With the recent COVID-19 outbreak in the Marlins clubhouse, who knows if the season will even be completed. Maybe talk about the playoffs is totally premature.
But since we’ve already started this crazy season, we might as well discuss another topic that has fallen under the radar at VEB. When it was announced in late June that the season would resume, MLB and the union could not come to an agreement, so we were told that there would be no expanded playoffs for 2020.
Hours before the first pitch on opening day, however, it was announced that both sides had agreed to an expanded 2020 playoff field of 16 teams.
*The regular season is still scheduled to end on Sunday, September 27th. There will then be one day off, and the first series, which MLB is billing as the “Wild Card Series,” will begin on Tuesday, September 29th and end on Friday, October 2nd.
WILD CARD SERIES AND SEEDING SYSTEM
In order to set up the matchups for the Wild Card Series, both the National League and American League will seed their playoff teams from #1 through #8.
*The #1, #2 and #3 seeds will be the winners of the divisions in order of winning percentage.
*The #4, #5 and #6 seeds will be the second place finishers in each division in order of winning percentage.
*The #7 and #8 seeds will be the next two teams with the best winning percentage in whatever division.
*To resolve ties among either seeds or whether a club makes the playoffs at all, there will be no equivalent of a Game 163 or Game 61 this season. No one-game playoffs this year. Instead, MLB will go the NFL route and just use a set of mathematical tiebreakers. The first is head-to-head record, if applicable. The second tiebreaker will be division record. The third tiebreaker is best record in the last 20 division games. If that doesn’t resolve it, the procedure will add 1 additional division game until it’s broken (last 21 division games, last 22, etc).
*Note that my specifying winning percentage is not an accident. MLB apparently recognized the possibility that all clubs would not play an equal number of games this season because of COVID-19. Already, due to the virus outbreak among the Miami Marlins, the Marlins, Phillies, Orioles and Yankees have games that have been postponed, and it is uncertain whether they will be made up. Almost every year, there have been clubs that have played only 161 games for example, because making up a rainout would not have affected the playoff race.
*But the winning percentage issue has has only affected the playoffs before in strike-shortened seasons. The most recent season that was affected was 1981. The Phillies won the “first half” NL East title over the Cardinals by 1.5 games in the standings. But the Phillies played 55 games, and the Cardinals only played 50 that counted (1 was a tie where the individual statistics counted, but the game didn’t count in the standings). The Dodgers won the “first half” NL West title over the Reds by one-half game, but played 1 more game than the Reds. If the Reds had been able to play one more game in the first half and won it, the two clubs would have been tied in the standings. The same thing happened to the Cardinals in the second half, when they lost out to the Expos by one-half game, despite playing 1 fewer game than the Expos. The 1972 AL East race was also affected by a work stoppage, with the Red Sox losing out to the Tigers by one-half game, despite playing one fewer game.
*The matchups will be #1 vs. #8, #2 vs. #7, #3 vs. #6, and #4 vs. #5. The series is 2 out of 3. The better seed gets to play all 3 games at home. There are no first-round byes. I am not 100% sure if there is one off-day baked into this series somewhere or not, but the announcement of the dates sounds like there is. A further announcement is forthcoming.
*Since the 2012 season, there has been one Wild Card game in each league. If every “Wild Card Series” goes the distance, we will be treated to 22 total extra playoff games, almost certainly with no fans. With 8 separate series, ESPN will carry 7 of the series, and TBS will carry the other.
*The better seeds will get home field advantage in both the LDS and LCS. The World Series club with the best record gets home field advantage.
CURRENT AREAS OF CONFUSION
TIES BETWEEN THREE OR MORE CLUBS
I am sure we will be provided more information later, but I am confused about what will happen in the case of a tie between 3 or more clubs. In the NFL, which uses the seeding system, it is specifically spelled out in the tiebreaking procedures that only one club advances to the playoffs in any tiebreaking step. Remaining tied clubs revert to the first step of the applicable tiebreakers.
The best example I can give of this is the 2017 NFL season. I used to be keenly interested in the NFL tiebreaking scenarios and still have notes from back then. At the end of the season, four AFC clubs were 9-7: Titans, Bills, Ravens and Chargers. In the NFL, the #1 through #4 seeds went to the division winners, and the #5 and #6 seeds were wild cards. In this situation, none of those clubs won their division, and both the #5 and #6 seeds for the AFC were up for grabs. Here it is how it was resolved:
*The first tiebreaker was head-to-head sweep, and none of the clubs did that. The next tiebreaker was conference record and the Titans were awarded the #5 seed immediately on the basis of that tiebreaker because their conference record (8-4) was better than the Bills and Ravens (7-5) and the Chargers (6-6).
