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MLB’s new playoff format takes the air out of the Yankees season

A 16-team tournament all but assures the Yankees their playoff spot, robbing the 60-game season of its meaning.

New York Yankees Summer Workouts Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The biggest baseball news of the past week has been, obviously, the Marlins coronavirus outbreak. At least 17 Miami personnel testing positive for the virus, all on the heels of the team’s just-completed three-game series with the Phillies, demonstrated the flimsiness (foolishness?) of this entire enterprise. MLB insists its safety protocols are solid, while a team sits sidelined by a frightening virus.

These aren’t normal times. In a more typical year, the fact that MLB radically altered its playoff format would rank as big news. Now, with a pandemic threatening the season and more importantly threatening the livelihoods of the people involved, MLB’s new 16-team tournament hardly registers.

As long as this season remains technically on the rails, though, it will be our duty to give you the Yankees perspective. In case you missed it, Josh has you covered on the general details of the new playoff structure and some of its benefits during a shortened season. He notes that eight teams qualifying in each league could actually strip away some of the randomness of a 60-game season. No longer will a slow start leave a highly-talented team out of luck. The league’s best teams will have every chance to make the postseason, since any team that can keep its act together enough to go .500 will get in.

That aspect of the new system is a benefit for the Yankees. A 16-team tournament all but guarantees their qualification for the postseason. It’s nearly impossible to picture the combination of injuries (or infections) and ineffectiveness that would need to strike to render the Yankees a non-playoff team. The level of depth the team has accrued, on top of its envious star power, means that any unit New York trots out there will almost certainly find a way to win 30 of 60 games and finish above ninth in the American League.

Publicly available models can help put actual figures to this idea. When the 60-game season was announced, it was reasonable for fans of the league’s juggernauts to fret, as the playoff odds for the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers all took real hits. FanGraphs pegged the Yankees’ chances to make the playoffs at 72-percent in a shortened season. With the announcement of a 16-team playoff, FanGraphs had the Yankees at 93-percent. Baseball Prospectus is even more aggressive, assigning the Yankees a 98.4-percent chance of making the expanded tournament.

Basically, the Yankees would have to roll snake eyes to miss the playoffs. One could view this as a boon, as it means each game, seemingly 2.7-times as important as a regular game, is suddenly less stressful, since the Yankees are so likely to make the tournament. That dynamic cuts both ways, though. A season that looked as though each game and each pitch was to take on paramount importance actually means next to nothing.

To me, the real upshot is that the Yankees have very little to play for ahead of October. Any game that they squeeze in despite the pandemic is a game that has very little impact on their chances of winning the World Series. Mostly this is because they’re so unlikely to finish out of the money, but it’s also due in part to the lack of incentive to even finish with a higher seed.

In MLB’s normal playoff structure, there is at least an obvious incentive to win a division, to avoid the agonizing Wild Card game. Now, each of the eight AL playoff teams enters the playoffs on essentially equal footing. Higher-seeded teams don’t get a pass into a later round. They hardly get the benefit of home-field advantage. Top seeds will get all three games in the first round at home, but much of the advantage that would typically entail is neutered by MLB’s empty stands.

If there’s almost no chance they miss the playoffs, and also little to be gained from finishing with a higher seed, the sprint to the finish that is a 60-game campaign means little. The Yankees could muddle around to a .500-season and, presuming the underlying talent of the roster was unchanged, have nearly the same odds of winning it all as if they had gone 45-15.

This changes the calculus of day-to-day strategy for Aaron Boone and his players. They’re competitors, and surely they should go out there each day with the expectation to win. But the top priority now, outside of making sure the one-in-fifty nightmare scenario of missing the playoffs doesn’t make good, is getting to the playoffs in one piece.

The only real way the Yankees can impact their odds of winning it all is ensuring their top talents simply make it to the chaotic tournament. Suddenly, it’s more important that Gerrit Cole is available to pitch in two months than it is that Cole put up a 2.20 ERA this year. James Paxton’s health and effectiveness is of utmost importance in October, less so now. Giancarlo Stanton’s stunning home runs are beautiful to watch, but unless they happen again in the playoffs, they hardly matter.

In the end, maybe this is all just reason to sit back and marvel at the feats on display. The new tournament has rendered each Yankee regular season game low leverage, and a pandemic has shown how irrelevant (and likely irresponsible) the season actually is. With all pretense stripped away, with the fans at home and the on-field stakes low, we’re just left to watch Stanton hit those bombs, Cole fire those fastballs on the black, and appreciate them as the aesthetic and athletic achievements that they are. At least until MLB pulls the plug on it all.