Fun With Alternate Playoff Realities

For the second straight year, the NL Central crown is coming right down to the wire. I won’t belabor the details — Jay Jaffe has you covered with his Team Entropy series. I’m interested in a slightly different angle. There’s one outstanding feature of the current year’s setup — two of the contenders, the Cardinals and Cubs, happen to play each other in seven of their last 10 games.

That seems like an ideal setup for the trailing team — if you take care of business and win your games, you’ll win the league. None of this hoping the other team loses nonsense — emerge victorious, and you guarantee them a loss.

There’s a problem, though — the Cubs have a tenuous hold on the second Wild Card spot, and the Cardinals are pretty good. Perform poorly, as is entirely possible when seven of your last 10 games are against a good team, and you might miss the playoffs altogether.

That’s the schedule as it exists. What this article presupposes is, what if the schedule could play out a different way? I built a lightweight version of our playoff odds model using Depth Charts projections and starter and home field adjustments, using the same rules as my earlier article on Dodgers playoff scenarios. First, let me show you my model’s view of the 2019 NL playoff race, as it varies ever so slightly from the official FanGraphs odds:

Playoff Odds, NL Central and WC
Team Win NL Central Win Wild Card Reach Playoffs
Cardinals 73.8% 18.7% 92.5%
Cubs 20.9% 40.4% 61.3%
Brewers 5.3% 40.1% 45.4%
Nationals 0.0% 92.7% 92.7%
Mets 0.0% 8.1% 8.1%

With that out of the way, let’s have some fun! Let’s mess with reality and change some odds.

Many Universes
The way baseball works is that when you beat a team, they get a loss. That’s also how reality works. What if we weren’t bound by that, though? What if the Cardinals team the Cubs will face starting today was an exact replica of these Cardinals, with the same pitchers and batters, but from an alternate universe we’ll call Earth-2? Meanwhile, what if the Cardinals took on Earth-2’s Cubs?

In this scenario, a Cubs win doesn’t mean a Cardinals loss, and vice versa. To make things easy, I’ve left everything else exactly as-is. As you’d expect, this is bad for the Cubs’ odds of winning the division. Without the certainty of pairing their best scenarios with the worst Cardinals outcomes, their odds fall accordingly:

Playoff Odds, NL Central and WC
Team Win NL Central Win Wild Card Reach Playoffs
Cardinals 77.9% 16.9% 94.8%
Cubs 13.9% 47.5% 61.4%
Brewers 8.2% 35.3% 43.5%
Nationals 0.0% 92.2% 92.2%
Mets 0.0% 8.1% 8.1%

There are some interesting knock-on effects. The Cubs are marginally more likely to play in a postseason game, but not enough so that it offsets the lowered division odds. The Brewers, who now have scenarios where both the Cardinals and Cubs play well, as well as scenarios where they both play poorly, are in an interesting spot. Their odds of winning the division outright tick up slightly (maybe both teams will be bad!), but their odds of winning the Wild Card fall by quite a bit, as scenarios where both the Cardinals and Cubs have winning records are devastating.

Make the Cards Play the Brewers
Now we’re cooking with gas. What if the Cubs and Brewers switched schedules? Now the Cubs’ two relevant opponents are punching at each other rather than the Cubs, making it impossible for both of them to have great records at the same time. Meanwhile, the Cubs get the Brewers’ schedule, with all 10 games coming against eliminated teams. Juice!

There’s just one problem: our projections like the Cardinals quite a bit more than the Brewers. So much so, in fact, that giving the Cardinals seven games against the Brewers makes them even greater favorites to take the division:

Playoff Odds, NL Central and WC
Team Win NL Central Win Wild Card Reach Playoffs
Cardinals 82.6% 12.2% 94.8%
Cubs 10.3% 64.0% 74.3%
Brewers 7.1% 23.6% 30.7%
Nationals 0.0% 93.1% 93.1%
Mets 0.0% 7.1% 7.1%

While the Cubs are more likely to reach the playoffs, their odds of winning the Central are down 10% from current reality. Maybe Cubs fans should take that trade: if you think the Cubs have 45% odds to win a play-in game against the Nationals (I think it’s a little lower, but your mileage may vary), this option is superior. Still, this doesn’t seem like the best scenario for the Wrigley faithful.

Make the Cubs Play the Brewers
Well, if the Cardinals playing the Brewers was good for the Cardinals, maybe the Cubs playing the Brewers can be good for the Cubs. This time, we’re swapping the Cardinals and the Brewers. Now the Crew face the Cubs in seven of their last 10. Better?

Playoff Odds, NL Central and WC
Team Win NL Central Win Wild Card Reach Playoffs
Cardinals 86.2% 12.6% 98.8%
Cubs 11.7% 60.9% 72.6%
Brewers 2.1% 24.2% 26.3%
Nationals 0.0% 96.6% 96.6%
Mets 0.0% 5.7% 5.7%

Worse again! Milwaukee’s opponents have a lower projection than the Brewers themselves, so giving the Cardinals that slate doesn’t work. Let the Cardinals feast on the Pirates, Reds, and Rockies, and they probably won’t be caught in the division. What’s worse, the Brewers are better than their remaining opponents, so the Cubs actually have a worse projection playing the Brewers than they would playing Milwaukee’s remaining opponents. Nothing about this plan works.

In the end, playing the hardest possible slate (a bundle of games against the Cardinals) gives the Cubs the best chance of winning the division despite the lowest overall odds of making the playoffs, assuming we’re only switching around existing schedules. That’s boring, though. What kind of conclusion is “Play the team you’re trailing, although playing a worse slate isn’t all that much worse”? A bad one, that’s what. We can do more.

