Let’s Try To Make Expanded Playoffs Not Stink (2023)

Let’s Try To Make Expanded Playoffs Not Stink (1)

I can’t tell you with any kind of certainty when the 2022 season will start or how many games will be played. I can’t even definitively say if there will be a season at all. But one thing seems nearly inevitable: When we have baseball, it’s not going to be identical to the product we saw last year. For one, the designated hitter, used for the shortened 2020 season in the National League, appears likely to become a permanent part of both leagues, ending the doctrinal schism between the junior and senior circuits. Another likely difference? The playoff structure.

It’s no secret that the owners are highly interested in expanding the playoffs again. Over at The Athletic, Kaitlyn McGrath, David O’Brien, and Katie Woo teamed up to discuss the various goings-on here. The owners have proposed expanding the playoffs to 14 teams, with only the team with the best record in each league getting a bye and everyone else thrown into a best-of-three Wild Card series. The players, meanwhile, have proposed conceding an expanded playoff structure of 12 teams, with multiple byes for top teams.

From the standpoint of the owners’ interests, the best teams winning often isn’t necessarily the ideal outcome. The World Series championship is basically a MacGuffin. MLB doesn’t need it to actually be important, it just needs the public to believe it is. And since the public appears to believe that the best team will win a short series far more often than it actually does, the more teams you can stuff into a postseason without making it seem like chance (rather than talent) is driving the outcome, the better. Who cares if a 107-win team loses two of three games to an 83-win team? They were probably chokers anyway!

The side effect is that the more a team’s goals (reaching the playoffs, winning a championship) become tied to randomness rather than ability, the less value ability itself has, and the less teams will pay for it. The MLBPA is no doubt aware of this dynamic, as they’ve proposed expanded playoff structures that give large advantages to all division winners, not just a single team in each league. From the point of view of the players, an ideal playoff structure would increase revenues — with a payment structure that ensures they aren’t once again left out of the growing pie — while not reducing the value of stars.

So, let’s test this out. First, let’s start with the current ZiPS projected standings for 2022. It doesn’t matter that these rosters are far from complete. We’re trying to see relative changes due to differing playoff structures, so we just need a league with a fairly typical distribution of talent. We have some great teams, some good ones, some mediocre ones, some lousy ones, and the Colorado Rockies, so I think we’ve got a good mix for experimentation.

For each team, I’m first looking at their projected probability of making the playoffs and winning the World Series, based on the current rosters. Then, I’m looking at how these probabilities change if I run each million-season simulation 30 times, adding four wins to the team’s projection. We use 4 WAR as a rule of thumb for calling a player an All-Star, so call this the star dividend (SD):

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ZiPS Projected Playoff Probability, Current League Structure

TeamPlayoff%WS Win%Playoff% (SD)WS Win% (SD)Playoff DiffWS Diff
Los Angeles Dodgers87.9%12.2%95.8%16.7%7.9%4.5%
New York Yankees74.3%8.4%88.4%12.8%14.1%4.4%
Houston Astros81.6%10.9%92.4%15.3%10.8%4.4%
Atlanta Braves70.3%7.7%85.6%11.7%15.3%4.0%
Toronto Blue Jays63.8%6.2%81.4%10.1%17.6%3.9%
San Diego Padres70.4%6.9%85.9%10.8%15.5%3.9%
Tampa Bay Rays61.7%5.9%79.7%9.7%18.0%3.8%
Chicago White Sox74.8%8.0%88.1%11.7%13.3%3.7%
St. Louis Cardinals65.5%6.8%82.0%10.4%16.5%3.6%
New York Mets58.7%5.6%77.2%9.2%18.5%3.6%
Milwaukee Brewers57.7%5.5%76.6%8.9%18.9%3.4%
Boston Red Sox30.5%2.2%50.3%4.4%19.8%2.2%
Oakland A’s24.8%1.8%43.7%3.9%18.9%2.1%
Los Angeles Angels24.7%1.8%43.6%3.8%18.9%2.0%
Philadelphia Phillies23.5%1.7%42.5%3.6%19.0%1.9%
Seattle Mariners17.4%1.2%33.9%2.8%16.5%1.6%
Cincinnati Reds17.3%1.2%34.0%2.8%16.7%1.6%
Cleveland Guardians17.5%1.3%34.2%2.8%16.7%1.5%
San Francisco Giants19.7%1.2%36.9%2.7%17.2%1.5%
Miami Marlins15.8%1.0%31.6%2.5%15.8%1.5%
Detroit Tigers10.4%0.7%22.9%1.7%12.6%1.0%
Minnesota Twins8.8%0.6%20.5%1.5%11.7%0.9%
Chicago Cubs6.8%0.4%17.2%1.2%10.4%0.8%
Kansas City Royals6.7%0.4%16.6%1.2%9.9%0.8%
Washington Nationals4.3%0.2%11.8%0.8%7.5%0.6%
Texas Rangers3.0%0.2%9.1%0.6%6.1%0.4%
Arizona Diamondbacks1.5%0.1%5.5%0.3%4.0%0.2%
Pittsburgh Pirates0.3%0.0%1.8%0.1%1.5%0.1%
Baltimore Orioles0.1%0.0%0.4%0.0%0.3%0.0%
Colorado Rockies0.1%0.0%0.7%0.0%0.6%0.0%

