MLB 2020 Playoffs Explained (Hopefully)

Baseball in 2020 is weird and MLB in 2020 is even weirder still. We have watched less than two months of MLB games, yet we are already in the crunch moment of the season with most teams having fewer than 15 games to go and it is time to start talking about the playoffs. The new 16-team playoffs that is.

For those who do not know the full details of the new format I will walk you through them in this article. As well as what we could expect and why they are here to save the Yankees/Astros/any big team you don’t like.

The how

On July 23, 2020, MLBPA and the owners agreed to expand to a 16-team playoff structure for the 2020 season and then on September 15, 2020, they agreed to play most of the postseason in neutral stadia. Here are the key pointers.

  • A new best of three series, called the Wild Card Series (WCS)
  • All games played at the home of the higher seeds.
  • Seeded in the following order: division winners by record (1-3), runner-up teams by record (4-6), and the two best teams remaining (7-8).
  • The WCS pairings will be as follows: top seed vs. eighth, second vs. seventh, third vs. sixth, and fourth vs. fifth.
  • The DS will have the 1-8 winner play the 4-5 winner, while the 2-7 winner plays the 3-6 winner.
  • No extra play-in games
    • The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record (if applicable).
    • If that is also a tie, the next tiebreaker is intra-division record.
    • If that is still a tie, the next is record in the final 20 division games (plus one until the tie is broken).
  • The Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series will all be held at neutral-site ballparks where players will be set up in nearby one-location bubbles
    • NLDS: Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas and Minute Maid Park in Houston 
    • ALDS: Petco Park in San Diego and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles 
    • NLCS: Globe Life Field
    • ALCS: Petco Park
    • World Series: Globe Life Field
  • Off days removed from DS and CS series meaning teams could go 5 or 7 days in a row.

The why

MLB’s position is that the 60-game regular season necessitated by COVID-19 meant that entirely regional-based schedules was the only sensible option. Thanks to the differing strengths of schedule the major drawback of this is that ‘All wins are equal, but some are more equal than others.’ Therefore, it made sense to expand beyond the usual 10-team format to make it fairer.

What they meant was that due to the randomness of a short season some big teams were not going to make into one of the tradition five playoff spots and to make sure they didn’t complain they we were placated with this new format.

Right now, a big team in question would be the Astros, last week it would have been the Yankees. The Astros do still occupy one of the new playoff spots but in the traditional method they would be 3.5 games behind the Blue Jays for the second wild card spot.

So that is why it is 16-teams, the reason for the neutral sites is that we have already had multiple team COVID-19 outbreaks during this season and an the neutral sites with bubbles approach would help minimize the risk of another outbreak. MLB cannot afford to have games be missed in the postseason for competitive integrity issues let alone the financial risk.

A secondary factor here is that these neutral bubbles may allow MLB to get some fans in seats more easily than at lots of different venues, which they obviously want as that is more money to the owners. The repetitive use of the same stadia should let them hone their safety protocols and maybe even slowly increase fan attendance over the postseason.

Is this the end of entropy?

One of the joys of coming to the end of a season for me is working out if there is the possibility of a game 163 or even game 164. That wonderful entropy that could occur with multiple teams tied on the same record sadly has been taken away from us but that still does not mean we won’t see something interesting.

The flaws in the system?

Firstly let’s look at the wildcard series. The method that MLB choose to seed the eight teams is remarkably similar to the current method, with the 2nd placed teams thrown in, but that isn’t actually a good thing. Here is the average number of wins by teams that would finish in the 1-8 seeds since the expansion to 30 teams in 1998.

The seeds do not go in order of average wins descending with the 4th seed being on average better than the 3rd and 7th better than the 6th. That means that some teams might not get the advantage they deserve from finishing with a higher win total. But is it enough for teams to try and game it?

Probably not, given this is the only round in the postseason where a team can have home field advantage which has tradition been 53% to 47% split towards the home team for even teams, which translates to 54.5% win probability for the team with home advantage over a 3-game series.

The team with the best record should have the best opportunity and although dropping from 2nd to 3rd might be worthwhile, it would not be if you accidentally dropped out of top spot in your league. This, and the drop from falling to 5th and losing the home field advantage is high enough risk to deter most teams here.

One thing to note though is that the benefit of finishing top has massively decreased from the previous seasons as you now must play a 3-game series to get to the DS instead of a straight bye and they no longer have home field advantage in the further rounds.

What we could see happening is teams that are guaranteed a playoff spot messing with their rotation in the last few games, so their pitchers are either rested or perfectly in line for the playoffs. Whereas the teams who are going to the wire may have use one of their top guns to even get there.

With the removal the off days in the DS & CS teams will most likely require a further starting pitcher than previously planned. Which could lead to greater differences between each teams starters, if the match ups can be manipulated.

For me, the optimal plan would be for team to be far enough ahead in their own division (or easily the best 2nd place team) with 4/5 games to go that they can sort starters for playoffs without fear of losing home field advantage for the WCS.

Could it be better?

The answer is almost definitely yes, but you would stray away from the previous system and that probably makes a difference in teams and players accepting the new format.

For me, the top teams should have more benefit throughout the entire playoffs than this system gives them. And I think the best way of doing that is to allow the top seeded teams to pick the teams they face. This should happen for all rounds and not just the first one.

A lot of people might not like this, but a special broadcast of the teams picking would be exciting to me. There would be added excitement and analysis done in the final few days of the season going over who teams should pick. Would teams pick the lowest ranked or a team whose top pitcher has just pitched or maybe even a team which has just had a big injury. And once into the playoffs would they pick a higher ranked team who just played a full 5 game series over a lower seeded one who had swept through in 3.

Especially with the bubbles in place so teams don’t have to travel to very different places based on the choices of the teams better seeded and the hard logistics of this in a normal season isn’t there.

Will we be satisfied?

I think the neutral will for the WCS, but you may not. This format should lead to someone unexpectedly dropping out in the WCS which will entertaining to everyone except that teams’ fans. If the Giants were to David the Goliath that is the Dodgers in the WCS we might all be talking about it for years and Dodgers’ fans will hate us for it.

For the rest of the neutral postseason who knows. But I’ll tell you one thing. If the Blue Jays win the World Series in Texas having players on their teams who have never played in Canada, I know of at least one Toronto fan who will be miffed.

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