The 2022 Regular Season Has Lacked Intensity

© Rob Schumacher / USA TODAY NETWORK

This is Chris’ first piece as a FanGraphs contributor. Chris is a data journalist based in Boston. He started his career working in baseball, first as a media relations intern with the 2014 Cubs and then with the Red Sox media relations department from 2015 to ’19. In addition to thinking about baseball, he reports on data topics ranging from education to climate to COVID-19 for U.S. News and World Report. Chris has long used FanGraphs to describe what data journalism is to confused friends and family.

The baseball fan’s proposition is a delicate balance. We’re asked to tune in for 162 games that are of relatively little individual importance to the team’s World Series chances, an act of faith anchored somewhat in the premise that “anything can happen” in the postseason. If your team is able to survive the regular season grind, the game assures you, they have a shot to bring home the ultimate reward.

But with less than three weeks to play, the 2022 regular season is looking a little flat from a competitive standpoint. The playoff field, with its new three Wild Card structure, is looking relatively set, and this year’s regular season is shaping up to have been, well, mild when it comes to non-home run chase drama.

After play on September 14, with three weeks left in the first regular season with six Wild Card slots up for grabs, there were 16 teams with a less than 10% chance of making the playoffs and another 10 with a chance of 90% or better, leaving just four teams – the Padres (82.3%), Guardians (81.6%), Brewers (21.4%), and White Sox (15.0%) – somewhere between despair and a near-certain postseason berth. That number was just five with a full four weeks left in the season. By comparison, with three weeks to go last year, eight teams fell between 10% and 90% in terms of playoff odds. In the last five full seasons, an average of seven teams have fallen in that range with three weeks to go.

With three Wild Cards in each league, you could imagine a September full of thrilling chases and surprise contenders. Instead, while playoff seeding is yet to be determined – most crucially, which team will come away with the NL East title and the first-round bye that’s likely to come with it – most teams are playing for home field advantage at best, and what essentially amounts to draft order at worst.

Part of the issue is the disparate nature of the haves and have-nots in the league today. FanGraphs projects four teams to win 100 games – the Dodgers already have – which would match the record set in 2019. A remarkable nine teams are projected to win fewer than 70, which would also be a record in a 162-game season. Part, of course, is chance. But the lack of stakes in an underwhelming playoff chase exacerbates the issue of a regular season already diluted in its importance thanks to a busier postseason bracket to work through at the end of the road.

To quantify what’s at stake in the regular season, we can look to Championship Leverage Index (cLI), a metric developed by Dave Studeman and Sky Andrecheck a little over 10 years ago and now hosted on Baseball Reference. cLI aims to measure the impact of a particular game on a team’s chances of winning the World Series by simulating season outcomes for each game outcome, with the baseline of 1.00 calibrated to represent an Opening Day game in the two Wild Card playoff format.

The more critical the game is to a team’s chances of winning the World Series, the higher the cLI value. When the Blue Jays hosted the Yankees in the final week of a Wild Card race last year, the September 30 series finale had a 2.74 cLI for Toronto and a 2.18 for the Yankees. The Yankees’ win that day raised their playoff chances from 84.2% to 97.0%, while Toronto’s loss dropped their odds from 22.9% to 13.5%; their World Series chances were impacted accordingly.

On the other hand, teams that know they won’t make the playoffs – as well as teams that are relatively certain of their playoff position – have less at stake on any given regular-season day. With extremely comfortable playoff positions, neither this year’s Dodgers nor Astros have played a game with a cLI higher than 1.00 since before the All-Star Break.

Between the new playoff format, which has drawn criticism for a number of reasons, and the way wins have been distributed this season, 2022 is shaping up to have featured the lowest-leverage average regular season game since the playoff format switched to a two Wild Card format in 2012. The average team-game this year has had a cLI of .68 (including games played on or before September 19), down almost 20% from the same point in last year’s season (.81). In the nine full seasons of the two Wild Card era, the average regular-season cLI through this point in the season ranged from .78 in 2019 to .93 in ’14.

Maybe these numbers are heating up as the season nears an end? Not this year. Through Monday, in each team’s last 20 team-games, the average cLI has been a paltry .43, thanks in part to the fact that only seven teams are averaging values over 1.00 during this stretch. Eleven teams were averaging over 1.00 during this stretch last year, when all teams averaged .60 over the 20-game period.

Looked at another way, 68.4% of the over 4,000 team-games played through Monday have had a cLI of less than 1.00, up from 55.5% in 2021, and 34.7% had a value of less than .50.

An imbalanced league and a dose of bad luck has meant that most fans have spent the final month of the season with their October plans made, but the cLI tells a story of a weakened regular season overall. Major League Baseball has spent years working on ways to cut down the time of an average game, but in the meantime, the expansion of the playoffs has contributed to an erosion of a more sacred asset: the value of a game.





Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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tz
6 days ago

Chris – welcome, and thanks for the great article!

