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What could MLB look like with 82 games and 14 playoff teams?

May 21, 2020
There are still many details to be hammered out before we have a baseball season, but it seems likely that we will have a season, even if it looks a little different than usual. An 82-game season with 14 playoff teams is the current proposed structure, one that changes what we should expect come playoff time. What could we reasonably expect in terms of teams making or missing the postseason with this format
One way to look at this is through simulation. We simulated alternate versions of the 2019 season by drawing random games from the actual 2019 game-by-game results. Season durations of 132 and 32 games were also tested, just to provide context for the effect of a shortened season.

Because it would have been quite tough to simulate a perfect schedule, some teams in each simulation ended up with more or fewer games than the target number. To balance that out a bit, there were 200 simulated seasons of each length and only the 100 with the smallest ranges of games played among teams were used.

Given 100 simulated seasons of a given number of games per team, we can find a rough estimate of the playoff-worthy teams by taking the top 14 teams by win percentage in each pseudo-season.

Because there might be realignment in the shortened season anyway, league and division affiliation wasn’t considered, so the top teams by win percentage make the playoffs. Last season, for example, that would have put the Indians in the playoffs and left the Brewers out.

Here’s one way to think about how shortening the season might affect competitive balance. For each season duration, how many teams would make the "playoffs" at least once in a hundred simulations? At least ten times? Twenty?

Teams That Made the Playoffs at Least N Times in 100 Simulations of the 2019 Season, by Number of Games in Season

Season Length Made it Once Made it 10x Made it 20x
32 games 29 26 21
82 games 25 19 16
132 games 19 16 16


What do we learn from this table?

  • Shorter seasons give weaker teams a fighting chance. With 14 playoff teams and a 32-game season, every team but the Tigers makes the postseason at least once in a hundred simulations. And an 82-game season looks more like a 32-game season than a 162-game season in this regard, with 25 teams making it at least once in a hundred tries.
  • With the expected format of an 82-game season and 14 playoff teams, nineteen teams have at least a 1-in-100 chance of making the playoffs. However, the number of teams with at least a 20% chance to make the playoffs doesn’t really change if we have a half season.

It's worth noting that while adding playoff teams and shortening the season will definitely give the middle class of teams a better opportunity to make the playoffs, their likelihood of coming home with a World Series is still quite low. After all, the teams that squeak into the playoffs will have to face the best teams, and so are likely to be eliminated quickly.

But getting a shot at the postseason is better than no chance at all.


COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

I wondered also "who advanced that argument" (as MichaelPat put it), because it's not here.
So -- I see that it's from 538????

I think they only had 537 of their cylinders clicking at that moment. :-)

It is indeed completely ludicrous.


BTW, an 82-game MLB season wouldn't be much comparable to an NBA season, despite the same number of games, because in NBA basketball, the better team wins a game much more frequently than in MLB baseball. It takes fewer games to achieve a meaningful separation among NBA teams than among MLB teams.
1:14 AM May 23rd
I have heard it for years in defense of the @#$&* wild card, and I am glad it wasn’t used here.

From 538, where they usually know better: “A shorter regular season would favor underdogs, but an expanded postseason would likely help the best teams.“
4:54 PM May 22nd
"The argument that expanded playoffs gives stronger teams an edge is incredibly ludicrous."
Who has advanced that argument?
1:56 PM May 22nd
I agree with abiggoof that the extended-series format tends to be a leveler rather than an elevator. My beloved Giants from 2014 are a prime example.

I'd like to see the MLB postseason adopt a tournament format similar to the College World Series (with many fewer teams, of course) in a set of double-elimination rounds, with the two surviving teams meeting in the classic 7-game World Series. I think it would make for a more entertaining postseason.

The proposal here is similar to what the NFL did in 1982, and I'm OK with it for this one season. But I don't see now MLB can do 14 playoff teams unless somebody gets a first-round bye. Maybe that's the plan; I haven't seen any details. 12 teams seems to make more sense.
8:04 AM May 22nd
The argument that expanded playoffs gives stronger teams an edge is incredibly ludicrous. It isn’t a second season, but a gauntlet. To get to the World Series, each series has to be won, so unless they make it where you win two out of three series or three out of four, the odds of the best team moving forward drop by definition with each added series they play, no matter how small the chance of an upset. The only exception is additional wild card rounds where the big boys get a breather and so-so teams wear each other out. Which is numbingly boring down the stretch in the race for playoff spots and in early playoff rounds compared to seeing great teams desperately fighting for survival.

But it’s not just bad for Goliath. It also gives great teams having an off year a better chance to topple Davids that win their division. During the late 90s and early 2000s, if a team like the Yankees, Braves or Indians were somehow not in first, they were going to grab that wild card and make it harder for your overachievers and one-year wonders anyway.

So it’s rotten for both.​
4:24 PM May 21st
Which team never made the playoffs, even once, in the 32 game season? Detroit or Baltimore?
3:48 PM May 21st
It'll look like the NBA.
2:47 PM May 21st
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