It will be a Major League Baseball postseason like we’ve never seen before: 16 teams, no fans, played in neutral-site ballparks after the first round of the MLB playoffs with a World Series at a new stadium that most players have never seen hosted by a franchise that has never won a championship.
As a friend of mine who lives in Chicago told me about one potential World Series matchup, “If it’s Cubs-White Sox played in suburban Dallas, I would vomit.”
I understand the sentiment, but it’s what we have. We will crown a champion, even under these less-than-ideal circumstances. The Los Angeles Dodgers enter as the favorite after winning their eighth straight division title. Winning is hard enough — for the 20th year in a row, there won’t be a repeat champion — but now the Dodgers and everyone else will have to face another obstacle: a best-of-three wild-card round.
What does that mean? A great team like the Dodgers — they have a run differential 50 runs better than any other team — is more likely to get upset in a short series than a longer one. The Dodgers don’t lose many series — they lost just one all season, to the sub-.500 Rockies — but anything goes in a three-game set, especially when you’re facing only a team’s best pitchers. We wondered how much the odds of winning the World Series would change for a team like the Dodgers. With the help of ESPN Stats & Information, we used historical data based on a team’s runs scored and allowed compared to the league average, and estimated the odds of every playoff series since 1998.
Here is how the new playoff format changes the chance of winning the World Series for a generic seed:
A typical No. 1 seed sees it odds go down 10.5%. It’s harder to win four series than three. The Nos. 4 and 5 seeds actually see their odds go up, since they no longer have to play the one-game wild-card game.
For the 2020 Dodgers, we estimate their odds of winning the World Series dropping to 31.6% under the 2020 format. As good as they are, their chances don’t match the historical average for a top seed because they are projected to face a strong Padres team in the wild-card round and then a strong Braves team in the National League Championship Series. If there is any consolation for Dodgers fans, we have seen super teams succeed in recent postseasons, with the 2016 Cubs, 2017 Astros and 2018 Red Sox all winning the World Series after winning 100-plus games in the regular season. The Dodgers’ 43-17 record over 60 games projects to a remarkable 116 wins over 162.
And here are the other playoff teams whose odds most change under the 16-team system:
Interestingly, if we compare the Dodgers to a hypothetical 16-team format for the past 10 World Series winners, their odds still change more than the odds for any of those teams:
The 2014 Giants and 2019 Nationals were wild-card teams, so we would project their chances to improve in a 16-team format. The 2013 Red Sox would have had to play a good No. 8 seed in the wild-card round in the Orioles or Yankees, who both finished 85-77 that season.
So good luck to the Dodgers. They have a great team — and a tough road to end their World Series drought. Indeed, it has been an amazing eight seasons with eight straight NL West titles and a 596 winning percentage. Few teams are that good for that long without winning a title, but here are a few other eight-year runs that failed to yield a single title:
• Yankees, 2001-2008 (.599): This doesn’t stand out because they bookended it with championships in 2000 and 2009, but they won 100 games three times and reached two World Series.
• Athletics, 1999-2006 (.580): The Moneyball A’s lost four straight division series from 2001 to 2004 and then the 2006 ALCS to the Tigers.
• Braves, 1996-2003 (.611): After winning the World Series in 1995, the Braves would win 10 more NL East titles in a row, including five 100-win seasons, without winning another title.
• Mariners, 1995-2002 (.555): Griffey, Johnson, Edgar, A-Rod, Ichiro, Buhner, Moyer … and not even a World Series appearance.
• Indians, 1994-2001 (.585): At various times their lineup featured Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez, but they lost the 1995 World Series to the Braves and the heartbreaking 1997 World Series to the Marlins.
• Orioles, 1971-79 (.581): They won in 1970, but Earl Weaver spent the rest of his managerial career chasing a second title and never getting one.
• Giants, 1961-68 (.568): They had the best winning percentage in the majors over this span and four Hall of Famers (Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Orlando Cepeda) yet reached just one World Series.
• Dodgers, 1947-1954 (.611): After losing to the Yankees in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, they finally beat them in 1955, the team’s only title in Brooklyn.
The current Dodgers have the best winning percentage over the past eight seasons, but the No. 2 team might surprise you: the Cleveland Indians, at .564. This is their fifth playoff appearance in eight seasons and their World Series drought is even longer than the Dodgers’, all the way back to 1948. A Dodgers-Indians World Series? That will work.
Some other things to watch this postseason …
Fewer off days
Aside from the 16-team format, this is the other drastic change to this year’s postseason: The wild-card series will be three games in three days; the division series will be five games in five days instead of five over seven; and the league championship series will be seven games in seven days instead of seven in nine. The World Series then reverts to the traditional format with off days after Games 2 and 5.
There will be plenty of time off between the wild-card round and the division series since there will be no games on Saturday and Sunday, but the condensed nature of the LDS and LCS will put an added strain on pitchers in those two rounds and force managers to dig deeper into their staffs.
