How Much Do the Playoff Odds Change in a Shorter Season?

Will there be a 2020 baseball season? How many games will teams play? What will that mean for the 2020 baseball season? Normally, these would be extremely upsetting questions to contemplate; in the world in which we’re currently living, they’re somewhere around the 75,000th most important quandaries facing us. But as someone qualified to serve as a baseball writer rather than an epidemiologist, they’re also the kinds of questions I can actually seek to answer, and the differences between how baseball will eventually look versus what we’re used to are bigger than you might think. Assuming we have a season, that is; if no games are played, the projections will be 100% accurate.

So how much do the playoff races change in a shorter season? To answer this, I spent the weekend reconfiguring ZiPS so that it wouldn’t assume a 162-game season — an eventuality I had hoped not to have to deal with unless or until there was a strike — allowing me to run playoff probabilities for seasons of any length. Let’s start with the baseline projections, how ZiPS saw the races before the world turned upside down:

ZiPS Projections Pre-COVID-19 Delay
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
New York Yankees 96 66 .593 61.3% 29.2% 90.5% 12.7%
Tampa Bay Rays 92 70 4 .568 32.6% 44.6% 77.2% 7.8%
Boston Red Sox 85 77 11 .525 6.0% 25.9% 31.9% 2.0%
Toronto Blue Jays 73 89 23 .451 0.0% 0.8% 0.9% 0.0%
Baltimore Orioles 57 105 39 .352 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Minnesota Twins 91 71 .562 60.9% 14.5% 75.4% 8.5%
Cleveland Indians 88 74 3 .543 30.3% 20.9% 51.2% 4.4%
Chicago White Sox 82 80 9 .506 8.7% 10.0% 18.7% 1.3%
Kansas City Royals 71 91 20 .438 0.2% 0.2% 0.3% 0.0%
Detroit Tigers 63 99 28 .389 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Houston Astros 93 69 .574 69.2% 15.0% 84.1% 10.7%
Oakland A’s 88 74 5 .543 25.2% 27.3% 52.5% 4.4%
Los Angeles Angels 82 80 11 .506 5.3% 10.3% 15.6% 1.0%
Texas Rangers 74 88 19 .457 0.4% 1.2% 1.6% 0.1%
Seattle Mariners 62 100 31 .383 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Washington Nationals 91 71 .562 42.1% 29.5% 71.7% 6.5%
Atlanta Braves 90 72 1 .556 34.8% 31.5% 66.3% 5.5%
New York Mets 87 75 4 .537 18.2% 28.1% 46.3% 3.2%
Philadelphia Phillies 82 80 9 .506 4.8% 13.4% 18.2% 1.0%
Miami Marlins 69 93 22 .426 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago Cubs 85 77 .525 38.1% 8.5% 46.6% 3.4%
Milwaukee Brewers 83 79 2 .512 23.5% 7.5% 31.0% 2.1%
St. Louis Cardinals 82 80 3 .506 20.9% 7.2% 28.1% 1.8%
Cincinnati Reds 82 80 3 .506 16.9% 6.2% 23.1% 1.5%
Pittsburgh Pirates 71 91 14 .438 0.6% 0.2% 0.8% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 101 61 .623 92.7% 5.9% 98.7% 18.5%
San Diego Padres 87 75 14 .537 6.0% 43.4% 49.4% 2.7%
Arizona Diamondbacks 82 80 19 .506 1.3% 17.7% 18.9% 0.8%
Colorado Rockies 72 90 29 .444 0.0% 0.7% 0.7% 0.0%
San Francisco Giants 69 93 32 .426 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0%

There are no COVID-19-based changes in here, just the projection based on if the world had frozen in place two weeks ago and everything happened as we would normally expect. But let’s assume we hit one of the better-case scenarios, get a quickie two weeks of “spring training” in late May, and start the season on June 1. Let’s further assume that, with MLB having a vested interest in playing as many games as possible without killing people, they come to an agreement to play the playoffs in neutral warm-weather cities throughout November, giving the league an extra month to play regular-season games. Under this scenario, the league could theoretically fit somewhere around 140 games in. How do great teams look in a 140-game season instead of a 162-game one? Let’s run the numbers.

