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Race for the last? How new MLB playoff format creates surprising odds for Mariners, Rays in AL wildcard chase – Yahoo Sports | Gmx Pharm

“He who is not the first is the last.” – Ricky Bobby

A race – like a pennant race – implies a certain uniqueness of purpose. There is nothing further to consider. You want to finish first or be as close to the top as possible. Structurally it’s been like this ever since baseball has had playoffs. The bracket was never big enough, the permutations never complex enough to change the most fundamental consideration. Better standings in the regular season meant a better shot at the World Series.

Once the new MLB postseason format was unveiled at the end of lockout, it was clear that wasn’t necessarily going to be true anymore. The new playoff structure added a wildcard to each league, meaning three division winners and three wildcards will make up the field.

Here it deviates from the traditional equation and from the other major American sports leagues: To accommodate a group of six teams, there are byes for the top two division winners. The division winner with the worst record and the three wild cards will go head-to-head in three-game sets to determine who makes the Division Series. Unlike in the NBA, this last division winner gets the #3 regardless of whether they actually have a better record than the wildcard teams. And after the wildcard series is decided, the bracket won’t be reset like the NFL. A No. 6 conquering the No. 3 plays against the No. 2 division winner instead of being routed to the No. 1.

It wasn’t a given that the new setup would create more complicated incentives for teams this first season, but the matchup permutations that could alter World Series odds are now in full play for wildcard contenders in both leagues.

It becomes clear that if you are not the first, you actively want to be the last.

Astros or Yankees? Why AL wildcard contenders might want to finish last

Let’s take a look at the issues here with the very even AL wildcard race. At this stage, it’s less of a battle to make the playoffs and more of a battle for placement. It’s also very balanced. The three wildcard teams are the Toronto Blue Jays, the Seattle Mariners and the Tampa Bay Rays.

As of Thursday morning, they are within 1.5 games of each other. Their running differences are within 18. The No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 seeded in the AL will be extremely interchangeable in the last 18 or 19 games of the season and the way clubs finish will be huge Have implications for their way to the playoffs.

However they line up, the numbers say number 4 has the best chance of making the World Series, but number 6 has the second best chance, followed by number 5.

Why? Let’s break it down.

As the #4 seed, the top wildcard would align the entire best-of-3 wildcard streak against the second wildcard, the #5 seed. The winner would go on an ALDS date with the No. 1 seed Houston Astros.

As the No. 6 seed, the final team in a wildcard streak would go up against the relatively weak AL Central champion. Right now, that’s the Cleveland Guardians, who are 2.5 games worse than the worst of these wildcard teams. Whoever prevails would go up against the No. 2 New York Yankees.

Even surveying the potential pathways at the abdominal level makes the appeal of seed #6 obvious.

No. 5 seeded: Headed against the Blue Jays, Mariners or Rays, then an ALDS matchup with powerhouse Astros, who are 34-18 since the All-Star break.

No. 6 seeded: en route vs the Guardians – a worse team than all wildcards, then an ALDS matchup vs the Yankees, whose struggles are well documented in a 23:28 second half.

It wouldn’t be crazy to think that the same dynamic could emerge in the NL, not because of the weakness of the New York Mets or Atlanta Braves (who are battling for the No. 2 spot), but because of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ utter dominance.

The Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays are racing towards the AL wild card slots alongside the Seattle Mariners.  (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

The Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays are racing towards the AL wild card slots alongside the Seattle Mariners. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Numbers give the #6 an edge in most scenarios

Using Baseball Prospectus and its PECOTA system, I put the AL wildcard scenarios into a simple tool to give each team in each path odds and test that gut-level assessment. Predictably, all three teams would have a better chance of reaching the ALCS as No. 6 and at least an equal chance of advancing to the World Series.

Take the current order – Blue Jays, Mariners, Rays. If they started the playoffs today, the prediction would give the No. 6 Rays a 45.4% chance of beating Cleveland, while the No. 5 Mariners would have a 42.8% chance of toppling Toronto.

Let’s focus on the Mariners. So, as No. 5, they would have a 42.8% chance of making the ALDS against the Astros. Their ALDS odds would be 16.4% and their World Series odds would be 7.1%.

But all things being equal, unless, say, Seattle loses a tiebreaker to the Rays and the Mariners end up as the No. 6 seed, their odds of escaping the wild card round improve to 46.5%. Their ALDS odds — with the Yankees now set as a potential opponent — jump to 18.6% and their World Series odds are practically the same at 7.2%.

Variations on this math apply to all three clubs, no matter how you set them up. The model gives the No. 6 better World Series odds than the No. 5 in every scenario, except when the Blue Jays are the No. 5. Those numbers hover just north of 7%, where the No. 4 seed will likely have World Series odds of between 9.5% and 10% to make the playoffs.

Also, the projections are working on full season strength for the Yankees. It’s possible everyone around Aaron Judge can get going and New York will prove a daunting opponent in October, but if you’re wary of the recent dip you can mentally adjust those percentages even further in favor of the No. 6.

Records and vaccination records: Toronto could pose problems

There’s one other thing the math can’t know, and it just emphasizes the different incentives of the final weeks of the season. Players who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 cannot travel to Toronto. So if the Blue Jays secure the No. 4 pick, their opponent would be without unvaccinated players for the entire series.

For all we know, that would take starting pitcher Robbie Ray out of the equation for the Mariners. It’s less disruptive due to the addition of Luis Castillo and the appearance of George Kirby alongside Logan Gilbert, but it’s still a consideration. The Rays would have to play without Brooks Raley, who was the best left-hander in their bullpen. They dropped three of the first four games of a five-game series in Toronto this week as Raley is on the suspended list at home.

Due to the strength of Bo Bichette’s searing slugger, Toronto currently leads the wildcard race by a half-game over Seattle. The best thing either of these teams can do is win a wildcard home series with the No. 4. They may all be battling for first place in a thrilling sprint through Game 162 on Wednesday, October 5th. But when a team not called the Blue Jays falls off the pace, don’t expect them to be too upset.

Thanks to Robert Au of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.

Updated: September 17, 2022 — 12:32 am

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