Projecting a 12-Team Playoff Structure

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Last month, I went over some possible playoff structures in an attempt to design a format that allowed for playoff expansion while still preserving the value of adding a star to the roster. I focused on 14-team structures for a couple of reasons: it was more of a challenge to make a 14-team system that didn’t grossly alter team incentives and I suspected that the players would be willing to accept the larger field if it helped them achieve some of their other negotiation priorities.

Well, we’re a month later, and there’s a little more clarity. While there is still a lot to iron out and little idea as to when the league and the players union might reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement, there seems to be some kind of very preliminary sorta-agreement on a 12-team playoff system, though ownership has apparently been very resistant to allowing the more highly-seeded teams any advantage outside of the traditional home field-based ones (meaning no knockout run or “ghost wins”).

So let’s take our lockout projected standings and project the playoffs based on a system in which the best two division winners receive byes, the third division winner plays the lowest seed in a three-game series, and the other two Wild Card teams play their own trio of games against each other. The playoffs then proceed from there.

The American League

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL East
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
New York Yankees 90 72 55.6% 39.1% 44.3% 83.4% 9.1%
Toronto Blue Jays 89 73 1 54.9% 27.4% 47.7% 75.2% 6.5%
Tampa Bay Rays 88 74 2 54.3% 25.5% 47.8% 73.3% 6.1%
Boston Red Sox 83 79 7 51.2% 8.0% 35.0% 43.0% 2.0%
Baltimore Orioles 64 98 26 39.5% 0.0% 0.2% 0.2% 0.0%

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL Central
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Chicago White Sox 88 74 54.3% 70.7% 7.9% 78.6% 7.0%
Cleveland Guardians 78 84 10 48.1% 12.0% 11.1% 23.1% 0.7%
Detroit Tigers 76 86 12 46.9% 6.9% 7.1% 14.0% 0.3%
Minnesota Twins 75 87 13 46.3% 5.9% 6.3% 12.3% 0.3%
Kansas City Royals 74 88 14 45.7% 4.5% 5.0% 9.6% 0.2%

ZiPS Projected Standings – AL West
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Houston Astros 91 71 56.2% 70.9% 16.1% 87.0% 11.6%
Los Angeles Angels 81 81 10 50.0% 10.7% 24.0% 34.7% 1.5%
Oakland A’s 81 81 10 50.0% 10.6% 24.3% 34.9% 1.5%
Seattle Mariners 80 82 11 49.4% 6.9% 18.7% 25.6% 0.9%
Texas Rangers 73 89 18 45.1% 0.9% 4.5% 5.4% 0.1%

The National League

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL East
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Atlanta Braves 90 72 55.6% 49.1% 30.3% 79.4% 8.1%
New York Mets 88 74 2 54.3% 34.3% 35.5% 69.8% 5.7%
Philadelphia Phillies 82 80 8 50.6% 9.5% 24.5% 34.0% 1.4%
Miami Marlins 80 82 10 49.4% 5.7% 18.5% 24.2% 0.8%
Washington Nationals 75 87 15 46.3% 1.3% 6.4% 7.8% 0.1%

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL Central
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
St. Louis Cardinals 89 73 54.9% 49.0% 25.0% 74.0% 6.6%
Milwaukee Brewers 88 74 1 54.3% 39.3% 28.2% 67.6% 5.2%
Cincinnati Reds 80 82 9 49.4% 8.5% 16.7% 25.2% 0.8%
Chicago Cubs 76 86 13 46.9% 3.0% 8.1% 11.1% 0.2%
Pittsburgh Pirates 68 94 21 42.0% 0.1% 0.6% 0.8% 0.0%

ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West
Team W L GB Pct Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win%
Los Angeles Dodgers 94 68 58.0% 63.7% 29.1% 92.7% 14.4%
San Diego Padres 90 72 4 55.6% 31.9% 48.1% 80.1% 7.8%
San Francisco Giants 81 81 13 50.0% 4.2% 25.6% 29.8% 1.1%
Arizona Diamondbacks 72 90 22 44.4% 0.2% 3.1% 3.3% 0.0%
Colorado Rockies 66 96 28 40.7% 0.0% 0.3% 0.3% 0.0%

Don’t laugh that I’m projecting 162 games! We’re simply trying to see the effects of a change to the playoff system and since most seasons that aren’t 2022 hopefully will feature 162 games, it makes sense to look at the standings at this level.

If you’re focused on getting higher playoff chances, well, you’ve got that. Even the expected basement dwellers of the league sneak above the 0.0%/0.1% doldrums. The Pittsburgh Pirates almost move the decimal point, nearing a 1% projected shot of postseason play. (Whether the Pirates having that realistic of a chance at the postseason is a feature or a bug is a judgement I will leave to the reader.)

