Home Featured Extra Innings: Interesting twist in postseason plan, future of expanded playoffs, Yankees rolling again and Dodgers clinch playoff spot

Extra Innings: Interesting twist in postseason plan, future of expanded playoffs, Yankees rolling again and Dodgers clinch playoff spot

by Chris Brown

Just two weekends remain in the 2020 MLB regular season. The American League playoff field is virtually set, with eight teams holding a 97% chance or higher of making the postseason entering play Sept. 17, per Fangraphs. On the NL side, there is certainly at the top of the field but open spots near the bottom, with four teams a virtual lock and another eight with a realistic shot of playing into October.

One of the biggest storylines of the past week in the baseball world was the league’s announcement of its plans and schedule for the postseason, which included an interesting twist. Click here for a rundown of what you need to know about the playoff format. Without any further ado, let’s jump into this week’s Extra Innings:

*All stats in this story accurate prior to MLB games on Sept. 17.

The lack of off days during the first three rounds of the postseason will undoubtedly benefit some teams over others.

This was one of the most intriguing parts of MLB’s postseason announcement on Sept. 15, as Yankees manager Aaron Boone indicated to reporters that teams did not know of this aspect, which varies from a typical postseason, until recently. The logic here is simple: with Wild Card Series games all at the higher seed’s ballpark and the final three rounds taking place in neutral-site bubbles, there is no need for travel days in the middle of a series. 

One major result, though, is that the lack of in-series off days limits the number of times a team can start its top pitchers. For example, a team’s ace starting the first game of a Division Series wouldn’t be able to return in the series without pitching on short rest. Furthermore, the possibility of a starter making more than two appearances in the best-of-seven League Championship Series or World Series, which is far from a rare occurrence, seems very unlikely. 

In 2012, Madison Bumgarner pitched in six of the Giants’ 12 postseason games en route to the World Series title. Last year’s Nationals based their entire postseason approach on getting as much as realistically possible out of their top three starters — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin accounted for close to 60% of Washington’s innings pitched in October. Scenarios such as these can be thrown out the window, with pitching depth taking on an increased importance, both in the rotation and in the bullpen.

Put simply, clubs with three or more solid starters will benefit while top-heavy rotations will only be able to do so much. Even after trading Mike Clevinger, the Indians have an entire rotation full of above-average starters. The Dodgers, Twins, Marlins, Cardinals and Reds (who are currently outside the playoff picture) all feature quality depth in the rotation. A few clubs who could be negatively impacted by this change: the Yankees (who have rotation questions behind Gerrit Cole), Astros (who could get Justin Verlander back but otherwise have several inexperienced arms behind Zack Greinke) and Phillies (whose starters aside from Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler all have ERAs above 5.00). 

One other playoff scheduling factor that relates to pitching: with the Wild Card Series slated to begin just two (AL) and three (NL) days after the end of the regular season, teams fighting for a playoff spot who use their ace at the end of the regular season may not be able to use them again until Game 3 of the Wild Card Series, at which point they could be eliminated. It’s not something many teams will have to consider, but it could end up factoring in for a few clubs. 

Rob Manfred said he expects the expanded postseason format to remain in place beyond 2020. But it’s not as simple as many have made it out to be.

The 16-team postseason hasn’t occurred yet, and MLB’s commissioner has already declared it a success. Appearing as part of a virtual panel event conducted by Hofstra University earlier this week, Manfred said the new format is likely to remain in place. “I think there’s a lot to commend it,” he said, according to the Washington Post, “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.” The commissioner added that “an overwhelming majority” of MLB owners favored expanded playoffs prior to the COVID-19 pandemic shortening the 2020 season. 

This sentiment isn’t exactly a surprise coming from Manfred and the owners, who’d stand to make more in broadcast and gate revenue if the playoffs were permanently expanded. 

The reaction to Manfred’s comments was strong, with several valid points about the problems with this year’s system being used long-term brought up. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts recently reiterated what he called a “non-existent” benefit for division winners, with little incentive to finish on top. Other than playing a lower seed in the Wild Card Round, there’s no first-round bye or other benefit for teams who win their division. 

Additionally, lowering the bar for entry to the playoffs would likely lead to a decrease in player salaries, with an increase in profit at the ownership level. Then, of course, there’s the reality of teams around or below .500 making the postseason with regularity, something that would disincentivize teams from making big moves in an attempt to win 90-plus games.