Not surprisingly, the best teams in baseball get the most significant championship boost from the star dividend. The best teams are already likely to make the playoffs, and adding four additional wins allows them to vanquish their division rivals more often. The teams with the largest jumps in playoff percentage, meanwhile, are generally around .500 or a little above, like the Red Sox, Phillies, Athletics, and Angels.

In the current playoff structure, the star dividend for an average team is 13.0 percentage points of playoff probability and 2.1 percentage points of championship probability, while the average World Series champ ended up with 94.1 wins.

Now, let’s look at another recent season, the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. Under that season’s playoff structure, we had a 16-team playoff format and no byes. The owners haven’t even proposed this one publicly, but it’s a notable contrast to the current system:

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ZiPS Projected Playoff Probability, 16 Teams

TeamPlayoff%WS Win%Playoff% (SD)WS Win% (SD)Playoff DiffWS Diff
Los Angeles Dodgers98.1%8.6%99.7%10.5%1.6%1.9%
New York Yankees91.7%7.0%97.5%8.9%5.8%1.9%
Houston Astros94.2%7.6%98.4%9.4%4.2%1.8%
Toronto Blue Jays86.7%6.1%94.9%7.9%8.2%1.8%
Tampa Bay Rays85.2%5.9%94.3%7.7%9.1%1.8%
Atlanta Braves91.3%6.5%97.2%8.2%5.9%1.7%
San Diego Padres92.9%6.6%97.9%8.3%5.0%1.7%
New York Mets85.7%5.5%94.6%7.2%8.9%1.7%
Boston Red Sox60.4%3.4%78.9%5.1%18.5%1.7%
St. Louis Cardinals89.4%5.8%96.4%7.5%7.0%1.7%
Milwaukee Brewers85.9%5.3%94.6%6.9%8.7%1.6%
Oakland A’s53.1%2.8%72.7%4.4%19.6%1.6%
Los Angeles Angels53.2%2.8%72.7%4.4%19.5%1.6%
Philadelphia Phillies56.0%2.8%75.1%4.4%19.1%1.6%
Seattle Mariners42.3%2.1%62.6%3.6%20.3%1.5%
San Francisco Giants51.7%2.5%71.4%4.0%19.7%1.5%
Miami Marlins43.8%2.1%64.5%3.5%20.7%1.4%
Cincinnati Reds46.8%2.2%67.3%3.6%20.5%1.4%
Cleveland Guardians45.8%2.0%66.3%3.4%20.5%1.4%
Detroit Tigers31.9%1.3%51.7%2.5%19.8%1.2%
Minnesota Twins28.9%1.2%48.2%2.3%19.3%1.1%
Chicago Cubs25.8%1.1%44.9%2.1%19.1%1.0%
Kansas City Royals23.6%1.0%41.8%1.9%18.2%0.9%
Washington Nationals18.0%0.8%35.0%1.7%17.0%0.9%
Texas Rangers11.9%0.5%26.0%1.3%14.1%0.8%
Arizona Diamondbacks9.6%0.4%22.0%1.0%12.4%0.6%
Chicago White Sox90.6%5.9%92.6%6.3%2.0%0.4%
Pittsburgh Pirates3.4%0.1%9.9%0.4%6.5%0.3%
Colorado Rockies1.6%0.1%5.8%0.2%4.2%0.1%
Baltimore Orioles0.6%0.0%2.6%0.1%2.0%0.1%

The value of the star dividend toward winning a World Series drops by more than 40%, from 2.1 percentage points to 1.3. To keep the value of that star constant in the simulations in terms of championship value, that star would have to be worth 6.2 wins rather than the four wins I’ve been using. It’s just like when your favorite cookie brand reduces the number of cookies in a package from 64 to 56; you get less of a boost to your team with a better player. Nor does an overall playoff boost compensate for the loss in World Series benefit. The star dividend for playoff appearances also drops, from 13.0 to 12.6 percentage points. With more teams bunched as you get closer to .500, randomness plays a more prominent role.