Before we do, keep in mind that there’s no adjustment made in the below numbers for, say, James Paxton and Aaron Judge being healthy. We’re just trying to gauge how much things change based only on season length:

ZiPS Projections – 140-Game Season
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
New York Yankees 83 57 .593 59.8% 29.0% 88.8% 12.0%
Tampa Bay Rays 80 60 3 .571 33.0% 42.5% 75.6% 7.7%
Boston Red Sox 74 66 9 .529 7.0% 26.2% 33.2% 2.3%
Toronto Blue Jays 63 77 20 .450 0.1% 1.2% 1.3% 0.1%
Baltimore Orioles 49 91 34 .350 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Minnesota Twins 79 61 .564 58.9% 14.9% 73.9% 8.4%
Cleveland Indians 76 64 3 .543 30.9% 20.5% 51.4% 4.7%
Chicago White Sox 71 69 8 .507 9.9% 10.7% 20.7% 1.5%
Kansas City Royals 61 79 18 .436 0.3% 0.4% 0.6% 0.0%
Detroit Tigers 54 86 25 .386 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Houston Astros 81 59 .579 67.0% 15.5% 82.5% 10.4%
Oakland A’s 76 64 5 .543 26.1% 26.2% 52.3% 4.6%
Los Angeles Angels 71 69 10 .507 6.3% 11.3% 17.5% 1.2%
Texas Rangers 64 76 17 .457 0.6% 1.7% 2.3% 0.1%
Seattle Mariners 54 86 27 .386 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Washington Nationals 78 62 .557 41.1% 28.6% 69.8% 6.5%
Atlanta Braves 77 63 1 .550 34.5% 30.2% 64.7% 5.6%
New York Mets 75 65 3 .536 18.8% 27.3% 46.1% 3.3%
Philadelphia Phillies 71 69 7 .507 5.6% 13.9% 19.5% 1.1%
Miami Marlins 60 80 18 .429 0.0% 0.2% 0.2% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago Cubs 74 66 .529 37.0% 8.9% 45.9% 3.6%
Milwaukee Brewers 72 68 2 .514 23.7% 8.0% 31.7% 2.3%
St. Louis Cardinals 71 69 3 .507 21.2% 7.7% 28.9% 2.1%
Cincinnati Reds 70 70 4 .500 17.3% 6.7% 24.0% 1.7%
Pittsburgh Pirates 61 79 13 .436 0.8% 0.4% 1.1% 0.1%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 87 53 .621 90.7% 7.3% 98.0% 16.8%
San Diego Padres 75 65 12 .536 7.4% 41.3% 48.7% 2.9%
Arizona Diamondbacks 71 69 16 .507 1.8% 18.2% 20.0% 1.0%
Colorado Rockies 62 78 25 .443 0.0% 1.0% 1.0% 0.0%
San Francisco Giants 60 80 27 .429 0.0% 0.3% 0.3% 0.0%

A 140-game season isn’t that much different from a 162-game season; we only see the probabilities move by a few percentage points. It does give slightly more hope to teams such as the Marlins and the Giants, lifting them out of rounding-to-zero territory, and forces the Dodgers and Yankees into a few more seasons with Wild Card berths, but there’s nothing ground-breaking here. And I’d wager that if the world’s fortunes were to favor us such that this was the outcome, everyone would be so relieved by the lives saved that they wouldn’t care if their preferred baseball team has a slightly worse chance at winning the World Series.

Now let’s look at a 110-game season. For any living baseball fan, no seasons have been more interrupted than the 1981 and 1994 campaigns, which were truncated in differing ways due to baseball strikes, resulting in two years that saw teams play around 110 games. At that number of games, we start to see the first signs of small sample size-induced parity starting to take hold:

ZiPS Projections – 110-Game Season
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
New York Yankees 65 45 .591 48.7% 25.7% 74.4% 9.7%
Tampa Bay Rays 63 47 2 .573 34.6% 29.1% 63.7% 7.1%
Boston Red Sox 58 52 7 .527 14.6% 24.4% 39.1% 3.3%
Toronto Blue Jays 50 60 15 .455 2.1% 6.9% 8.9% 0.5%
Baltimore Orioles 39 71 26 .355 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Minnesota Twins 62 48 .564 47.5% 15.9% 63.4% 7.3%
Cleveland Indians 59 51 3 .536 32.2% 17.7% 49.9% 5.0%
Chicago White Sox 56 54 6 .509 17.0% 14.5% 31.5% 2.6%
Kansas City Royals 48 62 14 .436 2.8% 3.7% 6.5% 0.4%
Detroit Tigers 43 67 19 .391 0.5% 0.7% 1.2% 0.1%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Houston Astros 63 47 .573 51.9% 17.2% 69.1% 8.6%
Oakland A’s 60 50 3 .545 29.8% 21.0% 50.8% 5.0%
Los Angeles Angels 55 55 8 .500 13.6% 15.3% 28.9% 2.3%
Texas Rangers 50 60 13 .455 4.3% 7.2% 11.5% 0.7%
Seattle Mariners 42 68 21 .382 0.3% 0.6% 1.0% 0.0%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Washington Nationals 62 48 .564 34.6% 22.3% 56.8% 5.7%
Atlanta Braves 61 49 1 .555 30.7% 22.8% 53.5% 5.1%
New York Mets 59 51 3 .536 21.9% 21.2% 43.1% 3.7%
Philadelphia Phillies 56 54 6 .509 11.6% 15.9% 27.5% 2.0%
Miami Marlins 47 63 15 .427 1.2% 2.8% 4.0% 0.2%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago Cubs 58 52 .527 30.5% 11.4% 41.9% 3.7%
Milwaukee Brewers 56 54 2 .509 23.5% 10.8% 34.3% 2.8%
St. Louis Cardinals 56 54 2 .509 22.3% 10.7% 33.0% 2.7%
Cincinnati Reds 55 55 3 .500 19.7% 9.9% 29.6% 2.3%
Pittsburgh Pirates 48 62 10 .436 4.0% 3.1% 7.1% 0.4%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 68 42 .618 71.3% 14.6% 85.9% 12.6%
San Diego Padres 59 51 9 .536 17.7% 27.1% 44.8% 3.6%
Arizona Diamondbacks 56 54 12 .509 8.7% 19.0% 27.7% 1.9%
Colorado Rockies 49 61 19 .445 1.5% 5.4% 6.9% 0.3%
San Francisco Giants 47 63 21 .427 0.8% 3.1% 3.9% 0.2%

At 110 games, every team except for the Orioles has better than a 1-in-100 shot to make the playoffs. The margins between the Yankees and Rays and the Astros and A’s become almost negligible, close enough that a poorly-timed injury or a big deadline (gosh, when will that be?) acquisition could evaporate what’s left of the difference. At 110 games, only a single team, the Dodgers, maintains a 75% chance of making the playoffs by any means.

Of course, just because a few 110-game seasons are the shortest we can remember, doesn’t mean the season wouldn’t end up being trimmed even further. Next, let’s run the 50% option, the 81-game season:

ZiPS Projections – 81-Game Season
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
New York Yankees 48 33 .593 41.8% 21.4% 63.3% 8.1%
Tampa Bay Rays 46 35 2 .568 33.1% 22.7% 55.8% 6.5%
Boston Red Sox 43 38 5 .531 18.9% 21.3% 40.1% 3.8%
Toronto Blue Jays 37 44 11 .457 5.6% 11.1% 16.7% 1.1%
Baltimore Orioles 28 53 20 .346 0.5% 1.4% 1.9% 0.1%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Minnesota Twins 46 35 .568 40.2% 15.3% 55.5% 6.5%
Cleveland Indians 44 37 2 .543 30.8% 16.2% 47.0% 4.9%
Chicago White Sox 41 40 5 .506 20.0% 14.9% 35.0% 3.2%
Kansas City Royals 35 46 11 .432 6.5% 7.8% 14.3% 0.9%
Detroit Tigers 31 50 15 .383 2.5% 3.4% 5.8% 0.3%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Houston Astros 47 34 .580 42.9% 16.4% 59.3% 7.3%
Oakland A’s 44 37 3 .543 29.5% 18.2% 47.6% 5.0%
Los Angeles Angels 41 40 6 .506 17.4% 15.8% 33.2% 2.9%
Texas Rangers 37 44 10 .457 8.3% 11.0% 19.3% 1.4%
Seattle Mariners 31 50 16 .383 1.8% 3.3% 5.1% 0.3%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Washington Nationals 45 36 .556 30.6% 18.9% 49.5% 5.2%
Atlanta Braves 45 36 .556 28.2% 19.0% 47.2% 4.8%
New York Mets 43 38 2 .531 22.8% 18.1% 40.9% 3.9%
Philadelphia Phillies 41 40 4 .506 14.7% 15.9% 30.7% 2.5%
Miami Marlins 35 46 10 .432 3.7% 6.3% 10.0% 0.6%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago Cubs 43 38 .531 27.3% 12.3% 39.6% 3.7%
Milwaukee Brewers 41 40 2 .506 22.9% 11.8% 34.6% 3.1%
St. Louis Cardinals 41 40 2 .506 22.2% 11.8% 34.0% 3.0%
Cincinnati Reds 41 40 2 .506 20.4% 11.4% 31.9% 2.7%
Pittsburgh Pirates 35 46 8 .432 7.2% 6.3% 13.4% 0.9%
Team W L GB PCT Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 50 31 .617 56.0% 15.4% 71.4% 9.8%
San Diego Padres 44 37 6 .543 21.8% 20.2% 42.0% 3.9%
Arizona Diamondbacks 41 40 9 .506 14.0% 17.2% 31.1% 2.5%
Colorado Rockies 36 45 14 .444 4.9% 8.9% 13.8% 0.8%
San Francisco Giants 35 46 15 .432 3.4% 6.5% 9.9% 0.6%

