Are the playoffs still a crapshoot? Is it still nigh impossible to predict which of the ten teams entering October will emerge as World Series champions?
At first glance, one would think yes. The addition of the second Wild Card has made things that much less predictable. After the play-in round, though, the games actually become much easier to predict, or at least the final result is less and less surprising.
This is a trend that’s gone back the last four seasons, as the World Series winner was either the number one or two seed in their respective leagues. The 2015 Kansas City Royals, 2016 Chicago Cubs, 2017 Houston Astros and 2018 Boston Red Sox all ran roughshod through the regular season and playoffs, and only the Astros weren’t the best team in their league, finishing one game behind Cleveland.
We’re seeing an indication that being the “favorite” means more than ever. As much as MLB likes to pretend that the Wild Card teams can make real noise in the postseason, the power of stratification is greater than the expansion of the postseason field. MLB teams are increasingly finding themselves split into two camps: Win Today and Win Tomorrow.
Win Today teams, like the Red Sox and Yankees, are putting more value on wins in the current season than down the road. Win Tomorrow teams, like the Blue Jays or White Sox, are more concerned with building towards wins in successive seasons at the expense of the current season. It’s more honest to use Win Today vs Win Tomorrow rather than “tanking”, because a lot of teams aren’t even tanking in an Astros or Cubs sense. They’re just focused on…tomorrow.
This stratification comes from teams having a greater ability to project their own performance, and more importantly, their financial returns from that performance. A team like the Blue Jays is projecting their 2019 and, hypothetically, seeing an 80% chance that they won’t win 82 games, and a 95% chance they won’t win 90. There’s not a lot of sense in trying to win this year given those probabilities, and you sell off the assets you won’t have control over when your window changes to Win Today.
Meanwhile, Win Today teams, like the Yankees, see that there’s conversely an 80% chance they win more than 95 games and a 90% chance they win more than 90 games. The impetus then moves to increasing those probabilities this season as much as possible.
That impetus should be the focal point of the Yankees’ moves going forward. Stratification has lowered the number of possible contenders every year, and those contenders then can make bigger and better moves to improve themselves. This goes hand in hand with the above that the “favorites” have done better and better come playoff time every year. The Cinderella Story is just far more unlikely than ever before.
The Yankees passed on Patrick Corbin and Manny Machado. They aren’t going after Bryce Harper. The organization appears satisfied with raising the floor of the team rather than the ceiling, and you can quibble with that strategy, but it’s the one we’re stuck with.
This “passing” has come back to bite the Yankees in the past, especially when it comes to high ceiling moves. Failing to make a waiver claim on Justin Verlander two years ago made the Astros even more of a favorite than they were, and we all know what happened after that. This team can’t afford another misstep like that.
It won’t be long before we’re talking about the trade deadline and what the Yankees need to do. As we move out of the offseason and towards real baseball, and the leverage of a given move or non-move increases, the Yankees have to keep in mind the increasing power of being the favorite, and do everything they can to capture that mantle.