What Would a Shorter Schedule Mean for Playoff Odds?

© Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After another 24 hours of intense negotiations, MLB’s lockout of the players remains in effect. Just like the last time negotiations ticked past a league-imposed deadline, MLB announced that they had canceled a week (two series) of games, postponing Opening Day until April 14. That brings the total number of weeks canceled to two and series to four, with the possibility of more to come should the two sides not reach a compromise in their negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement.

It’s unclear whether these games will remain canceled, or whether some newly structured season will change the schedule. After all, the league canceled a week of games last week, then spent most of this week saying they would un-cancel them and play a full 162 if the two sides reached a deal by their new deadline. Plus, the length of the season, and the salaries and service time that go with it, is itself a matter of bargaining. But let’s take the league at their word and assume that we’re now looking at a 150-game season.

How would that affect teams’ playoff odds? I asked FanGraphs’ resident ZiPS technician, Dan Szymborski, to fire up his computer and simulate the season in two ways: first with the full 162 games, and then with the first 12 games of each team’s season lopped off the front. This is a lot of data, so bear with me, but here are each team’s division championship, playoff, and World Series odds in each version of the schedule:

AL East Playoff Odds Changes
Team Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% Div% Chg WC% Chg Playoff% Chg WS Win% Chg
Yankees 40.0% 43.0% 83.0% 9.5% 0.9% -1.3% -0.4% 0.4%
Blue Jays 26.8% 46.6% 73.5% 6.5% -0.8% -1.2% -2.0% -0.1%
Rays 24.7% 46.5% 71.3% 6.0% -0.5% -1.3% -1.8% 0.0%
Red Sox 8.4% 34.4% 42.9% 2.1% 0.3% -0.8% -0.4% 0.0%
Orioles 0.0% 0.3% 0.3% 0.0% 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0%

AL Central Playoff Odds Changes
Team Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% Div% Chg WC% Chg Playoff% Chg WS Win% Chg
White Sox 67.4% 8.6% 76.0% 6.7% -3.5% 0.8% -2.7% -0.3%
Guardians 11.9% 10.5% 22.4% 0.7% 0.0% -0.5% -0.5% 0.0%
Tigers 7.9% 7.6% 15.5% 0.4% 1.1% 0.5% 1.6% 0.1%
Twins 7.4% 7.1% 14.4% 0.3% 1.5% 0.7% 2.2% 0.1%
Royals 5.4% 5.6% 11.0% 0.2% 0.9% 0.6% 1.5% 0.0%

AL West Playoff Odds Changes
Team Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% Div% Chg WC% Chg Playoff% Chg WS Win% Chg
Astros 69.1% 16.9% 86.0% 11.7% -2.1% 1.0% -1.1% 0.1%
Angels 11.5% 24.5% 36.0% 1.6% 0.9% 0.4% 1.3% 0.1%
Athletics 11.2% 24.4% 35.7% 1.6% 0.7% 0.1% 0.9% 0.1%
Mariners 7.2% 18.8% 26.0% 0.9% 0.3% 0.3% 0.6% 0.1%
Rangers 1.1% 5.0% 6.1% 0.1% 0.2% 0.6% 0.8% 0.0%

NL East Playoff Odds Changes
Team Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% Div% Chg WC% Chg Playoff% Chg WS Win% Chg
Braves 47.6% 30.8% 78.4% 8.3% -1.1% 0.4% -0.7% 0.3%
Mets 34.0% 35.0% 68.9% 5.8% -0.6% -0.3% -0.9% 0.2%
Phillies 10.5% 25.6% 36.0% 1.6% 0.9% 1.2% 2.1% 0.2%
Marlins 6.2% 19.3% 25.5% 0.9% 0.5% 1.0% 1.5% 0.1%
Nationals 1.8% 8.2% 9.9% 0.2% 0.4% 1.6% 2.0% 0.1%

NL Central Playoff Odds Changes
Team Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% Div% Chg WC% Chg Playoff% Chg WS Win% Chg
Cardinals 46.6% 23.8% 70.4% 6.1% -2.1% -1.5% -3.6% -0.5%
Brewers 39.3% 25.8% 65.0% 5.0% -0.4% -2.6% -3.0% -0.3%
Reds 9.9% 16.3% 26.1% 0.9% 1.3% -0.6% 0.8% 0.1%
Cubs 4.0% 8.6% 12.5% 0.3% 1.0% 0.6% 1.6% 0.1%
Pirates 0.3% 0.9% 1.2% 0.0% 0.2% 0.3% 0.4% 0.0%

