News broke Wednesday that Major League Baseball’s playoffs will expand from 8 to 10 teams for the 2012 season. The addition of the extra wild cards is “not yet final,” Ken Rosenthal wrote, but the change is all but official.
Regardless of whether or not the change is good for baseball (surely there are some who will be opposed to what could be seen as the cheapening of playoff berths) one thing is clear: the addition of the extra wild card is great news for the Cleveland Indians.
In the current eight-team playoff system, the Indians have just over 1 in 4 odds of playing into October every year. Forgetting about the differences in talent, a team in the AL Central has a 1 in 5 chance of winning the division, plus 1 in 11 odds of earning the wild card spot if that fails. All told, that adds up to a 27 percent chance each season.
The addition of the second wild card team won’t change the Tribe’s odds of winning the division, but now the odds of winning a consolation spot have doubled, bumping each AL Central team’s chances of making the playoffs to 35 percent. In other words, all else equal, Cleveland would make the playoffs once every three years—at least until the Astros move to the American League (as they probably will in 2013), at which point the odds will fall to a still-improved 33 percent.
But the Indians’ odds of playing into October this year are much greater than that. Not every AL team has a legitimate chance of taking one of the wild card spots. Just off the top of my head, I’d say the list of plausible playoff teams from the Junior Circuit consists of (in no particular order) the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays, Rangers, Angels, Tigers, and, of course, the Indians. Apologies to fans of the Orioles, Athletics, Mariners, Royals, Twins, and White Sox, but it would be quite the upset if one of them made it to the postseason.
If we limit the scope of wild card contenders to those eight teams and assume that the division winners will come from the same group, that leaves five clubs to compete for two playoff spots. So contending teams who miss out on winning their divisions still have 40 percent odds of making the postseason (before adjusting for how good each specific team is).
So what does this mean for the Tribe’s playoff hopes? If we keep the 20 percent odds for the Indians winning the AL Central (Detroit was going to be tough to beat before they signed Prince Fielder) and give them a 40 percent chance to win a wild card spot if the Tigers take the division, that gives Cleveland a 52 percent chance of making the playoffs. That’s better than even odds that the Indians will play into October.
But giving Cleveland just a 1 in 5 chance to win the division seems awfully conservative. Instead, let’s look at the other extreme: an overly optimistic view that the division is an absolute toss-up. If the Indians have 50/50 odds of winning the AL Central, that would give them a 70 percent chance—better than 2 in 3—of making the postseason.
What if we take a middle ground and give the Indians 1 in 3 odds of winning the division? In that case, Cleveland would have a 60 percent chance of playing into October. Before the addition of the second wild card, that would have been just 47 percent.
I’m not saying that the Indians truly have a 60 percent chance of making the playoffs. Assuming that every contending team is identical in skill makes sense in illustrating the contextless consequences of the playoff reformatting, but not all clubs are created equal and except for maybe the Blue Jays the Indians probably project as the worst team in the contenders group. Not to mention that even if they don’t look particularly menacing, the assumed non-contenders all have nonzero chances of winning the pennant.
Still, the point stands: as a team that has a real shot at contending but probably won’t win its division, Cleveland is in perfect position to benefit from the expanded playoffs. The extra postseason berth might be the Indians’ best shot at a championship in 2012.