I think the biggest issue with the 2022 races is that the top two seeds (which get the first round bye) have been pretty much wrapped up since well before the All-Star break. I don’t think the disparity between the haves and have nots is much more of a factor than in other recent seasons, but the way the divisional races have played out have made it so the only suspense would have been the battle for the #2 seed. Hopefully that comes into play in future seasons.

stever20member
6 days ago
Reply to  tz

so going back and looking since 2015-
2015- AL would have top 2 set, NL battle for 2 seed.
2016- AL battle for top 2 seeds, NL would have been set.
2017- both would have been set
2018- AL would have top 2 set, NL battle for 2 seed
2019- AL battle for 2 seed, NL would have been set
2021- AL battle for 2 seed, NL would have been set
2022- both would have been set

so in 14 league years, would have had battle for 2 seed in 5 of those years. Other 9 top 2 seeds would have been set pretty easily. So this doesn’t seem to be all that out of the ordinary.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
6 days ago
Reply to  stever20

Were these regular seasons “intense”?

Austinmember
6 days ago
Reply to  tz

Braves are just 1 GB of the Mets for the 2 seed in the NL

Jason Bmember
5 days ago
Reply to  Austin

I think as rightly pointed out in a later comment, intensity necessarily diminishes when there is a consolation prize in a Wild Card spot. As a well-known example, in 1993 the team with the second best record in the league (SF at 103-59) missed the playoffs by a game to the Braves (104-58). That will create more intensity than this year’s NL East showdown between two very good teams who are both playoff locks (albeit with seeding and a bye still on the line).

Not saying this is an argument in favor of having only one playoff team per division – I don’t know that anyone wants to return to that – just showing the tradeoffs involved between more playoff teams and the season-long intensity derived equation (or S.L.I.D.E.)

Last edited 5 days ago by Jason B
Antonio Bananasmember
5 days ago
Reply to  Jason B

I think you are drastically under estimating the importance of the first round bye.

In less lop sided years, you’d have a lot of opportunities for meaningful games. Winning your division, having one of the top 2 division winner records, being the top seeded wild card, and making the playoffs at all are several layers of importance. Unfortunately this year there isn’t much

A way I’d like to see MLB add an extra flavor to make records matter is have the top seed in the wild card series get spotted a win similar to what they do in the KBO.

So like this year (as stands now), ATL vs SDP with ATL getting spotted a win; STL vs PHI with STL spotted a win.

mikejuntmember
5 days ago

The bye is very valuable and I think is an interesting question whether the fact that the opponent has to play multiple games is an advantage over the 1 game or not. With the 1 game playoff, the wild card teams would throw their best pitchers and therefore it was basically impossible for that guy to throw 2 games in the LDS without short rest.

Since the schedule now supports them playing 3 games, the guy who starts the first game of that series will be able to come back for the LDS and start 2 games. Considering the gap between a lot of teams’ best pitchers and the other guys, and the impact those guys can have on a series, I am not sure that I would trade the extra fatigue on the rest of the opponent’s pitching staff for having Jacob DeGrom be able to start twice against me again.

Now, in this condensed season where the LCS has lost an offday and they play games 3-7 consecutively again, I think its more likely to matter, much like the lack of offdays in 2020 mattered a lot and rewarded the teams who were built for depth (in the Dodgers and Rays) over their opponents. The Dodgers 3-1 comeback in 2020 was due in large part to the fatigue and overuse of the Atlanta bullpen, something that could easily happen again this year if someone plays 3 games in the wild card round, 5 games in the LDS, and then can’t get starter length in the LCS.

Its too bad that the lack of offdays is so hard on the players because I would really prefer it if the playoff structure more aligned with what is good teambuilding in the regular season – the way that it is sort of actively a poor idea to trade for a #5 starter at the deadline because that guy is only useful in the regular season and you do not want him to pitch in the playoffs is a bug in the MLB playoff format in my view – things that are good for winning in the regular season (like depth) should also be good for winning in the postseason. In the status quo, that hasn’t been the case, and teams like the 2019 Nationals can ride 50% of their own pitching staff to a title because of the playoff format.

I know people love the idea of the star pitchers being so influential in the postseason and the opportunity to see someone go Bumgarner on a series, but I think it would be better for baseball overall if there wasn’t such a large divide between “what wins regular season games” and “what wins playoff games”. It’s like if the NFL played its regular season with kickoffs and then in the playoffs all kickoffs were replaced my automatic touchbacks. Having a portion of your roster construction/team building decisions be devalued in playoff games is bad.

Jason Bmember
5 days ago

Oh no question the bye is huge and meaningful. But ‘getting a bye or not” still =/= not playing in the postseason at all, intensity-wise.

Antonio Bananasmember
5 days ago
Reply to  Jason B

Sure, but that limits the number of playoff races.

I’d rather have intrigue with multiple layers vs “well 2 out of 15 teams give a shit about this, but they care a lot.”