NL West Playoff Odds Changes
Team Div% WC% Playoff% WS Win% Div% Chg WC% Chg Playoff% Chg WS Win% Chg
Dodgers 60.5% 29.5% 90.1% 13.5% -3.1% 0.5% -2.7% -0.9%
Padres 33.1% 44.4% 77.5% 7.7% 1.1% -3.7% -2.6% -0.2%
Giants 5.9% 26.9% 32.9% 1.3% 1.8% 1.5% 3.3% 0.3%
Diamondbacks 0.4% 4.5% 4.9% 0.1% 0.2% 1.4% 1.6% 0.0%
Rockies 0.0% 0.5% 0.5% 0.0% 0.0% 0.2% 0.2% 0.0%

As you can see, shortening the schedule doesn’t have a huge impact on any single team. The largest increase in odds for any team is 3.3 percentage points (the Giants), while the largest decrease is 3.6 (the Cardinals). The general shape of the movement is what you’d expect, too: favorites suffer from a shorter schedule that gives them less time to separate from the pack, while underdogs benefit.

Even knowing these numbers were right, I considered asking Dan to turn ZiPS off, take the cartridge out, and blow any dust off of it before running the numbers again. He told me the system doesn’t run on a 90’s-era video game console, though, and in any case, these relatively meager changes in playoff probability display something we’ve known intuitively all along: if you’re trying to determine which team in a division is the best one, 150 games and 162 games are pretty likely to give you the same answer.

Take the case of those Giants. They had two three-game sets against the Padres in their first 12 games, as well as series against the Brewers and Marlins. Per our projected standings, that’s an aggregate .542 winning percentage for the opposition. Getting rid of a portion of the schedule where the Giants could expect to have a losing record increases their expected winning percentage. San Francisco projects right around .500 as currently constituted; that’s a 5.5 win expectation out of that 12-game set. The Giants stand to have a better record by avoiding those games, and they also get the benefit of being an underdog in a shorter season.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, are losing a cakewalk part of the calendar. They have two series against the Pirates, one against the Cubs, and one against the Royals. Those teams have an aggregate .442 winning percentage projection – one of the easiest schedules in the game. The Cardinals project to play .600 baseball against those relative lightweights. In addition to suffering the standard shorter-season penalty for a favorite, they lose a stretch that’s worth roughly a game in the standings in expectation.

A game in the standings doesn’t sound like a huge change – and that’s the largest percentage point change for any team. Plenty of teams give up a roughly average schedule, or are so likely to make (or miss) the playoffs that their odds are relatively static. Houston, for example, forgoes facing a set of opponents with a .502 winning percentage. Their entire change in playoff odds comes from the shorter season, and it’s barely a one percentage point decrease.

Of course, all this forecasting may end up meaningless. There are good reasons to keep the existing schedule, not the least of which is that stadiums are frequently booked when the home team is on a road trip, and redoing the entire schedule on the fly while still accommodating non-baseball event planning could be difficult. But evening out the number of times each team plays its division opponents seems like a worthy goal, and MLB is likely already open to playing with the schedule; they proposed the possibility of a 162-game slate until yesterday, which would have involved re-scheduling games and adding doubleheaders to make the time work.

If that happens, the shorter season will do almost exactly what you’d expect: nothing much. It will lower the odds for favorites and boost them for long-shots, but by minuscule amounts. Teams with rehabbing starters or pitchers on innings limits will do well, of course, but it’s 12 games; you’d need to lop far more of them off the schedule for those effects to start adding up. The Astros from the real-world schedule provide a good example of the magnitude of the odds changes.

The real excitement over playoff probabilities will be the result of what we always thought it would be: the free agency frenzy that will immediately follow the end of the lockout. More than half of the projected 2022 WAR in this year’s free agency class remains unsigned, with Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman among the headliners. Our estimates of team strength still have plenty of room to change, and those changes will matter far more than a handful of games here and there.

That’s all down the road, though. At the moment, there’s no 150-game season agreement, or any agreement at all. When the league and the union do come to terms on a new CBA, constructing a schedule will probably feel like small potatoes compared to the gauntlet of the negotiations. Playing 150 games is still plenty of time to figure out who deserves to make the playoffs; it’s not very different than 162, after all. If we start talking months instead of weeks – or if the playoff structure radically changes – that could obviously change. But for now, the tragedy of missing games is affecting every team roughly equally.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

The teams that have a lower % chance of making the postseason but higher WS odds (Yankees, Astros, Braves among others) are interesting to me – I assume that is a result of them playing worse competition on average in the scenarios when they do make it?

2 years ago
Reply to  TribeToTheEnd

I don’t see how it could be anything else.

Of course, this means very little as (a) MLB told on itself already that cancelled doesn’t necessarily mean cancelled and (b) we could just as easily see more, even way more, games cancelled when/if an agreement is reached.