Expanded Playoffs Preview: Redefining “Good” Baseball

By Daniel R. Epstein @depstein1983

There was a thin interstice of a silver lining when the strike canceled the MLB playoffs 26 years ago: we punted a philosophical debate over what constitutes a good baseball team. 1994 was the first season under the six-division format, and it would have been the maiden voyage of the Division Series. There was just one problem— all four AL West teams were terrible. In fact, they were the four worst teams in the American League. When the season ended abruptly on August 12, the Texas Rangers occupied a playoff spot with a 52-62 record. If they had played the final 48 games with the whole division remaining so fetid, we would’ve had to expand our schema for playoff teams to include bad baseball clubs.

Now we have to field that punt. At 29-31, the Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers became just the second and third teams to ever reach the postseason with sub-.500 records. (The 1981 Kansas City Royals finished 50-53 in another strike-altered season but made the playoffs as the second half AL West champion with a 30-23 record. Just as they are now, MLB was pretty much making it up as they went along back then.) The 31-29 Miami Marlins bring a -41 run differential into the playoffs— the third-lowest in the National League this year and the worst ever for a playoff team.

It’s time to call the question. Are all playoff teams automatically considered “good,” or are some of them merely in the right place at the right time? Are we ready to accept “bad” playoff teams?

Before you answer the second question, consider the randomness of any individual baseball game. In other sports like football or basketball, the better team wins far more often. In baseball, it’s a tossup, and a best-of-three Wild Card Series isn’t much more definitive. Using FiveThirtyEight's playoff predictions, there’s a 71 percent chance that at least one of the Astros, Brewers, and Marlins will advance to the second round. Correspondingly, that’s a 71 percent chance that one or more of the 43-17 Dodgers, 36-24 Twins, and 34-26 Cubs will make an early exit against a “bad” baseball team.

Maybe you’re okay with that! Besides, there’s roughly a 10 percent chance you’re a fan of either the Astros, Brewers, or Marlins. Change can be a good thing— even in a sport as stuffy and buttoned-up with tradition as baseball— but this change isn’t about rectifying a glaring problem like when they added C-flaps to batting helmets. The purpose of the postseason is to let the best teams in the world— as determined by a more extensive regular season— duke it out head-to-head for the right to be called the greatest of all. Of course, there’s a lot of randomness in a World Series or Championship Series too. The 93-69 2019 Washington Nationals probably were not a better team than their World Series opponent— the 107-55 Astros— but we can put up with that because of the rigorous qualifications for entry.

Now those qualifications aren’t very rigorous anymore. That has consequences, and it “fixes” a nonexistent problem. A “bad” team might not win the World Series— though one certainly could— but one will probably knock off a good team that deserves better than a three-game coinflip. Are we ready to accept that?

Here are some quick previews of each of those coinflips:

AL #1 Tampa Bay Rays vs. #8 Toronto Blue Jays of Buffalo

The Rays finished eight games ahead of the Blue Jays in the AL East with a 70 run differential advantage. Over a 60-game season, they’re 1.17 runs per game better than their playoff opponent per contest. That’s a significant difference, making this the least likely upset scenario in the AL— especially when the favorite starts a triumvirate of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Charlie Morton.

AL #2 Oakland A’s vs. #7 Chicago White Sox

Don’t let the seeding fool you; Chicago might be the best team in this series. The A’s won 36 regular season games and the White Sox 35, but Oakland played 52 of their 60 games against sub-.500 competition this year. The Sox enter the playoffs on a skid, having lost seven of their last eight, but statistically, momentum really doesn’t matter whatsoever.

AL #3 Minnesota Twins vs. #6 Houston Astros

Tiebreakers are silly. The A’s and Twins both won their divisions with 36-24 records, but because of eenie-meenie-minie-moe, the former gets a tough matchup while the other faces the 29-31 Astros. Minnesota has dominant pitching and a stacked lineup. Houston has lots of experience maximizing their pitching staff in October, though that staff is much thinner than it was from 2017-2019.

AL #4 Cleveland Indians vs. #5 New York Yankees

The one award likely to be unanimous this year will be the Cy Young, for which the engravers are already working on Shane Bieber’s name. He and teammate José Ramírez could both be MVP finalists as well. That being said, the Yankees have plenty of star power of their own, including Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge, Luke Voit, and D.J. LeMahieu. This series could be fun.

NL #1 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. #8 Milwaukee Brewers

This series is a joke. The Dodgers have one of the deepest, most talented rosters ever assembled. Their 43-17 record prorates to 116 wins over a normal-length season, which would have tied the 2001 Mariners’ record for most ever. The Brewers finished in fourth place with a losing record and -17 run differential. It would be an absolute travesty if one of the best teams we’ve ever seen lost a pair of games and got bounced by an opponent who by rights should be golfing. So, given everything else that’s happened in 2020, expect the Brewers to win.

NL #2 Atlanta Braves vs. #7 Cincinnati Reds

The Braves are well built for a short series. The rotation behind Max Fried and Ian Anderson has been a disaster, but with their excellent bullpen, that won’t really matter. By contrast, the Reds’ starting pitching is the main reason they’ve made it this far. Only three of their starters will get the ball in this series, and they’ll have to contend with Ronald Acuña, Jr. and likely MVP Freddie Freeman.

NL #3 Chicago Cubs vs. #6 Miami Marlins

This is the most futile matchup of the first round. The Cubs were MLB’s worst division winner with a 33-27 record. The Marlins may have finished 31-29, but based on run differential they should have gone 26-34. Over 162 games, that equates to a Pythagorean win-loss record of 69-93. Had they played the missing 102, they would have most likely regressed towards that number. This is the most pathetic playoff series in the history of baseball.

NL #4 San Diego Padres vs. #5 St. Louis Cardinals

Was any team more entertaining in 2020 than the Padres? Their +84 run differential was second-best in MLB this year thanks to approximately 8,000 grand slams (unfortunately for them, that was still 52 runs worse than the Dodgers). They’ve arrived as an elite team and might even be the best in all of baseball (well, other than the Dodgers, who are really quite good). After losing two-and-a-half weeks to a COVID-19 breakout, the Cardinals kind of mediocred their way into the playoffs with a 30-28 record. It turns out you can do that these days.

Daniel R. Epstein is the Co-Director of the IBWAA. He writes for Baseball.FYI (subscribe for free), Baseball Prospectus (subscribe for money), and Off the Bench Baseball (no subscription required). He co-hosts Baseball Writers: the IBWAA Podcast (subscribe to that too— for free— in your favorite podcast player).