The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
What to look for in the upcoming MLB playoffs

A good portion of the baseball season this year has been different from what we’ve grown accustomed to over the long history of the game. Just like everything else we’ve experienced in our personal and work lives, the coronavirus had changed the way we experience the sport--in ways we would have never anticipated. Optimists hope that conditions will go back to the way they were before the coronavirus, but most of us now realize we have begun the “new normal” and there’s probably no reverting back.


Baseball has been one of the most traditional institutions in society since it began about 150 years ago. You could always count on things like pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in mid-February, Opening Day around April 1, a mid-summer All-Star Game in mid-July, and the regular season completing by the end of September, with the playoffs ending before November 1. Yet, like pretty much all sports these days, many of the traditions have been thrown out the window, to keep the game as alive and viable as possible.


The MLB playoffs begin on September 29, or at least that’s plan today. We’ve come to expect changes in the plan, and when they happen, they are no big deal. That’s just part of the new normal.


The new playoff system has been expanded to include 16 teams this year, more than half the total number of teams in the two leagues. There will be no off-days through the League Championship series. The first-round of elimination games will consist of a best-of-three series, all played in the ballpark of the higher ranked team. Pre-determined sites have been assigned for the later rounds, so that the teams can operate in somewhat of a bubble (although not exactly like the NBA). For the first time in history, the World Series opponents won’t be playing any games at their home field. (The new Globe Life Park in Dallas has been designated as the location of the World Series, and it’s unlikely the Texas Rangers will be one of the playoff teams.)


Here’s a look at some of the possible implications of this year’s playoff system, now and in the future.


Will the expanded playoff be continued next year?

It’s not a certainty that the expanded number of teams will carry forward to next year, although there were some in baseball who wanted to see this happen before the pandemic occurred. Arguments for expansion include the fact that more teams stay relevant through the end of the regular season. Detractors of expansion say that the significance of the regular season gets watered down. However, you can bet if there is positive reaction to this year’s format, MLB will do something similar next year.


Should a team with a losing record be eligible for the playoffs?

This situation is possible under this year’s playoff format, since the top two teams in each division have automatic bids, and the second -place team could have a losing record. The Houston Astros are currently in this situation as of this writing, although they have enough remaining regular season games to remedy it. In general, there’s a stigma about teams with losing records being rewarded with playoff berths. If this playoff system goes forward, should MLB do something to disallow this?


Does a 60-game regular season schedule produce drastically different results for the playoff participants?

Will this season’s World Series champion have an asterisk by its season results, because of the shortened season due to the pandemic?


It’s been long debated how long a regular season should be. Some have argued that it doesn’t take 162 games to produce worthy playoff teams. Often, it’s how a team starts out that determines how they will finish. We’ve heard the adage, “A team can’t win the pennant in April, but they can lose it in April.” Yet are 60 games too short of a period?


If you look back at the 2019 season at the same number of games (on May 25) that have been played this season (51 as of September 19), the Phillies and Cubs were in first place of their respective NL divisions, but wound up not making the playoffs. In the AL, each of the first and second-place teams of each division finished in that same order at the end of the season. Thus, the results were mixed. The Nationals were in fourth place in the NL East last year (ten games below .500) after 51 games and then wound up winning the World Series, proving a longer regular season can produce some dramatic turnarounds.

 

Does the playoff bubble concept involving neutral sites take away from home field advantage?

The MLB had decided the playoff games after the first round will be played at pre-designated, controlled sites in Texas and California, to improve health safety and reduce the chances of games being delayed because teams become affected by the virus. Some teams are built well to take advantage of features of their home ballpark but won’t get a chance to leverage them in the playoffs. The Yankees are a prime example.


Furthermore, teams play better at some parks than others. Eno Sarris of The Athletic did a statistical look at this. Among his conclusions were Minute Maid Park (Houston) and Petco Park (San Diego) are more friendly to power teams than Globe Life Park, while Dodger Stadium is neutral.


With fans unable to attend games, the home crowd factor isn’t applicable. It’s not clear yet whether the playoffs will allow fans at a reduced capacity or at all. In any case, teams won’t have the traditional advantage that usually comes with playing in front of a friendly home crowd.

 

Will managers have to manage differently in this playoff format?

Use of the pitching staffs could be tricky problems for managers. It’s possible the first-round Wild Card Series could be played without a team’s ace getting a chance to pitch. With no off-days during the Division Series and League Championship Series, managers may have to use five or six starters, or make extensive use of relief pitchers as openers if these series go the full slate of games.


Roster make-up may be different for each round of the playoffs, depending on the three, five, or seven-game formats. Again, the number of pitchers carried on the rosters will be a key factor.

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