Turn the Cardinals Into the Pirates
Why settle for switching schedules around? If we’re disregarding reality, let’s just make the Cardinals awful. I replaced the Cardinals’ runs scored and runs allowed projections with the Pirates’ and left the schedules exactly the same aside from that, which means that the Cubs end up playing their last 10 games against Pirates-level opponents. That’s good; just not as good as you might think:

Playoff Odds, NL Central and WC
Team Win NL Central Win Wild Card Reach Playoffs
Cardinals 58.7% 28.3% 87.0%
Cubs 34.0% 36.9% 70.9%
Brewers 7.3% 35.1% 42.4%
Nationals 0.0% 92.4% 92.4%
Mets 0.0% 7.3% 7.3%

Indeed, a three game lead with 10 to play is reasonably safe, even if you’re not a very good team. We project the Pirates as a .460 true-talent team, significantly worse than the .520 of the Cardinals, but even that difference, worth 9.7 games over a full year, works out to less than a game of difference on average over the last 10 days of the season. We need more.

Turn the Cardinals Into the Pirates and the Cubs into the Dodgers
Let’s just go all the way. If turning the Cardinals into pumpkins isn’t enough, we might have to turn the Cubs into Cinderella at the same time. Now the Cubs are a .600 winning percentage true-talent team, and they get to play seven against the Pirates-talent Cardinals. They’re something like 64% likely to win each game against the Cardinals, which is about as lopsided as baseball gets. And yet:

Playoff Odds, NL Central and WC
Team Win NL Central Win Wild Card Reach Playoffs
Cardinals 47.5% 35.3% 82.8%
Cubs 45.6% 33.6% 79.2%
Brewers 6.9% 32.4% 39.3%
Nationals 0.0% 92.5% 92.5%
Mets 0.0% 6.2% 6.2%

Make the Cardinals awful, make the Cubs elite, let them play seven of their last ten games against each other, and it still doesn’t get the Cubs to any better than a dead heat. Three games back with ten to play is a tough margin to make up. The poor Brewers, meanwhile, are caught in the crossfire, too far behind the Cardinals to catch them but now too far behind the Cubs’ magic-assisted expected winning percentage to keep up. The Nats and Mets, meanwhile, barely have their odds budge through the various scenarios, off in a world of their own.

Turn the Nats Into the Marlins
What the heck, let’s have some Wild Card fun. We haven’t put the Nats into peril yet, and I have this neat tool. Why not use it? This time, we’re keeping the existing schedule as-is, and making the Nats awful. They’re going to have Marlins-level true talent, making them the worst projected team in baseball rather than the fifth-best. That should set them down a peg or two:

Playoff Odds, NL Central and WC
Team Win NL Central Win Wild Card Reach Playoffs
Cardinals 73.8% 21.2% 95.0%
Cubs 20.9% 48.1% 69.0%
Brewers 5.3% 51.3% 56.6%
Nationals N/A 67.5% 67.5%
Mets N/A 11.9% 11.9%

Well, maybe only one peg. The Nats are 1.5 games up on the first Wild Card spot with 11 games left, and there are plenty of scenarios where either the Cubs or Brewers collapse, leaving an only okay Nationals performance good enough to make the playoffs. It doesn’t sound right that a 1.5 game lead with 11 to play is likely to stand up even if you’re a terrible team, but it certainly seems to be the case.

Bring Back Yelich
Okay, so it’s difficult to topple the Cardinals or Nationals, even if we make them awful or make their opponents good. Being a few games ahead is enough, this late in the season, to make up for serious talent gaps. The second Wild Card, though, could be an exciting race, and it would have been even more exciting if Christian Yelich was still healthy.

For this section, I’m approximating even more than this article already approximates. I looked at how many more weighted runs Yelich is expected to create per plate appearance than his replacement, Trent Grisham, then added that many runs to each of Grisham’s remaining projected PA’s and updated Milwaukee’s runs scored per game number to reflect that. Yelich, per my math, is worth about a third of a run per game, not too shabby.

With our new Yelich in hand, we re-run the odds, and voilà:

Playoff Odds, NL Central and WC
Team Win NL Central Win Wild Card Reach Playoffs
Cardinals 72.2% 18.8% 91.0%
Cubs 20.0% 38.1% 58.1%
Brewers 7.8% 45.2% 53.0%
Nationals 0.0% 91.9% 91.9%
Mets 0.0% 6.0% 6.0%

Okay, so it’s not much. It’s still something, though, and it feels less capricious and unfair than a lot of the other choices I’ve made in this article. If Yelich suddenly became healthy today, he’d give the Brewers a 7.6% higher chance of making the playoffs. Not too shabby for a single player over 10 games.

What’s the point of all this nonsense? Partially, I built a new tool and just wanted to use it. There’s a broader point hidden in here too, though. Games against leading teams, games against good or bad teams, even just being better or worse yourself: each of these only matters so much. The real key is to be ahead when you get to the last 10 games. Names and reputations can be made in the last week of the regular season, but the vast majority of the time, the team that gets through the drudgery of the first 152 games is set up as the likely victors at the end of the run, not the team with the best projection over the last 10.

One last note: Team Entropy enthusiasts, your best shot at a three- or four-way tie is the scenario where the Nationals are bad. Your best shot at a two-way tie is — well, it’s also that scenario, but the scenario where the Cardinals become awful and the Cubs otherworldly is close behind. Even in the best case, though, that’s only a 5.5% chance of a three-way tie, so don’t hold your breath.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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4 years ago

I’ll never get those 5 minutes back.

4 years ago
Reply to  eurobirdbrain

I know, right? That’s 5 minutes you could’ve put towards learning something new. Like manners.