Team Entropy 2020: More Like Un-Tropy, Right?

Like so much else with the year 2020, those of us who root for end-of-season chaos in the form of tiebreaker games have had our hopes crushed by the coronavirus pandemic, or more specifically, Major League Baseball’s combination of health and safety protocols and the expanded playoff format. Not only does the expansion of each league’s playoff field from five teams to eight take some of the do-or-die pressure off plausible contenders on the margins, but the league has decided that the equivalents of Game 163 — whether of the play-in variety or merely to settle which team wins the division and which is the Wild Card — will not be played so as to minimize travel and keep the schedule as compact as possible.

Instead, all seeding — including, potentially, who grabs a spot and who just misses — will be settled in the most exciting manner of all… mathematically! As MLB’s marketing arm knows, that’s the best way to capture kids’ attention these days.

While we won’t get any bonus regular season baseball out of this situation — the added layer of best-of-threes in the postseason is a horse of a different color — the way things shake out could still produce a fair bit of end-of-season scoreboard watching and nail-biting. Like so much else, we’ll do our best at Entropy Central to play the hand that we’ve been dealt while hoping that things return to normalcy in 2021.

To refresh your memory about the format that was announced on Opening Day, each league’s playoff slates will include the division winners (who will be seeded 1-3), the second-place teams (seeded 4-6), and then the two other teams in the league with the best records (seeded 7-8, and deemed the Wild Card teams). A trial balloon regarding the top teams picking their opponents was floated, and it persisted to the point of confusion before being popped. Instead, for the first round teams will be matched up in the familiar bracket format: 1 seed versus 8 seed, 2-7, 3-6, and 4-5, with all three games at the higher-seeded team’s ballpark in an effort to provide them with some kind of advantage. Here it’s worth noting that after so much talk about the dissipation of home-field advantage through the absence of crowds, home teams thus far have a .544 winning percentage this year, higher than it’s been since 2009 (.549); last year, it was .529.

If teams are tied for spots after the schedule has been completed to Rob Manfred’s satisfaction — there’s the possibility of make-up games on September 28, as well as seeding by won-loss percentage if teams are unable to complete full slates of 60 games — then the ties will be broken on the following basis:

  • Head-to-head record (if applicable). Since teams haven’t played outside their divisions except against their interleague geographic counterparts, this is of use only for determining placement within the division.
  • If head-to-head records are tied or not applicable, the next tiebreaker is intradivision record.
  • If teams have the same intradivision records, the next tiebreaker is record in the final 20 division games. If that doesn’t break the tie, then record over the final 21 games is used, and then onto final 22, 23, 24, and so forth until the tie is broken.

Given the way this works, it’s most productive to start by considering what’s going on within each division. Today, I’ll tackle the National League, and this point, we’ll dispense with the Nationals (17-28), Pirates (14-30), and Diamondbacks (17-31), leaving 12 teams vying for eight spots.

National League East Race
Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Braves Marlins Phillies Mets
Braves 28 19 .596 19-14 3-3 5-5 5-2
Marlins 23 21 .523 3.5 16-14 3-3 6-3 4-6
Phillies 23 22 .511 4 19-13 5-5 3-6 5-2
Mets 21 26 .447 7 13-17 2-5 6-4 2-5
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Until the Phillies lost a pair to the Marlins on Sunday — the two teams’ second doubleheader in three days as part of their gargantuan seven-game series — the Braves had the smallest division lead of any NL team. Even now, their situation is a little more precarious than meets the eye. Note that they split their season series with the Phillies, who right now have a slightly better intradivision record (the gap was wider when I started writing this on Saturday, when Philadelphia was running second). If those two teams were to wind up tied with that remaining the case, Philadelphia would win the division. The Braves have also split with the back-in-second-place Marlins but still have four games against those upstarts, all at home from September 21-24; at this point, that’s nothing less than a must-win series.

Meanwhile, the Marlins have clinched the season series advantage against the Phillies, with their series due to wrap up on Monday. The Mets do have the draw on the Marlins in a tiebreaker, but right now that’s just about the only thing they have going for them in a playoff context.

National League Central Race
Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Cubs Cardinals Brewers Reds
Cubs 28 20 .583 21-15 5-5 5-5 6-4
Cardinals 20 20 .500 4 13-12 5-5 0-0 6-4
Brewers 20 24 .455 6 13-14 5-5 0-0 3-4
Reds 21 26 .447 6.5 15-18 4-6 4-6 4-3
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Like the Braves before Sunday’s standings flip-flop, the Cubs have a decent cushion but a season series split against their closest pursuer. Right now, they have the better intradivisional record, but the Cardinals have played eight fewer games due to their postponements. In fact, the Cardinals and Brewers have yet to play any of their 10 head-to-head games this year, contests that should go a long way towards sorting out the whole division, in that a one-sided result could bring one team closer to the Cubs and reopen the door for the Reds — this nitwit’s pick to win the division — as well. The two teams will play five in Milwaukee from Monday through Wednesday, bookended by doubleheaders, and then close the regular season with five games in St. Louis, including a Friday doubleheader.

