
When we talk brackets, it’s hard not to talk about the NCAA basketball tournament. What that tournament seems to understand about itself is that it has two different parts doing two different things well. The first weekend of the tournament lets casual fans catch up with which teams and players are fun to watch and leans hard into chaos. Dozens of teams that have no real chance of winning the entire tournament play games that are worth watching because the stakes are just so high. We don’t have to believe that any team can win the tournament. We just have to accept that any team can lose. By the second weekend, though, everything is different. At that point, we do have to at least consider that any of the last 16 teams could win, even if it’s unlikely. In the end, we’re not supposed to believe that the best team won, just that the winner earned it.
What differentiates the NCAA tournament from a rock-paper-scissors tournament is that some teams are much, much better than others. The best teams win more than 80 percent of their regular-season games and expect to advance to the Sweet 16. The same thing generally holds true in the NBA playoffs: the top teams almost invariably win about 75 percent of their games in the regular season, and it’s big deal when they lose a series to a true underdog. The opening rounds exist to get casual fans up to speed while the best teams beat up on inferior foes, and later on, the top seeds face off with the title within sight. Early on, the seven-game series protects the top seeds, and later it means we have more basketball to watch. It’s great.
So, let’s go back to that pin we put on baseball. What’s different? In short: it’s that baseball games are way, way more chaotic than basketball. From 2015-2019, just 13 teams won even 60 percent of their games. That’s roughly a quarter of playoff teams over the past five years. By comparison, 39 NBA teams won at least 60 percent of their games over the last five full seasons, almost exactly half of those that made the playoffs. We can trust the best basketball teams to beat a .500 team in a playoff series. We can’t trust anything to happen in baseball.
That’s been the best reason not to expand the playoffs in years past. When the gap between a division winner and a .500 team is about as big as between a 7-seed and a 10-seed in the NCAA tournament, there’s just no reason to give mediocre teams a chance. If we’re to believe that the World Series is earned, we have to eliminate the possibility that a team with a losing record is functionally a few dice rolls away from winning it.
So why bother with a bracket?
Well, people like brackets.
Is Best-of-Three the Worst?
Since the announcement of the expanded playoffs, not knowing that baseball has as much parity as it does has been a great way for Online Dudes to show off that they don’t watch regular-season baseball. Just pick any number of the responses to this tweet.
If a 79-83 team can eliminate a 101-61 team from championship contention by winning two of three games, THEN THERE IS NO ACTUAL CHAMPIONSHIP.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) September 16, 2020
I’m using Dan Szymborski as an example because I know that he, the person who creates ZiPS projections each year, knows something about probability. And I agree with him in principle. Creating a world where the Dodgers could fail to roll at least three twice in a row and be eliminated is transparently stupid. But I’m skeptical of how much limiting the first round to three games would matter. Even a seven-game series is unpredictable — adding on a few more chances for a marginally better team to win won’t change much.
Let’s do some back-of-the-napkin math to show why. I’m going to simplify things a little bit here: using a .500 team (81-win pace) and a .600 (97-win pace) team as an example, let’s assume that the better team wins a game about 55% of the time (I’m averaging their win probabilities, which is probably wrong but won’t affect the results much). The odds of the better team winning a best-of-three series is about 57.5%, but those odds increase only slightly in a five-game series to 59.3% and to 60.8% in a seven-game series. I’ve computed these probabilities by hand; for a Monte Carlo-simulation approach that gets to about the same conclusion, check out Kenneth Tay’s work at Statistical Odds & Ends.
Guaranteeing division winners home-field advantage for all three games this year maybe further levels flattens the odds. Despite some early indications that home-field advantage had disappeared in 2020, the “home” team has so far won more than 55% of games this year. There’s definitely some pollution in that stat with a handful of makeup doubleheaders where teams have been the “home” team on the road, but our data is still isn’t far from baseball’s historic .530 home-field advantage. So in the first round, a team that won 10% more games in the regular season probably wins 60% of the time, which is about as often as we’d expect them to win a five-game or seven-game series at a neutral site.
In other words: it doesn’t really matter the setup of the new Wild Card round. Its existence in any form is the issue.
Does Seeding Help the Better Teams?
So, it seems like we’re barreling toward a playoff likely to be defined by chaos. At least it’s going to be equally chaotic for everyone, right?
Because this year’s playoffs function like an expansion of the old system rather than something designed on purpose to avoid strange outcomes, it carries on the previous system’s great flaw of ignoring a team’s record in favor of benefiting division winners. And this made a great deal of sense. It wasn’t until 1994 that the MLB allowed teams that didn’t win their division into the postseason, a move that mirrored changes in the NFL playoffs. The MLB didn’t steal the NFL’s reseeding setup. And I can’t believe I’m writing this, but this element is what makes the NFL playoffs better than the MLB’s.
