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The AL and NL each uniquely prove the drawbacks to expanded playoffs

Non-competitive races and non-competitive teams.

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

By the end of the weekend, we will have eliminated 14 teams from World Series contention. By the end of October, we will have eliminated the other 16. The expanded playoffs are nearly upon us, and for baseball fans in more than half of major league markets, the hope that their team wins the World Series will still persist. For now.

Unfortunately, the 16-team postseason doesn’t seem to just be a feature of this odd year. Rather, it is something that Commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball are considering long-term, with Manfred saying that “an overwhelming majority” of owners had already supported the idea prior to the pandemic.

That’s not really a surprise, given that the postseason is where the league generates much of its national TV revenue. That’s why during discussions to restart the 2020 season throughout the summer, the handling of the postseason was a salient issue. The entire reason the regular season is even ending on September 27 is because owners worried about increased COVID-19 risk (and therefore lost TV revenue) if the league played its postseason into November. (While, yes, it would be disappointing not to have a World Series champion in 2020, the owners’ excuse that they “need postseason revenue to remain afloat” falls flat, given the soaring values of the 30 franchises. In that same vein, the Mets just sold for a little shy of $2.5 billion.)

Permanent changes to the postseason still must be collectively bargained, but after one quick look at the standings, we can already understand why this should just be a relic of 2020 baseball. The two problems with a 16-team postseason format are both here, right now.

First, there’s the problem of a lack of competitiveness races. Enter the American League. As of this writing, seven of the eight teams have already officially punched their October tickets, and unless the Angels somehow pick up three games on the Astros with three left to play, the eight teams representing the AL today are the same eight teams that would have represented the AL on September 1. In fact, August 23 was the last date any of the non-playoff teams in the AL actually held a playoff spot. The cynical interpretation of this is that we’ve effectively been playing for seeding for an entire month of a two-month season, and there’s a pretty good argument to be made that this is actually true.

Using FanGraphs’ playoff odds, we can evaluate how much of the AL postseason field we’ve known over time by looking at the overall expected postseason value for the eight postseason teams. This is a pretty simple method: Since there are eight playoff teams, we can sum the cumulative probabilities that each of our eventual playoff teams have had over time and divide that by eight. This calculates the proportion of the eventual AL playoff field that we “knew” at that moment in time. Here is the data from each Monday throughout the season, as well as the pre-season odds. Also listed is which eventual AL playoff team had the lowest odds to make the postseason on that date:

The summed probabilities of the AL playoff field

Date Expected Value % of AL "Known" Lowest Odds
Date Expected Value % of AL "Known" Lowest Odds
9/21 7.955 99.4% Astros, 99.3%
9/14 7.905 98.8% Astros, 94.2%
9/7 7.727 96.6% Yankees, 88.8%
8/31 7.635 95.4% Blue Jays, 75.5%
8/24 7.494 93.7% Blue Jays, 61.4%
8/17 6.907 86.3% Blue Jays, 26.5%
8/10 6.407 80.1% Blue Jays, 24.0%
8/3 6.572 82.2% Blue Jays, 38.7%
7/27 6.262 78.3% Blue Jays, 31.1%
7/22 6.037 75.5% Blue Jays, 29.8%

What this demonstrates is that there have been few surprises in the AL. Even before any team had played a single game, the eight playoff teams already “made up” six spots collectively. That’s probably not too much of a surprise and not unique to an expanded postseason field — we usually have a pretty good idea of which teams are going to take most of the playoff spots before the season begins during normal years, too. For example, the Yankees were very likely to make the postseason in either format.

What is more disappointing about these numbers, though, is that the AL got very non-competitive very quickly. Once the Blue Jays had solidified their playoff odds, the field was pretty much set; they were the only AL team not predicted to make the postseason via FanGraphs’ pre-season odds that eventually clinched a spot. Thus, we already knew more than 90 percent of the American League playoff field on August 24. We can see this graphically as well:

Meanwhile, the National League provides us with a different story in non-competitiveness. While the AL playoff field was pretty much known throughout the season, the National League is still up in the air. That should make for a fun weekend of baseball and scoreboard watching, but does it really? The NL currently has six teams within two games of .500 fighting for four spots: the second-place NL East slot, the second-place NL Central slot, and the two Wild Cards. Once this is all settled, some combination of the Marlins, Reds, Cardinals, Phillies, Giants and Brewers will be in the postseason. Under baseball’s traditional postseason format, we’d only have to see one of these teams sneak in, who would be in for a date with the Padres in the NL Wild Card Game. Instead, we get a majority. Yay?

This is the other problem with the expanded playoff format: the rewarding of mediocrity. While it’s not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison — bubble teams might’ve tried harder at the trade deadline with an expanded playoff team in the past, for example — I took a look at the worst teams that would have made an expanded playoff format during the Wild Card era (since 2012). With the exception of 2012, each season would have seen at least one team under .500 clinch a playoff spot:

Worst team to earn a playoff spot in each league since 2012

Year League Worst Team Record Win% Spot
Year League Worst Team Record Win% Spot
2013 NL Padres/Giants 76-86 0.469 8 Seed
2017 NL Marlins 77-85 0.475 East 2
2018 AL Twins 78-84 0.481 Central 2
2019 AL Rangers 78-84 0.481 8 Seed
2014 NL Marlins/Mets 79-83 0.488 East 2
2015 NL D-Backs 79-83 0.488 8 Seed
2016 NL Marlins 79-82* 0.491 8 Seed
2017 AL Angels 80-82 0.494 West 2
2012 NL Phillies/D-Backs 81-81 0.500 8 Seed
2015 AL Indians 81-80* 0.503 8 Seed
2018 NL Nationals 82-80 0.506 East 2
2019 NL Cubs 84-78 0.519 8 Seed
2016 AL Yankees 84-78 0.519 8 Seed
2012 AL White Sox 85-77 0.525 Central 2
2014 AL Indians 85-77 0.525 8 Seed
2013 AL Orioles/Yankees 85-77 0.525 8 Seed

The winner of the 2013 tiebreaker between the Padres and Giants would have gone on to play the 97-65 and eventual NL champion Cardinals in the first round. Even if you assume that whichever team won that tiebreaker had as little as a 30 percent chance to win each game in a hypothetical Wild Card Round (which is pretty low for an individual baseball game), they’d still have about a 22 percent chance to win two of three games and move on to the Divisional Series. If you bump those odds to 35 percent, they’d have a 28 percent chance to move on. 40 percent? 35 percent chance to advance. Not all eight seeds are equal, of course, but if we assume that each eight seed has a 22 percent chance to advance (which, again, is probably low), the odds that, since 2012, we wouldn’t have seen a single top seed fall in the first round is just 1.8 percent.

It’s not a shock that more postseason teams means more randomness, but in a sport as random as baseball is already, it doesn’t seem right to start throwing sub-.500 teams into the mix under an expanded postseason format. I can understand the rationale of doing it in a 60-game season from a purely analytical standpoint — it is possible that a legitimately good and deserving team has had some unfortunate luck, luck that would more or less even out over 162, that hindered their postseason odds. After 162 games, however, we have a pretty good idea of which teams are actually deserving. From a competitiveness standpoint, there is no reason to extend an October invitation a 76-win team. That — or at least close to it — is what is happening in the NL right now.

The two main arguments against postseason expansion — races being decided way too early on and non-competitive teams clinching spots — have both been demonstrated through 2020 baseball. We had a pretty good handle on which teams would be representing the American League weeks ago, while the National League features plenty of mediocrity. To keep baseball competitive is to keep the postseason small.


Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.