The seasonal wins of the average World Series champion also drops by nearly three wins, from 94.1 to 91.4 wins. In other words, the typical team getting drenched in champagne in late October is about three wins worse under this scenario.

Given that the owners really want a larger playoff field and the players have quite a few other things they would like concessions on, I expect an expansion to 14 teams is the most likely. Here’s how the numbers shake out for the owners’ 14-team, one-bye playoff format:

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ZiPS Projected Playoff Probability, 14 Teams, One Bye per League

TeamPlayoff%WS Win%Playoff% (SD)WS Win% (SD)Playoff DiffWS Diff
Los Angeles Dodgers95.8%10.6%98.9%13.8%3.1%3.2%
Houston Astros91.6%8.9%97.4%12.0%5.8%3.1%
New York Yankees89.2%8.0%96.5%11.0%7.3%3.0%
San Diego Padres87.0%7.0%95.5%9.8%8.5%2.8%
Atlanta Braves86.4%6.9%95.0%9.6%8.6%2.7%
Toronto Blue Jays83.0%6.5%93.3%9.2%10.3%2.7%
Tampa Bay Rays81.4%6.2%92.5%8.9%11.1%2.7%
Chicago White Sox82.8%6.1%90.4%8.7%7.6%2.6%
St. Louis Cardinals81.6%5.9%92.6%8.5%11.1%2.6%
New York Mets78.8%5.5%91.0%8.0%12.2%2.5%
Milwaukee Brewers76.5%5.1%89.7%7.5%13.2%2.4%
Boston Red Sox54.7%3.2%74.7%5.2%20.0%2.0%
Los Angeles Angels45.6%2.5%66.3%4.3%20.7%1.8%
Oakland A’s45.7%2.5%66.4%4.3%20.7%1.8%
Philadelphia Phillies45.7%2.4%66.5%4.1%20.8%1.7%
San Francisco Giants40.7%2.1%61.7%3.7%21.0%1.6%
Cincinnati Reds34.8%1.7%55.9%3.2%21.1%1.5%
Seattle Mariners35.4%1.8%56.1%3.3%20.7%1.5%
Miami Marlins34.2%1.7%55.0%3.1%20.8%1.4%
Cleveland Guardians30.4%1.5%51.1%2.9%20.7%1.4%
Detroit Tigers19.6%0.9%37.4%1.9%17.8%1.0%
Chicago Cubs17.4%0.8%34.3%1.7%16.9%0.9%
Minnesota Twins17.4%0.8%34.4%1.7%17.0%0.9%
Kansas City Royals13.8%0.6%29.0%1.4%15.2%0.8%
Washington Nationals12.7%0.5%27.2%1.3%14.5%0.8%
Texas Rangers8.9%0.4%21.3%1.0%12.4%0.6%
Arizona Diamondbacks6.0%0.2%15.8%0.7%9.8%0.5%
Pittsburgh Pirates1.6%0.1%6.0%0.2%4.4%0.1%
Baltimore Orioles0.4%0.0%2.1%0.1%1.7%0.1%
Colorado Rockies0.8%0.0%3.5%0.1%2.7%0.1%

The star dividend recovers somewhat here, and the average team gets a 13.3 percentage-point boost for the playoffs from our theoretical star (most likely Freddie Freeman or Carlos Correa), more than in the dreadful (at least for me) 16-team scenario. The average champion adds a win and change back, averaging 92.7 wins during the season.

But let’s try and do better while preserving the 14-team framework.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, Russell Carleton tried his hand at developing a reasonable 14-team playoff system. Using ZiPS and a whole lot of season-simming, I went with a slightly different approach, trying to get the value of adding a star as close to the current system as possible while still keeping the eventual champion as strong overall.

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One of the problems when designing playoff systems in baseball is the sport is missing a powerful tool to separate teams into “difficulty tiers” in the form of home-field advantage. Playing at home isn’t as big of a deal in baseball as it is in other sports, as we’ve seen in the decade since the Wild Card game was introduced. Getting to the playoffs via the Wild Card just wasn’t much of a penalty prior to 2012, so MLB only could divide the league into two real tiers: in the playoffs and out of the playoffs. The introduction of a second Wild Card team, and the one-game, winner-take-all Wild Card game, gave MLB another tier between division winners and playoff missers.