While I echo all those arguments and concur that this year’s system would not work long-term, there’s a few additional factors that should be considered:

  • As much as Rob Manfred and the owners may want an expanded playoff field next season, that’s not something they can impose on their own. It would have to be negotiated with the players union, which, per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, currently opposes the idea.
  • Even if the playoffs are expanded moving forward, it may not necessarily be with a 16-team field. Prior to the pandemic, MLB’s idea was for 14 teams, seven from each league, to qualify for the postseason.
  • Something could be done to address Dave Roberts’ point without going back to a 10-team postseason. Incentives could be put in place for division winners, whether it be a first-round playoff bye, adjusted seeding, or something more outside the box like getting to pick your opponent.

The postseason system put in place for this season, while flawed, is fine given the wild circumstances that exist in the year 2020. It shouldn’t remain in place exactly as it is moving forward, but that doesn’t mean Rob Manfred’s comments are any reason to push the panic button.

The Yankees have gotten their groove back.

The preseason World Series favorites started the season strong, winning 16 of their first 24 contests. Then the injuries started piling up and the team couldn’t keep playing at a high level despite them like last season. The Yankees collapsed to the tune of a 5-15 record in their next 20 games, falling to 21-21 on Sept. 8. It marked the latest calendar date with a .500 or worse record for the team since 1992. 

“I almost feel like it’s embarrassing for us right now,” first baseman Luke Voit said at the time. “I feel like teams aren’t really scared of us right now. And it’s kind of a sad thing because we’re the New York Yankees.” 

The team was clinging to the final Wild Card spot in an expanded postseason field. It wasn’t clear when several key players would be able to return. General manager Brian Cashman made a rare address to the entire team. And then things changed very quickly.

The Yankees won each of their next seven games — with three coming against the AL East rival Blue Jays — to jump back up to second in the division standings. Giancarlo Stanton, Gio Urshela, Jonathan Loaisiga and Aaron Judge all returned during the stretch. In the first two games of a three-game set against Toronto on Sept. 15 and 16, the team’s bats exploded for a combined 33 runs. The club hit 13 homers in those two games, tying a franchise record, and hit six-plus longballs in back-to-back games for the first time in club history

Catcher Kyle Higashioka became the first player in Yankees history with a three-homer game batting ninth. Gerrit Cole has a 0.90 ERA in September and the team’s starting rotation posted a 1.24 ERA in 44 innings pitched during that seven-game winning streak. Despite battling a foot injury that has left him notably hobbled on the basepaths, Voit took over the MLB lead in home runs and is up to 19 on the season entering play Sept. 17. 

“We’re back to being the Bronx Bombers,” he said on Sept. 15, “and I don’t think people want to play us in the playoffs.”

The Dodgers became the first team in baseball to clinch a playoff spot.

There have been a lot of surprises in 2020, but the Dodgers being the best team in baseball has not been one of them. Dave Roberts’ club secured its eighth consecutive postseason berth, marking the third-longest streak in MLB history, with a 7-5 win over the Padres at Petco Park on Sept. 16. San Diego entered the series with a chance to take over the lead in the NL West standings but instead dropped two of three games to the winners of the division in each of the last seven years.

Mookie Betts (.306, 15 HR, 37 R, 35 RBI, 9 SB) is having an outstanding first season in L.A. and could be in line to become just the second player in MLB history to win an MVP in each league. Corey Seager (.930 OPS) and AJ Pollock (11 HR) are having impressive years, the team’s cumulative ERA of 2.98 is tops in baseball and Clayton Kershaw (2.28 ERA, 53 K in 47.1 IP) is pitching like a Cy Young contender once again.

Through Sept. 16, the Dodgers’ .700 winning percentage is on track to be their best single-season mark in franchise history, though a short-season caveat obviously exists here. Even with the team’s recent success, they’ve failed to capture a championship since 1988 despite reaching the World Series in 2017 and 2018. The expectations are sky high for the Dodgers, and they’ve delivered in this unique season thus far.

What’s on Deck?

There are a number of weekend series with potential playoff implications. The Reds, who on Sept. 16 moved up to second in the NL Central standings, will look to keep their five-game winning streak going against the White Sox, one of the hottest teams in baseball. The Phillies, who’ve hit a bit of a rough patch after a nice run and are pretty banged up, will square off against the Blue Jays in Buffalo. The Mets, Rockies and Giants — all on the edges of the NL playoff picture — will look to pick up crucial wins against tough competition in the Braves, Dodgers and Athletics, respectively.

Photos by “DR. Buddie” / Wikimedia Commons (Voit), Arturo Pardavila III / Wikimedia Commons (Manfred), Barbara Moore / Flickr (Kershaw)

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