Major League Baseball finally has a plan for the 2020 season, and at this point, that plan doesn’t include an expanded postseason format.
Rumors and discussions over the last few months centered around a possible expansion to as many as 16 teams vying for a World Series ring in October. The number remains an even 10, with five teams from each league being represented. However, the path to October will have a vastly different look and feel.
The old expression “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” will not apply in 2020. The season will be at full speed from opening day on July 23 or July 24 until Sept. 27 after commissioner Rob Manfred imposed a 60-game regular-season schedule on Monday.
If you like chaos, this fast-paced, in your face version of MLB will have some appeal.
Of course, not everyone likes chaos. Baseball purists might not be thrilled with the division-heavy schedule, a universal designated hitter or the heavily altered extra-inning rules. But unique circumstances lend themselves to unique solutions. And those solutions will give us a season unlike any we’ve seen before.
With that in mind, here’s a look at how an abbreviated schedule could have impacted the 2019 postseason picture, and which teams might be impacted the most this season.
How the postseason will set up
The postseason brackets will not be altered in any way. Three division winners and two wild cards from each league will make the postseason. But again, the path to the postseason will be different.
Teams will play a division and region-heavy schedule. For example, the New York Yankees will play 40 games against American League opponents, and 20 against teams from the National League East. In other words, the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox, will not play each other until October, if they play at all.
The schedule could definitely provide some advantages and disadvantages.
How this format would have altered the 2019 postseason
This isn't a precise exercise since teams played a traditional schedule in 2019. However, looking at the standings after 60 games illustrates how unpredictable and/or chaotic that sample size can be.
In the American League, the Yankees (38-22), Twins (40-20) and Astros (40-20) would have won their respective divisions. Those all held true. The Tampa Bay Rays (37-23) and Texas Rangers (32-28) would have locked up wild cards. The Rangers went on to finish six games under .500 while the Oakland Athletics surged to the top wild-card spot.
In the National League, the Dodgers (41-19) ran away out West. The East and Central were both tied after 60 games. The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves at 33-27. The Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs at 34-26. The result would have been two tiebreaker games to determine the division champions, with the losing teams becoming wild cards.
You’ll notice a certain team is missing from that scenario. The eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals were just 27-33 at that point, which put them six games behind the division and the wild card. The St. Louis Cardinals (31-29) went on to win the NL Central, while the Cubs and Phillies missed the postseason completely.
Who will benefit from a 60-game sprint
The fans will benefit. Irked as they might be now with the league and players, a short season promises to provide more meaningful games in September and October.
As you see from last season’s standings, this setup also provides opportunities for fast-starting teams that might otherwise be left behind in a 162-game season. Teams like the Reds, White Sox and Padres, who are working toward the fringe of contention, could be this season’s Rangers with a good four-to-six week stretch. Likewise, the Cubs, who faded down the stretch last season, could have an easier time staying afloat in 60 games. Playing more games against equal or lesser competition helps their cause as well.
Who will be hurt by a 60-game sprint
It’s not great news for MLB’s contenders. A slow start will be difficult to overcome. A series of injuries or a large number of key players sitting out would also hurt their chances. The margin for error will be much, much smaller.
Even if they make the postseason, it’s not like MLB’s best teams haven’t been prone to October upsets. Since its inception in 1995, 13 wild card teams have advanced to the World Series. Of those 13, seven won it all. This season, that gets even more jumbled up. With fewer games and a unique schedule, a more difficult path to the playoffs could materialize for some contenders while other mid-tier teams get a schedule boost.
In MLB, it often boils down to which teams are playing the best baseball at the right time. That won’t change in 2020, but the likelihood the World Series champion is closer to average than very good or great certainly increases.
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