With the “race” for third place in the division suddenly heating up, it’s worth noting that the Reds and Brewers will play three in Cincinnati from September 21-23.

National League West Race
Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Dodgers Padres Giants Rockies
Dodgers 33 14 .702 22-11 4-3 6-4 4-2
Padres 31 17 .646 2.5 20-13 3-4 5-1 7-3
Giants 23 24 .489 10 15-17 4-6 1-5 2-4
Rockies 21 25 .457 11.5 13-15 2-4 3-7 4-2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Until this weekend, the West was the most spread-out division, with the Dodgers enjoying the largest cushion of the NL’s three division leaders, but in the space of a couple days it’s suddenly the smallest, a reminder not only of how red-hot the Padres are (11-2 since August 29) but also of just how quickly things can change in this short, silly season. The two teams finish their 10-game slate with three in San Diego starting on Monday night, and needless to say, there’s a lot riding on those games; a sweep would carry the Padres into first place and clinch the season series between the two teams. As for the down-table intrigue, the Rockies do have the upper hand on the Giants with four games still to play from September 21-24 in San Francisco.

So that’s the division-by-division picture, with a few upcoming series looming large but the possibilities for chaos seemingly rather remote, because at no place do we have three teams on a collision course for one spot. As for the seeding stuff outside the division, here’s a look at the three tiers:

NL Seeds 1-3
Seed Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv
1 Dodgers 33 14 .702 22-11
2 Braves 28 19 .596 5 19-14
3 Cubs 28 20 .583 5.5 21-15

Whoever wins the NL West is all but certain to emerge with the top seed, while the race between the Braves and Cubs is something of a toss-up; note that Atlanta has the easier schedule the rest of the way, with an opponents weighted winning percentage of .473 to Chicago’s .499.

NL Seeds 4-6
Seed Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv
4 Padres 31 17 .646 20-13
5 Marlins 23 21 .523 6 16-14
6 Cardinals 20 20 .500 7 13-12

The Padres have a larger lead over their pursuers for the number four spot than the Dodgers do for number one, and here what stands out is that the Cardinals might reasonably prefer to remain the sixth seed and face the Cubs rather than take over the fifth seed and face the stronger Pad squad. A quote from a Cardinal of a different era, 1980s manager Whitey Herzog, comes to mind. When, during the race for the second “half” NL East title in the strike-split 1981 season the possibility of a team gaining entry to the playoffs by intentionally losing — thus guaranteeing that the first-half winner also won the second half, and leaving the team in the division with the overall second-best record (in this case St. Louis) as their opponent — came to light, he told reporters, “I’ll activate myself, I’d be the catcher and I’d have players throw with the other hand.” No word on whether Mike Shildt owns shin guards.

NL Seeds 7-8
Seed Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv
7 Phillies 23 22 .511 +1 19-13
8 Giants 23 24 .489 15-17
x Rockies 21 25 .457 1.5 13-15
x Brewers 20 24 .455 1.5 13-14
x Reds 21 26 .447 2 15-18
x Mets 21 26 .447 2 13-17

The remaining six teams are vying for two spots, and there’s a bit of separation between the top two and the rest. Right now, it appears that one sub-.500 team could make the playoffs, though the Giants were two games above .500 as recently as Wednesday. If it matters for playoff purposes, they do have Saturday’s COVID-19-related postponement to make up against the Padres somewhere during the season’s final weekend. Playoff Odds-wise, the Phillies (84.2%) and Giants (56.9%) are atop the heap, followed by the Brewers (40.6%), Mets (26.7%), Reds (25.0%), and Rockies (16.4%).

So, if the playoffs were to begin today, the opening round would feature two historic rivalries, with the Dodgers and Giants in the 1-8 pairing and the aforementioned Cubs-Cardinals in the 3-6. Another intradivisonal matchup, the Braves and Phillies, would be the 2-7 pairing, while the Padres and Marlins would meet as the 4-5.

All told, that’s not nearly as much fun as we’ve had in the past, but in 2020 that’s true of just about everything, baseball and otherwise. If it doesn’t look as though a ton of drama or chaos is headed our way regarding the NL races, it’s worth remembering that there’s not that much difference between the half-dozen teams above in terms of what their records to date tell us, and things can change quickly.

I’ll turn my attention to the AL in my next installment.

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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MikeS
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MikeS

Is it possible that the improvement in winning percentage by home teams is due to the extra inning rules? It seems to me that those rules favor the home team more than regular baseball rules, but I can’t find a simple list of all those games so I can’t test it.