The Dodgers sealed their fate early in the 2022 season. They took the lead in the National League West standings on May 1, and have spent only one day in second place since.
The Angels took their time, relatively speaking, to decide whether they were contenders or pretenders. May 16 was their final day in first place in the American League West. A streak of 14 consecutive losses followed, spilling over into June. By the time it was over, the Angels had fallen out of the third AL wild-card position, never to return.
The plights of the two local teams are only occasionally representative of a larger trend within Major League Baseball. In the case of this season, the Angels and Dodgers are useful bullet points for anyone arguing that expanding the playoff field from 10 teams to 12 made the league more competitive as a whole. (Spoiler alert: It did not.)
With one week left in the regular season, the 12-team field is virtually locked in. Although not mathematically eliminated, the Milwaukee Brewers and Baltimore Orioles need a hope and a prayer and a lot of help to clinch a wild-card berth. The last bastion of drama resides atop the National League East, where the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets have a week to decide who will enjoy a first-round bye, and who must survive a best-of-three wild card series.
Today offers just one snapshot, so let’s zoom out a bit and take a look at the bigger picture.
After Aug. 2, the day of the trade deadline, exactly one team in each league moved into playoff position. This date is thought of as the last chance for teams on the playoff bubble to “go for it” by acquiring a new player. This year’s deadline mostly served to freeze the established pecking order. One of the two teams that moved into a wild-card position after Aug. 2, the Cleveland Guardians, did so without acquiring a single major league player at the deadline.
After July 21, the day after the All-Star break, only one team (the Philadelphia Phillies) with lower than 50% odds of making the playoffs according to FanGraphs climbed into playoff position. And only one team with greater than 50% odds (the Chicago White Sox) ultimately fell out.
Here’s another way of observing the lack of movement in the standings. Taking each of the six divisions separately, when was the most recent date any team’s playoff odds jumped past a division rival’s?
AL West: July 3
AL Central: Sept. 8
AL East: Sept. 24
NL West: May 7
NL Central: Aug. 6
NL East: never
You read that last line right. According to FanGraphs, the Braves and Mets had equal odds of reaching the postseason on April 23, but there has been no crossover in the order of the five NL East teams since Opening Day. And in the NL West, the top three teams have been locked in place since the start of the season. The change on May 7 reflected the Colorado Rockies’ odds falling below the Arizona Diamondbacks’ odds when both teams had less than a 2% chance of making the playoffs.
By this (very liberal) measure, it’s fair to say only two of the six divisions have been competitive in September; only three of the six have been competitive since the All-Star break. I tend to give this measure the most credence. Fans aren’t generally following the league standings as a whole, but rather their favorite team and any others vying to knock them off their perch.
OK, so the standings have been less dynamic than the American adaptation of the Dutch reality show “Utopia.” But are expanded playoffs to blame? Using the same method to analyze FanGraphs’ playoff odds by division, here’s the last date of any movement in each division in 2021:
AL West: Sept. 22
AL Central: June 13
AL East: Oct. 2
NL West: July 22
NL Central: Sept. 14
NL East: Aug. 15
Five of the six divisions had a change in the playoff pecking order at a later date last year than this year. With the exception of the AL Central, every division had some movement in the second half of the season.
Excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 seasons, there has been some second-half movement in at least four of the six divisions every year since at least 2014 – the first year for which FanGraphs’ day-by-day playoff odds are available. Is it a mere coincidence that expanding the postseason field led to the least drama in the playoff odds since at least 2013?
Perhaps this year will prove to be an anomaly in that regard. If not – if this is the new normal – it will only make sense. This is the tradeoff MLB wrought for allowing two more teams into the playoffs: with few exceptions, fans of all 30 teams can glimpse at the standings at the All-Star break and tune out the rest of the way.