Think about how the Nationals made it work last season. They relied essentially on just six pitchers in the postseason: starters Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Anibal Sanchez, and relievers Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Those six pitchers accounted for 83% of the Nationals’ innings in the postseason compared to 58% in the regular season. The Red Sox deployed a similar strategy in 2018, with starters appearing in relief and their top six pitchers accounting for 75% of their postseason innings.
Without the extra off days, that’s not going to work in 2020 — or, if managers do try to load up the innings on their best pitchers, will mean starters pitching on short rest and relievers appearing multiple days in a row. Over the past five postseasons, pitchers have made 41 starts on short rest — but 22 of those came following a relief appearance and another five had extenuating circumstances such as a short outing in the pitcher’s prior start. So there have been just 14 true short-rest starts over the past five postseasons and only one pitcher made more than one in a single postseason, Corey Kluber with the Indians in 2016, when he started Game 4 of the ALCS and then Games 4 and 7 of the World Series. Even that situation was somewhat necessitated when the Cleveland rotation was hammered with injuries, forcing manager Terry Francona’s hand.
In other words, don’t expect many starts on short rest. What will the condensed schedule mean? It means a starter who starts the first game of the division series would have to start Game 5 on short rest. If he starts Game 1 of the league championship series, he wouldn’t be on full rest until Game 6. It means more fourth and fifth starters, more bullpen games like we saw in the regular season and more relievers pitching two and three days in a row. It could mean more runs scored. As Jeff Passan recently wrote, “Bold prediction: By the end of the postseason, teams will have averaged at least five runs per game. For context, last postseason the average was 4.03, the average this regular season is 4.65 and only seven times in the live ball era has the sport seen more than five runs per game during a full season.”
Which teams might this help?
Dodgers: They have five good starting pitchers in Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Julio Urias. Buehler has the worst ERA of the group at 3.44. On top of that, they have a deep bullpen. They’re the favorite for a reason.
Athletics: The rotation was only middle of the pack, but they had the best bullpen in the regular season. Look for Bob Melvin to shorten games with quick hooks and rely heavily on his relievers.
Which teams might it hurt?
Braves: Max Fried went 7-0 with a 2.25 ERA and rookie Ian Anderson had a 1.95 ERA in six starts, but the rest of the rotation was so bad the Braves still finished with the third-worst rotation ERA in the majors. In fact, of the bottom 12 rotations, they were the only team to make the playoffs.
Young teams making a splash
The Padres and White Sox are back in the postseason — the Padres for the first time since 2006, the White Sox for the first time since 2008. So that’s fun, but what’s even more fun is these are rosters full of young, exciting players, led by San Diego’s sophomore sensation Fernando Tatis Jr. The White Sox feature rookie center fielder Luis Robert — he slumped mightily in September after hitting nine home runs in August, but should win a Gold Glove — and second-year slugger Eloy Jimenez, rookie second baseman Nick Madrigal and dynamic Tim Anderson.
Beyond those two, there’s another team with a young lineup to watch as well — the Blue Jays, with second-year players Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio. They actually boast the youngest lineup in the majors based on weighted playing time, with an average age of 25.9; the Padres were tied for third youngest at 26.6, the White Sox tied for ninth at 27.6. And the Blue Jays are the first team ever to qualify for the postseason without a single player with 10 years of major league experience.
Is youth a factor or non-factor in the postseason? With the exception of the 2016 Cubs, lineups of recent champs have skewed older than what we see from the Blue Jays or Padres:
2019 Nationals: 28.8 (24th)
2018 Red Sox: 27.7 (12th)
2017 Astros: 28.8 (23rd)
2016 Cubs: 27.4 (fifth)
2015 Royals: 29.1 (26th)
The last World Series champion with a lineup as young as San Diego’s or Toronto’s was the 1969 Mets, with an average age of 26.0 years, which ranked second youngest in the majors that year. The Blue Jays are obviously a long shot due to a shaky pitching staff, but this doesn’t mean the Padres won’t win, because it’s a really good lineup that ranked third in the majors in runs behind the Braves and Dodgers. Maybe the good news for Padres fans is even if they don’t win it all it won’t be 14 years until their next playoff appearance.
The March Madness feel to the “tournament”
While the first round in particular will feel something like the first round of the NCAA tournament, I’m not necessarily sure we want to see a .500-ish team go all the way. If there is a Cinderella, it has be the Marlins – who, I remind you, have never won a division title in their history and have also never lost a playoff series. They were 57-105 last year and their season almost appeared over after a COVID outbreak three games into the season. The purists will claim — rightly so, in my opinion — that the beauty of baseball is proving yourself over 162 games just to get the playoffs. Now a mediocre team might win it all. But here’s a reminder that we’ve had Cinderella teams before:
• 1987 Twins: They finished 85-77, which would have been good for just fifth place in the AL East, and they were actually outscored on the season (the only World Series champion to be outscored). But they were unbeatable in the Metrodome and they upset the Tigers in the ALCS and then the Cardinals in the World Series.