For the best look at why, we need to look at the 2015 National League Wild Card game.
In 2015, the Cubs and Pirates squared off for the right to play the St. Louis Cardinals in a five-game series. This was right and good because the Cardinals won the NL Central, and the Cubs and Pirates didn’t. So, what did that tiny playoff bracket look like?
The Pirates and Cubs didn’t just have the second-best and third-best records in the NL Central. With 98 and 97 wins, respectively, they had the second-best and third-best records in the MLB. And so we rewarded them by making them play each other — and they rewarded the Cardinals for winning that stacked division by making them play the winner of that ridiculous Wild Card game.
The NFL avoids this issue by reseeding after the wild card round. The NHL reseeds after the first round. And the NBA just doesn’t care about winning divisions, so weird second-round matchups are rare and the result of fair starting place.
So, what happens if we lazily assume nothing changes, how would the 2015 playoffs look in the new format?
I want to look in particular at that 3/6 matchup. The Mets were the worst division winner, and the Nationals were the worst runner-up. The new bracket then rewards both of them by having them face each other. The Cardinals get an opponent that their best overall record deserves in the 79–83 Diamondbacks, but the second-seed Dodgers draw the 98-win Cubs.
I know what you’re saying: isn’t this unlikely? Well, not quite. The team with the best record in its league would have faced the playoff team with the worst record just six times in the last five years, compared to three times for the third seed (I’m not counting the 2017 AL playoffs, where the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds all would have had the same record). The second seeds would have drawn weaker first-round opponents than the third seeds just twice in the past five years. And that’s an issue.
The incentives are a little more muddled for the division runner-ups, but I still suspect there’s incentive to be the sixth seed instead of the fifth. The best Wild-Card team had a better record than a division winner half the time in the past five years, making being sixth better in the first round about half the time. But more importantly, being sixth also means avoiding the top overall team in the divisional round.
It’s really, really clear what the incentives are here. If it’s better to be the third seed than the second seed, or better to be sixth than fifth, why not engage in some selective last-week tanking?
I should probably take care not to contradict what I’ve said previously. I’m not all that sure that a team improves its World Series odds all that much by facing a team that won five fewer games. But given the extreme ends that teams will go to just to find some tiny edge, it’s not all that hard to see scenarios where teams take some effort to end up in those spots.
Who Should Tank This Year?
Let’s start with the National League. The Padres have the second-best record at 32–19, but are fairly likely to be the fourth seed. This is because the Dodgers sit at 35–15, an unreal 113-win pace. Despite these two teams vacuuming up wins, the Giants (24–24) and even Rockies (22–26) are both in playoff contention. Part of this is that the Diamondbacks are finding new and interesting ways to lose baseball games. But equally important is that the division is a combined 48–31 against the AL West. Even Arizona has a winning record in interleague play!
So, with the top two teams in the league locked into the first and fourth spots, that means that the Cardinals, Reds, Giants, Phillies, and Marlins could have huge incentives to lose just enough games in order to avoid being the fifth or eighth seeds. Both the Braves and Cubs are quality teams, but they are both decisively thinner in the pitching department that either of the two teams out west. Matching up with one of them in the first round probably means meeting the other in the next round. And that means that one way or another, the sixth and seventh seeds probably have a better chance of making the World Series than the fifth seed. This is especially true given that there will be no rest days during playoff series — give the Cubs just one start from Yu Darvish and they look slightly more vulnerable.
The ripple effects of the weak NL Central could cause similar problems in the AL, where the White Sox, Twins, and Indians are all likely to cause problems in the playoffs, potentially for each other. So how does a team tank to win in the AL? Well, that’s going to depend on which AL East teams they fear least. The A’s seem locked into their division title and a top-three seed, as do the Rays. It’s not impossible to see them maneuvering to face their pick of Toronto, Houston, or Cleveland, depending on how things shake out for them. The Astros in particular look vulnerable — facing them could mean a much cleaner path through than going through Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco, and some combination of Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale (Zaaron Plesivale? Aarack Civalesac?).
I have low expectations for this. Reports indicate that the MLB is interested in making these changes permanent, which scares me because I prefer a world where we can at least pretend that the best team won the World Series. So in the interest of the sport’s future, let’s hope that Marlins tank their way to a third World Series win, if only to scare Manfred out of doing this again.
Photo by Andrew Dieb & Kyusung Gong/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)