Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, September 6, 2022 -- "Design Flaw"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 14, No. 84
September 6, 2022

A couple weeks back at Prospectus, Rob Mains pointed out flaws in the new playoff format that, at the time, seemed like a problem but not a crisis. The way MLB has set it up, it will often be better for a team to be the #6 seed than the #5 seed, and occasionally better to be the #2 seed than the #1 seed. With a couple weeks of games in the books since the piece, the issue Rob raised is, at least in the AL, emerging as a very big one.
Astros       87-48   .644
Yankees      81-54   .600   
Guardians    69-64   .519   

The Astros are very likely to be the overall #1 seed. They are six games up on the Yankees, effectively 6 1/2 with the tiebreaker. The Yankees, similarly, are going to get the second bye, 11 games up on the current AL Central leaders, the Guardians. For the sake of today’s Newsletter, we’ll assume these seeds hold.

Rays         75-58   .564
Mariners     76-59   .563
Blue Jays    75-59   .560   

Orioles      71-64   .526  4.5
Twins        68-65   .511  6.5
White Sox    68-67   .504  7.5

The Blue Jays swept the Orioles in that highly anticipated doubleheader yesterday, creating a lot of separation in what was very recently a tight wild-card race. There are three teams over the line, and they now have almost a week’s lead on the rest of the field. Those three teams, virtually tied today, are fighting as much for the first wild card, which comes with home-field advantage in that best-of-three first round, as for a playoff berth.

There’s no fluke here. Look at run differential, look at expected winning percentage, and you see the same separation between the top three teams and the rest of the field. Again for our purposes today, we’ll assume these seeds hold.

Rob Mains proposed that the #6 seed might be a better landing place than the #5 seed. I’m here to tell you that as it stands today in the American League, not only is it better, it’s better by so much as to be worth acting upon. The #5 seed in the AL will play a best-of-three on the road against a comparable team, and then advance to play the Astros, the best team in the AL. The #6 seed will play a best-of-three on the road at the AL Central champ, at most the sixth-best team in the league. Then, because MLB isn’t re-seeding, that team will play the Yankees.

Those two paths aren’t comparable, and they’re not really all that close. Let’s fast-forward four weeks and make up some entirely plausible numbers.

Mariners     95-64   .594
Rays         91-69   .569
Blue Jays    91-69   .569

White Sox    84-76   .525
Guardians    83-77   .519
Twins        82-78   .513

The Mariners, whose schedule over the season’s last three weeks looks like something John Thompson would have put together in the 1980s for Georgetown, take advantage to lock up the first wild card. The Rays and Jays make a valiant effort to stay with the Yankees, but they lose contact over the last weekend and are eliminated from AL East contention, left to fight for seeding. On the afternoon of October 4, the Rays and Jays are faced with the following situation over their final two games: win, and have to go through the Mariners and Astros; or lose, and have to go through the AL Central champ and then the Yankees.

Fiddle with the numbers and the records all you want, swap the AL wild-card teams around, but there’s no way around the conclusion. The championship-maximizing play in the 2022 American League is to be the #6 seed rather than the #5 seed.

The players, the managers, the front office types, the league will tell you that a team is never going to intentionally lose a game to improve its playoff chances. If I held any of those jobs, I’d say the same. I don’t. Rob Mains warned you that MLB has created a playoff format where it’s better to be a lower seed. I’m here to tell you that, in the first year of the format, it’s so much better that teams will be more likely to advance in the tournament if they play to fall to that lower seed.

There’s a lot of baseball left to be played. MLB could get lucky in a lot of ways. The three AL wild-card teams could all have a chance at the #4 seed in the season’s last days. The AL Central winner could play well enough to seem as much a threat as the top wild card team. There could be enough separation between the #5 and #6 teams to make this a moot point. The Orioles could rebound and create a fight for that last playoff spot. Maybe MLB dodges a bullet this time.

The problem, though, isn’t just going away. As Mains wrote, in many seasons, playing the third division titleist is going to be a better draw than playing the top wild card, and so the incentive to be the last wild card rather than the second one is often going to be in play. Bracketing the playoffs so that the 6/3 winner plays the #2 seed just doubles down on that incentive. For all the problems with playoff expansion in recent years, MLB had never created an incentive to lose. Now it has, and it needs to address that in future seasons.