*Then, to decide the #6 seed, the procedure went back to step 1 for the remaining 3 clubs. There was no head-to-head sweep among the Bills, Ravens or Chargers. The Ravens and Bills were tied with a 7-5 conference record, and the Chargers were eliminated at this step because their conference record was the worst among the 3 clubs at 6-6.
*Then it went back to step 1 again between the Bills and Ravens. There was no head-to-head matchup, the clubs had identical conference records and identical records against common opponents, so the Bills finally won the #6 seed on the strength of victory tiebreaker, which you will thank me for not diving into.
*Will MLB handle the tiebreakers the same way? One can easily envision a scenario like the above unfolding, especially this season where not all clubs within a league play each other. Let’s suppose in the scenario described above that after the Titans won the #5 seed, there was a head-to-head sweep among the Bills Ravens, and Chargers by the Chargers. In that case the #6 seed would have been awarded to the Chargers. But what if the rules didn’t specify that the procedure reverted to step 1 among the remaining tied clubs. What if the rules said that once the top tiebreaker didn’t resolve the 4-way tie, it couldn’t resolve the 3-way tie, either? The difference in the rules would have dictated whether the Chargers made the playoffs or not. It will be interesting to see the final tiebreaker document if one is produced.
BRACKET STYLE FOR LDS AND LCS?
In the announcement on the MLB.com website, Anthony Castrovince stated that, in the LDS, the winner of the #1 vs. #8 series would play the winner of the #4 vs. # 5 series. And the winner of the #2 vs. #7 series would play the winner of the #3 vs. #6 series. Then in the LCS, the winner of 1-4-5-8 would play the winner of the 2-3-6-7.
This is different than the NFL seeding system, where the matchups for subsequent rounds are not announced until all games are played and the best seed always plays the worst seed, no matter what. But under this framework, suppose the following happens in the Wild Card Series: #1 beats #8, #2 beats #7, #5 beats #4 and #6 beats #3. As I understand the announcement, #1 would play #5 and #2 would play #6 in the LCS. To me, that defeats the purpose of the seeding system. Shouldn’t #1 play #6? I wonder if that was a mistake or a misunderstanding, but it doesn’t make sense or seem fair.
CAN WE NOT REPEAT THIS FORMAT PLEASE?
Although I would have been interested to see which teams could navigate this virus-wracked season and come out on top in the normal format, I don’t have a serious objection to using the expanded format this year. My fear, however, is that all parties concerned will become enamored with the TV money and adopt this format in the future. If it happens in a full season, teams with a losing record will make the playoffs on a regular basis. I went back by hand and worked out all seasons since 1995 as if this format had been in place. Figuring out the exact seeds and teams didn’t prove possible in a couple of instances because postponed games were not made up on the grounds that they would not have affected the playoff race in certain years. But based on my rough napkin notes, here is what I found:
*44 clubs over that time frame would have made the playoffs with a .500 winning percentage or worse.
*The only years that no seed at all had a .500 or worse record were 2000, 2003 and 2009.
*With every 2nd place team in every division automatically making the playoffs, sometimes that #6 seed has been really bad. I found 13 cases where the #6 seeds had a losing record, with the worst being the 2005 Diamondbacks and 2017 Marlins (77-85 record). Thus, you will see cases where the 3rd best division winner plays a worse team in the Wild Card Series than the 1st and 2nd best division winners.
*The 2013 Giants would have made it as the #8 seed with a 76-86 record, winning the head-to-head tiebreaker over the 76-86 Padres.
*Under this format, the Cardinals would have made the playoffs in the following additional seasons: 1998 (#7 seed, winning the head-to head tiebreaker over the Dodgers), 2003 (#8 seed), 2008 (#7 or #8 seed, depending on the results of a makeup game the Astros would have been required to play), 2010 (#6 seed), 2016 (#6 seed), 2017 (#8 seed) and 2018 (#7 seed). At least the Cards did not have a losing record in any of those seasons.
Can you imagine the weeping, wailing and nashing of teeth that would take place if the best team in the game got skunked in two games by a team with a losing record and was eliminated? Please, MLB and MLBPA, don’t get sucked in. If you do, the regular season won’t mean diddly poo.