Team Entropy 2020: The Pecking Order

On Monday, I delved into what chaos there is to be had when it comes to the 2020 playoff picture in the National League. The answer, alas, is not very much, at least relative to a normal season. Alongside Major League Baseball’s combination of health and safety protocols and the expansion of each league’s playoff field from five teams to eight has come the decision to settle all seeding matters — including, potentially, who grabs a spot and who just misses — via the gripping excitement of mathematics instead of those boring tiebreaker games. MLB’s reasoning is that going the math route will minimize travel and keep the schedule as compact as possible during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and on the one hand I get it, but somewhere a McKinsey consultant must be proud of this bloodless, ultra-efficient solution. It stinks on ice, but 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 regarding 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). For the first round, teams will be matched up in the familiar bracket format: 1-8, 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.

If teams are tied for spots after the schedule has been completed, 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. Presumably, if three teams were to end up tied, combined head-to-head records against the other two teams would be used, but with a minimum of four games separating any three teams in a division, that possibility appears to be remote.
  • 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.

In the NL, all but three teams are still in play for postseason spots, with Playoff Odds of at least 15%. But the AL picture is much more clear, in that eight teams’ odds are above 94%, with odds dropping into the 1-5% range for the next three teams, and below 1% for the rest. For this exercise we can dismiss the Red Sox (17-31), Rangers (17-30), Angels and Royals (both 20-28), and at this point, we’re really only humoring the Mariners (22-26), Orioles (21-26) and Tigers (20-26) by including them here. The real excitement, such as it is, is confined to the ordering of the other eight teams. On with the show…

American League East Race
Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Rays Blue Jays Yankees Orioles
Rays 30 17 .638 23-12 6-4 8-2 2-3
Blue Jays 26 20 .565 3.5 17-13 4-6 2-1 6-1
Yankees 26 21 .553 4 17-13 2-8 1-2 7-3
Orioles 21 26 .447 9 11–18 3-2 1-6 3-7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

By beating the Yankees in eight out of 10 head-to-head games, and taking the season series from the Blue Jays as well, the Rays have given themselves a very strong chance at winning the division (93.5% according to the odds). The real race is for second place, between the suddenly less-banged-up Yankees, who have won five in a row to shake off a 5-15 skid, and upstart Blue Jays, who now have injury problems of their own. While the Yankees will get Gio Urshela back from his elbow injury on Tuesday, just in time for the team’s three-game series against Toronto in the Bronx, and could get Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton back later this week, the Blue Jays will be without both Teoscar Hernández, whose oblique injury isn’t as bad as feared but is still probably a week away, and Rowdy Tellez, whose right knee strain will keep him out at least into next week and perhaps for the remainder of the regular season. After this week’s series, the two teams will have four games in Buffalo from September 21-24. Obviously, there’s a lot riding on these contests, including (as we’ll see) the difference between having home-field advantage for the best-of-three round and not.

As for the Orioles, they began the year 12-8 but have since stumbled to at least five straight losses three separate times. On Monday night, they ended the most recent one by dropping 14 runs on the Braves, compared to a grand total of three in four losses to the Yankees this past weekend. Blowout aside, all forecasts point to the Birds continuing to fly south for the winter.

American League Central Race
Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv White Sox Twins Indians Tigers
White Sox 31 16 .660 23-10 3-4 2-4 9-1
Twins 30 19 .612 2 20-15 4-3 7-3 4-4
Indians 26 21 .553 5 16-16 4-2 3-7 4-2
Tigers 20 26 .435 10.5 9–19 1-0 4-4 2-4
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Folks, this is our best race for the division flag, and it’s a good one, featuring the division’s defending champions (the Twins) and the upstarts whose rebuild is finally bearing fruit (the White Sox); the latter have clinched their first .500 season since 2012. Minnesota currently has the head-to-head edge, and on Monday night, the two teams kicked off their final four-game series in Chicago, with the White Sox plating two in the eighth inning to win, 3-1. The difference in potential playoff fates is significant, with the winner in play for the number one overall seed and the second place team almost certainly winding up with the number four seed (see below).