What I propose is to make the worst teams have to work for it a bit more. The top division winner still gets a bye, but the two other division winners in each league play Wild Card teams numbers three and four in what I’ve dubbed the Knockout Round. To knock off the division winners, the bottom two Wild Cards have to sweep a three-game series; the remaining two Wild Cards play a normal three-game series against each other. What this does is create more places where additional wins have a meaningful impact on your chances of winning it all; being the best in the league instead of merely winning the division is still better, and winning the division remains preferable to a Wild Card appearance. And the Wild Card teams themselves have real motivation to try to be one of the top two Wild Card teams rather than the bottom two; having a 50/50 shot of getting to the Divisional Series is better than the one-in-10 or so that the other Wild Cards would have:

ZiPS Projected Playoff Probability, 14 Teams, Szym Proposal

TeamPlayoff%WS Win%Playoff% (SD)WS Win% (SD)Playoff DiffWS Diff
New York Yankees89.2%7.5%96.5%12.2%7.3%4.8%
San Diego Padres87.0%6.3%95.5%10.3%8.5%4.0%
Toronto Blue Jays83.0%5.7%93.3%9.7%10.3%4.0%
Tampa Bay Rays81.4%5.4%92.5%9.3%11.1%3.9%
Los Angeles Dodgers95.8%11.1%98.9%14.9%3.1%3.9%
Atlanta Braves86.4%7.5%95.0%10.9%8.6%3.4%
New York Mets78.8%5.5%91.0%8.6%12.2%3.0%
St. Louis Cardinals81.6%6.8%92.6%9.6%11.1%2.7%
Boston Red Sox54.7%2.4%74.7%5.1%20.0%2.7%
Milwaukee Brewers76.5%5.6%89.7%7.9%13.2%2.3%
Chicago White Sox82.8%8.4%90.4%10.7%7.6%2.3%
Los Angeles Angels45.6%2.1%66.3%4.2%20.7%2.1%
Oakland A’s45.7%2.1%66.4%4.2%20.7%2.1%
San Francisco Giants40.7%1.5%61.7%3.6%21.0%2.1%
Philadelphia Phillies45.7%2.0%66.5%4.0%20.8%2.1%
Seattle Mariners35.4%1.5%56.1%3.2%20.7%1.8%
Miami Marlins34.2%1.3%55.0%3.1%20.8%1.7%
Cincinnati Reds34.8%1.5%55.9%3.2%21.1%1.7%
Houston Astros91.6%10.6%97.4%12.0%5.8%1.4%
Cleveland Guardians30.4%1.5%51.1%2.9%20.7%1.4%
Chicago Cubs17.4%0.6%34.3%1.7%16.9%1.1%
Detroit Tigers19.6%0.9%37.4%1.9%17.8%1.0%
Minnesota Twins17.4%0.8%34.4%1.7%17.0%0.9%
Washington Nationals12.7%0.4%27.2%1.3%14.5%0.9%
Kansas City Royals13.8%0.6%29.0%1.4%15.2%0.8%
Texas Rangers8.9%0.3%21.3%1.0%12.4%0.7%
Arizona Diamondbacks6.0%0.2%15.8%0.7%9.8%0.7%
Pittsburgh Pirates1.6%0.0%6.0%0.2%4.4%0.2%
Baltimore Orioles0.4%0.0%2.1%0.1%1.7%0.1%
Colorado Rockies0.8%0.0%3.5%0.1%2.7%0.1%

The star dividend for playoff probability in this format stands at 13.3 percentage points, with a two percentage point boost for championships. Both are close to the 13.0 and 2.1 projected under the old format. The regular-season record of the typical World Series victor gets up to 93.7, less than a half-win below our original target.

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Personally, I’d go even further and give the lower-seeded teams a one-win disadvantage in Divisional Series matchups as well. But I’ve already proposed one rather significant change from baseball’s playoff tradition with the Knockout Round; another might get us into the realm of implausibility. I think something along these lines would be an effective means of increasing the number of teams in the playoffs without making individual players less valuable or greatly diminishing the value of a championship in addition to the regular season. If we’re doomed to a future where 80-82 teams get a final shot at rendering the previous six months irrelevant with a hot week, we should at least make them work for it.

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