Get ready for a Major League Baseball postseason unlike any that's come before.
We've known since MLB and the MLB Players Association agreed to an expanded playoff field—from 10 to 16 teams—in July that this year's postseason would be different. Following Tuesday's announcement of how it's all scheduled, we now have an idea of just how different it will be.
To start, the eight Wild Card Series will be played at the home parks of the higher-seeded teams. But in deference to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the following arrangements kick in for subsequent rounds:
- American League Division Series: Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles) and Petco Park (San Diego)
- American League Championship Series: Petco Park
- National League Division Series: Globe Life Field (Arlington) and Minute Maid Park (Houston)
- National League Championship Series: Globe Life Field
- World Series: Globe Life Field
It might seem backward that NL games will be played in AL parks and vice versa, but that's to ensure teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros don't get to enjoy home-field advantage. Or, at least, what passes for it while fans aren't attending games.
Yet more so than where the playoffs unfold, when the games will take place is the most intriguing element of MLB's postseason plans.
Here's how the postseason is scheduled for now:
- AL Wild Card Series (Best of 3): Sept. 29-Oct. 1
- NL Wild Card Series (Best of 3): Sept. 30-Oct. 2
- AL Division Series (Best of 5): Oct. 5-9
- NL Division Series (Best of 5): Oct. 6-10
- AL Championship Series (Best of 7): Oct. 11-17
- NL Championship Series (Best of 7): Oct. 12-18
- World Series (Best of 7): Oct. 20-28
There's nothing too outrageous about the Wild Card Series being played over three consecutive days. But sans off days for travel, the Division Series and Championship Series will be played over five and seven straight days, respectively.
That's...different, to say the least.
The league could have scheduled off days anyway, of course. But that would have required stretching the postseason into November, which MLB has been reluctant to do out of fear of a possible spike in coronavirus cases come winter.
Barring any changes, the lack of off days in the Division and Championship Series figures to influence how the actual games are played. Specifically, teams will likely have to trust a broader array of pitchers rather than relying on the same few arms over and over again.
Managers may be especially wary of burning out their relievers, which could potentially lead to an overall decrease in bullpen usage. As this 2018 chart from FiveThirtyEight illustrates, that would be quite the departure from recent postseasons:
This shift largely has to do with a greater awareness of the times-through-the-order penalty, in which a starting pitcher generally gets less effective the more times he faces the same batters. Quicker hooks for starters have naturally meant bigger workloads for relievers, and frequent off days in the postseason have generally allowed managers to keep trotting out their best bullpen arms.
The Washington Nationals broke this mold last year by relying primarily on aces Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin. Through their starts (13 out of 17 games) and relief appearances (seven), they accounted for nearly 60 percent of Washington's postseason innings.
But at least in the middle rounds, neither the bullpen-heavy approach nor the ace-heavy approach figures to play well this time around. So the more good pitchers a team has, the better it figures to fare.
To wit, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the only team in MLB that has both five starters (minimum five games started) with at least a 110 ERA+ and seven relievers (minimum 15 games in relief) with at least a 120 ERA+.
Cleveland and the Miami Marlins also boast well-balanced pitching staffs featuring five good starters and five good relievers. The Chicago White Sox are nearly in the same boat with four of each.
Otherwise, the league's contenders have either lopsided (i.e., Atlanta and the Oakland Athletics) or generally nebulous pitching staffs. At least in theory, these clubs could be at a disadvantage if they have to face off against one of the aforementioned clubs.
Also, keep an eye on the pace of games this October.
Think games are lasting too long in the regular season, wherein the average game now lasts north of three hours? Well, the postseason has been worse. In recent years, playoff games of at least three-and-a-half hours have proliferated:
This mostly has to do with having more time between pitches than there used to be. There's little question, though, that the constant pitching changes have also been a factor.
In any case, the bottom line is this: If MLB's plans for the 2020 postseason change things like they should, then the experience will be not only that much bigger, but also that much more streamlined.
"I'm a fan of the expanded playoffs. ... I think getting back to that three-game series in the first round is a positive change. I think the initial round could have the kind of appeal you see in the early couple days in the NCAA tournament. It's going to be crazy—just a lot of baseball in a compressed period of time. We're going to have a bracket, obviously. People love brackets and love picking who's going to come through those brackets. I think there's a lot to commend it. It is one of those changes that I hope becomes a permanent part of our landscape."
It's harder to imagine this year's October schedule lasting beyond 2020. Assuming the pandemic fades—fingers crossed and masks on, everyone—there won't be any need for neutral-site series in future postseasons. Going back to normal would mean a return to travel between sites, which would mean the return of travel days.
Still, never say never.
Quickening baseball's pace has been perhaps Manfred's biggest crusade since he replaced Bud Selig in 2015. If postseason games suddenly move a lot quicker this October, don't put it past him to push against the return of travel days—whether or not it means keeping neutral-site series.
For the time being, whether any of the alterations to the 2020 postseason are good is in the eye of the beholder.
But for our money, the expanded postseason isn't such a bad idea. Though the shortened 60-game schedule surely has much to do with it, the playoff races in the American League and National League are more crowded relative to prior years. Increased parity is a good thing, particularly if it helps mitigate baseball's tanking problem.
We also won't be complaining if games do indeed move at a brisker pace this October, in which case there would at least be an evidence-based argument for reducing travel days in future postseasons.
So, don't just get ready. This October, it would also help to keep an open mind.