If you like parity, an 81-game season might be your preferred option, though it would likely have a drag on salaries. In a half-season, even the Orioles winning the division is a plausible result. Not a likely result, mind you, but one that isn’t out-of-this-world wacky. The Red Sox project to have a better chance at winning the AL East in an 81-game season without Mookie Betts than in a 162-game season with him.

Here’s one last table in a table-heavy piece: teams ranked by the change in their playoff odds, based solely on having an 81-game season instead of a 162-game one.

ZiPS Playoff Probabilities – 162 Games vs. 81 Games
Team 162 Game Playoff% 81 Game Playoff% Difference
Texas Rangers 1.6% 19.3% 17.7%
Los Angeles Angels 15.6% 33.2% 17.6%
Chicago White Sox 18.7% 35.0% 16.3%
Toronto Blue Jays 0.9% 16.7% 15.8%
Kansas City Royals 0.2% 14.3% 14.1%
Colorado Rockies 0.7% 13.8% 13.1%
Pittsburgh Pirates 0.8% 13.4% 12.6%
Philadelphia Phillies 18.2% 30.7% 12.5%
Arizona Diamondbacks 18.9% 31.1% 12.2%
Miami Marlins 0.1% 10.0% 9.9%
San Francisco Giants 0.1% 9.9% 9.8%
Cincinnati Reds 23.1% 31.9% 8.8%
Boston Red Sox 31.9% 40.1% 8.2%
St. Louis Cardinals 28.1% 34.0% 5.9%
Detroit Tigers 0.0% 5.8% 5.8%
Seattle Mariners 0.0% 5.1% 5.1%
Milwaukee Brewers 31.0% 34.6% 3.6%
Baltimore Orioles 0.0% 1.9% 1.9%
Cleveland Indians 51.2% 47.0% -4.2%
Oakland A’s 52.5% 47.6% -4.9%
New York Mets 46.3% 40.9% -5.4%
Chicago Cubs 46.6% 39.6% -7.0%
San Diego Padres 49.4% 42.0% -7.4%
Atlanta Braves 66.3% 47.2% -19.1%
Minnesota Twins 75.4% 55.5% -19.9%
Tampa Bay Rays 77.2% 55.8% -21.4%
Washington Nationals 71.7% 49.5% -22.2%
Houston Astros 84.1% 59.3% -24.8%
New York Yankees 90.5% 63.3% -27.2%
Los Angeles Dodgers 98.7% 71.4% -27.3%

Six months from now, society may look very different than we expected it to as recently as this winter. The 2020 baseball season is almost guaranteed to follow suit.

We hoped you liked reading How Much Do the Playoff Odds Change in a Shorter Season? by Dan Szymborski!

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Psychic... Powerless...

Hi Dan. The third sentence appears to be missing something.

“What will that mean for the Normally, these would be extremely upsetting questions to contemplate”