The two teams have left the Indians very little daylight when it comes to winning the division (3.2%, per our odds), but one can argue that Cleveland’s front office did that to itself with yet another dreadful collection of outfielders, a group that has hit for a collective 51 wRC+ with -1.1 WAR. As for the Tigers, they were above .500 (17-16) as recently as September 1, and aside from getting smothered by the White Sox are 19-17, that while bringing up prospects Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Isaac Paredes, though all have struggled mightily thus far. Better days lie ahead for them, but not in 2020.

American League West Race
Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Athletics Astros Mariners
Athletics 30 18 .625 24-12 7–3 3–2
Astros 23 24 .489 6.5 15-15 3–7 6–1
Mariners 22 26 .458 8 16-17 2–3 1–6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

To these eyes, this is the most surprising of the six division races, not because the A’s are on top but because the Astros have been so mediocre. Yes, at the time of Justin Verlander’s triceps scare on March 9, their rotation already appeared to be rather threadbare, but nobody expected the injuries to Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, and Alex Bregman that have taken a bite out of their offense (which is still third in the AL in scoring). The A’s have the highest odds of any team winning its division (99.3%), though their chances at winning the World Series took a significant hit with the loss of Matt Chapman to season-ending hip surgery.

Meanwhile, it’s entirely possible that the Astros could finish below .500 and yet still wind up seeded sixth. Believers in karma can at the very least note that they’re closer in record to the Mariners than to the A’s.

Moving on to the seeding stuff outside the division, here’s a look at the three tiers:

AL Seeds 1-3
Seed Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Last 20 IntraDiv*
1 White Sox 31 16 .660 23-10 10-3
2 Rays 30 17 .638 0.5 23-12 10-5
3 Athletics 30 18 .625 1 24-12 9-7
* Includes only games that will wind up within window of final 20 intradivisional games.

Oooh. Even better than the AL Central race is the battle for the number one seed, and note that all three of these teams are dominating their respective rivals in intradivisional play. Those records could be necessary to unsnarl things, to the point that I’ve even gone back and figured out the teams’ respective records over the games that will count towards the final 20 within their divisions; a record of 10-5 means that a team still has five intradivsional games to play.

For all of the intrigue in this race, the possibility of earning the top seed and then drawing the Indians in a short series, given their formidable starting pitching, might not make it the prize that it appears to be. Likewise when it comes to facing a more complete Yankees team than the one they’ve been fielding over the past month, though if the latter is truly stronger thanks to the returns of so many players from injuries, they’ll probably surpass the Blue Jays and join the second tier. Speaking of which…

AL Seeds 4-6
Seed Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv
4 Twins 30 19 .612 20-15
5 Blue Jays 26 20 .565 2.5 17-13
6 Astros 23 24 .489 6 15-15

As opposed to a top tier where everything is up for grabs, this one is pretty locked in as far as the pecking order, though the representative from each division may be in play. The AL Central runner-up will almost certainly wind up as the fourth seed, with home-field advantage for the first round, and they’ll almost certainly face the second-place team in the AL East. If the Astros can get closer to full strength, particularly with Altuve, Lance McCullers Jr., and Verlander healthy (the first two are due back this week, the latter might make a start during the season’s final week), they could be a tougher draw than their lousy record suggests, but right now their playoff rotation would appear to include both Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier behind Zack Greinke, big steps down from the likes of Verlander (who apparently will start once he returns, though likely on a short leash) and the departed Gerrit Cole.

AL Seeds 7-8
Seed Tm W L W-L% GB IntraDiv
7 Yankees 26 21 .553 17-13
8 Indians 26 21 .553 16-16
x Mariners 22 26 .458 4.5 15-17
x Orioles 21 26 .447 5 11–18
x Tigers 20 26 .435 5.5 9–19

There’s clear separation between the top two teams here and the three also-rans, but their seeding and the matchups it produces will be of great interest, particularly if it results in rematches with division rivals (Indians-White Sox and Rays-Yankees). If the playoffs were to begin today, that’s what we’d get as the 1-8 and 2-7 pairings, with A’s-Astros as the 3-6 combo and Twins-Blue Jays as the 4-5.

All told, there won’t be much nail-biting regarding the identities of the AL’s postseason participants, barring a major hot or cold streak. They’re merely jockeying for position. That may not be much, but that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise. I’ll check in with an update on what’s in play for both leagues next week.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 years ago

Thanks for doing this