To get an idea of how the playoff probabilities changed, I ran the old system against the new system. You might notice that the World Series probabilities in the old system vary a bit from the ones you saw in the lockout projections. That’s because I’ve been tinkering with this model in recent weeks. It now considers the distribution of performances on rosters and calculates playoff team strength slightly differently than regular season strength. Here are the projected changes:

ZiPS Projected Changes from Structure Change
Team Old Playoff% Old WS% New Playoff% New WS% Playoff Change WS Change
Tampa Bay Rays 61.7% 5.5% 73.3% 6.1% 11.6% 0.6%
Toronto Blue Jays 63.8% 5.9% 75.2% 6.5% 11.4% 0.6%
New York Yankees 74.3% 8.6% 83.4% 9.1% 9.1% 0.5%
Boston Red Sox 30.5% 1.5% 43.0% 2.0% 12.5% 0.5%
San Diego Padres 70.4% 7.5% 80.1% 7.8% 9.6% 0.3%
San Francisco Giants 19.7% 0.8% 29.8% 1.1% 10.2% 0.3%
Oakland A’s 24.8% 1.2% 34.9% 1.5% 10.1% 0.2%
Los Angeles Angels 24.7% 1.2% 34.7% 1.5% 10.0% 0.2%
Philadelphia Phillies 23.5% 1.2% 34.0% 1.4% 10.5% 0.2%
Miami Marlins 15.8% 0.6% 24.2% 0.8% 8.4% 0.1%
Seattle Mariners 17.4% 0.7% 25.6% 0.9% 8.2% 0.1%
New York Mets 58.7% 5.6% 69.8% 5.7% 11.1% 0.1%
Cincinnati Reds 17.3% 0.8% 25.2% 0.8% 7.8% 0.1%
Washington Nationals 4.3% 0.1% 7.8% 0.1% 3.5% 0.0%
Chicago Cubs 6.8% 0.2% 11.1% 0.2% 4.3% 0.0%
Texas Rangers 3.0% 0.1% 5.4% 0.1% 2.4% 0.0%
Arizona Diamondbacks 1.5% 0.0% 3.3% 0.0% 1.8% 0.0%
Pittsburgh Pirates 0.3% 0.0% 0.8% 0.0% 0.5% 0.0%
Colorado Rockies 0.1% 0.0% 0.3% 0.0% 0.2% 0.0%
Baltimore Orioles 0.1% 0.0% 0.2% 0.0% 0.1% 0.0%
Kansas City Royals 6.7% 0.2% 9.6% 0.2% 2.8% 0.0%
Minnesota Twins 8.8% 0.3% 12.3% 0.3% 3.4% -0.1%
Detroit Tigers 10.4% 0.4% 14.0% 0.3% 3.7% -0.1%
Cleveland Guardians 17.5% 0.8% 23.1% 0.7% 5.5% -0.1%
Los Angeles Dodgers 87.9% 14.6% 92.7% 14.4% 4.8% -0.2%
Atlanta Braves 70.3% 8.3% 79.4% 8.1% 9.1% -0.2%
Milwaukee Brewers 57.7% 5.6% 67.6% 5.2% 9.8% -0.4%
Houston Astros 81.6% 12.0% 87.0% 11.6% 5.4% -0.5%
St. Louis Cardinals 65.5% 7.2% 74.0% 6.6% 8.4% -0.7%
Chicago White Sox 74.8% 8.8% 78.6% 7.0% 3.7% -1.8%

The changes in World Series probability didn’t follow the exact pattern I originally expected. Division winners take a hit, but a team like the Dodgers, with a high projected chance of sitting out the Wild Card round, sees the least damage. Top teams also see some of their loss mitigated by their opponents in the LDS and LCS being weaker; the last Wild Card will advance sometimes and take out the usually superior third division winner. Speaking of, the format was especially hard on the third division winner, as that team is now being thrust into a best-of-three series when they previously got to watch the Wild Cards duke it out. Naturally, the winners of the Central divisions suffer the most here.

I expected the most advantaged teams to be those in very tight divisions, but I was surprised by the magnitude of the advantage. The AL East has four very solid teams, and the Yankees, by virtue of limiting their downside, was the only division winner to see their World Series probability improve in the new system.

Now, just how bad is that third Wild Card?

ZiPS Projected Wins From Third Wild Cards
Wins NL % AL %
73 0.0% 0.0%
74 0.0% 0.0%
75 0.0% 0.0%
76 0.0% 0.1%
77 0.1% 0.2%
78 0.3% 0.6%
79 0.8% 1.4%
80 1.9% 2.9%
81 3.4% 5.5%
82 6.0% 8.4%
83 9.1% 11.1%
84 12.0% 13.5%
85 13.8% 14.4%
86 14.0% 13.0%
87 12.5% 10.7%
88 10.0% 7.4%
89 7.1% 5.0%
90 4.4% 2.8%
91 2.4% 1.5%
92 1.2% 0.8%
93 0.6% 0.4%
94 0.2% 0.2%
95 0.1% 0.0%
96 0.0% 0.0%
97 0.0% 0.0%
98 0.0% 0.0%
99 0.0% 0.0%

In the simulations, every win total from 73 through 99 made the playoffs as the third Wild Card. Suffice it to say, these years have enough chaos to make Jay Jaffe happy. In the 73-win year, the Dodgers, Padres, Giants, Cardinals, and Mets all won 100 games and there was quite a drop-off from second Wild Card, the Reds, at 85 wins, all the way down to the Braves at 73.

Now, we’ll have to wait, possibly for a while, to find out what the actual playoff format looks like or even how many games we will play this season. But upon examining it, I feel better — or at least less grumpy — about the playoff expansion than I previously did. In March 2022, that counts as good news.





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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sadtrombonemember
8 months ago

yikes

Last edited 8 months ago by sadtrombone