• 2003 Marlins: They snuck into the playoffs as a 91-win wild card, but while the 101-win Braves and 88-win Cubs played each other in the NLDS, the Marlins had to first take down the 100-win Giants, then the Cubs, then the 101-win Yankees.
• 2006 Cardinals: They finished just 83-78, the worst record ever for a World Series champ and just the 13th-best record that season. In the playoffs, they beat the 88-win Padres, 97-win Mets and 95-win Tigers.
• 2014 Giants: The fifth seed in the NL with 88 wins, a series of upsets meant they only had to beat the 89-win Royals in the World Series.
• 2019 Nationals: They won 93 games — tied for eighth in the majors — but beat the 106-win Dodgers and 107-win Astros along the way to feel like a worthy champ.
Is Cinderella your thing? Well, 2020 might give us the ultimate surprise champion.
Ten storylines to watch
1. Clayton Kershaw: Since MLB’s expanded playoff format began in 1995, only 13 position players and five pitchers have accrued more WAR than Kershaw. All the pitchers won a World Series. Of the position players, only Barry Bonds, Adrian Beltre, Mike Trout and Jim Thome never won a title (or haven’t won, in Trout’s case). So, yes, one of the great players of the past 25 years, Kershaw is due.
2. Droughts: 2. Droughts. We mentioned Cleveland, without a World Series title since 1948. The Padres have never won a title. Neither have the Brewers. The Marlins are in the postseason for the first time since 2003. The Rays are a younger franchise, but they have never won. It’s been at least 30 years for the Reds, A’s and Dodgers. The Twins haven’t been to the World Series since 1991, the Blue Jays since 1993.
3. Speaking of Billy Beane … : It’s a little weird that a non-player is the face of an organization, but that’s kind of the case with Beane. He has been running baseball operations for the A’s since 1998 and this is his 11th playoff appearance. He’s still looking for his first World Series appearance.
4. Sixteen straight playoff losses: This one is hard to believe. Going back to the second game of the 2004 ALDS, the Twins are 0-16 in the postseason. Thirteen of those losses came against the Yankees.
5. Dusty Baker and the Astros’ redemption: The Houston manager is 71 years old. He’s 15th on the all-time wins list and 13 of those ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, and the 14th, Bruce Bochy, will get in. But Baker will probably need a World Series title to get elected. If so, it will come after the Astros scuffled into the playoffs and they’ll be without the injured Justin Verlander. Will the offense come alive after struggling all season?
6. Home runs and strikeouts: The league-wide batting average fell to .245 — even without pitchers hitting — the lowest mark since 1972. Home runs were hit at the second-highest rate ever, behind only 2019. Strikeouts per game actually dipped after 14 consecutive seasons of rising (but were still the second most of all time). So who hits the most home runs? The Dodgers, Braves, White Sox, Twins, Yankees and Padres. The Twins, Indians White Sox and Braves allowed the fewest. The Indians and Reds were the best at striking out batters while the Rays were the best in the AL. The Rays also struck out the most often while the Astros were the best at not striking out. Will we see the high-scoring postseason Passan predicted or a bunch of low-scoring, high-strikeout games?
7. Shane Bieber: Speaking of strikeouts, the Indians ace fanned 41.1% of the batters he faced, a record for a starting pitcher if you want to consider it a full-season record. Batters hit .167 against him. He certainly feels like the starter most likely to go all 2014 Madison Bumgarner, although as noted the schedule makes it more difficult for one pitcher to dominate a series. Still, it’s possible Bieber’s postseason looks like this:
• Tuesday, Sept. 29: Game 1 of ALWC
• Monday, Oct. 5: Game 1 of ALDS
• Friday, Oct. 9: Game 5 of ALDS on short rest
• Wednesday, Oct. 14: Game 4 of ALCS
• Saturday, Oct. 17: Game 7 of ALCS in relief
• Tuesday, Oct. 20: Game 1 of World Series
• Sunday, Oct. 25: Game 5 of World Series
• Wednesday, Oct. 28: Game 7 of World Series in relief
8. Freddie Freeman: Really, the entire Braves offense. Freeman is one of the friendliest, most likable players in the majors, might win the NL MVP award and this could be his postseason to shine. He’s quietly building a Hall of Fame career and he has had his best season. Maybe the Braves’ starting pitching is shaky, but they have a good bullpen and they absolutely mash the baseball.
9. Closers: A lot of teams had issues here in the regular season, even playoff teams. Look for late-inning comebacks and dramatic walk-off home runs (and remember that extra innings reverts back to normal baseball, no runner-on-second rule). The team to watch here is the Rays: Twelve different relievers picked up a save. In the postseason, Kevin Cash will use any reliever at any time.
10. The Yankees: Wait, we’ve barely even mentioned the Yankees and now we’re at the end of our playoff preview. Well, Cole is another starting pitcher who might dominate the postseason. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are back in the lineup. Luke Voit is the new Lou Gehrig. DJ LeMahieu is hitting like Joe DiMaggio. It has been 11 long, miserable years of suffering for Yankees fans since their last World Series in 2009. Will this be the year?