How Does the Expanded Postseason Affect the Yankees?
How Does the Expanded Postseason Affect the Yankees?
By Chris O’Connor
March 20, 2022
As part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, Major League Baseball and the Players Association have agreed to expand the postseason to 12 teams. The six teams in each league will consist of the three division winners and three wild card teams. As part of the new format, the top two division winners will receive a bye into the Division Series. The Wild Card round will now be a best-of-three matchup between the 3rd-seeded division winner and the 6th-seeded wild card team and the fourth and fifth-seeded wild card teams. All of the games in Wild Card round will be home games for the higher-seeded teams and there will be no re-seeding after this round (so the 1 seed will play the winner of the 4-5 matchup and the 2 seed will play the winner of the 3-6 matchup). After the altered Wild Card round, there are no additional changes to the playoff format. The Yankees were no strangers to the Wild Card game with a league-high three appearances in the single-game elimination since its inception in 2012. What would the new format have meant to recent Yankees teams, and what does it mean for the Yankees prospects in 2022? Let’s go year by year since 2012 in the American League. For the sake of consistency, I excluded the shortened 2020 season.
The Yankees were the top-seeded team in the American League at 95-67. Under the new format, they would have received a bye into the Division Series and played the winner of the Wild Card Series between the Rangers and the Orioles, both of whom went 93-69. The 6 seed would have been the 90-72 Rays. In reality, the Yankees beat the Orioles in the Division Series and were swept by the Tigers in the ALCS.
The Yankees went 85-77 and missed the playoffs in 2013 and that would not have changed under the current format. In a competitive American League, they were tied for the eighth-best record in the league. The 6 seed would have been the Texas Rangers, who went 91-71 before losing a tiebreaker game (for the second Wild Card spot) to the Rays.
In 2014, the Yankees went 84-78 and again missed the playoffs. Nothing would have changed under the current format: the 6 seed would have been the 87-75 Mariners, who would have ended their ongoing playoff drought since 2001.
The Yankees 87-75 record was somehow enough to allow them to host the Wild Card game against the 86-76 Astros, who shut them out 3-0. Under the current format, the fourth-seeded Yankees would have played the Astros in a best-of-three Wild Card round with all of the games at Yankee Stadium. Had they advanced, they would have taken on the top-seeded Royals in the divisional round. The 6 seed would have been the 85-77 Angels, which would have given Mike Trout another playoff appearance.
The Yankees missed the playoffs for the third time in four years with a record of 84-78 and would have missed out on the expanded playoffs as well. The 6 seed would have been the 86-75 Tigers.
In 2017, the Yankees went 91-71 and went on a memorable run from hosting the Wild Card Game to falling one game shy of the World Series. Under the 12 team format, they would have still hosted the Twins in a Wild Card Series and would have played the Indians (now Guardians) in the division round. The 6 would have been a tie between the 80-82 Rays and Angels.
The Yankees won 100 games this year but settled for hosting the Wild Card game against the A’s because the Red Sox went 108-54. The Yankees would have hosted the A’s in the Wild Card round and, had they advanced, would have played the Red Sox in the division round. Like 2017, nothing would have changed for them under a 12 team playoff. The 6 seed would have been the 90-win Rays.
The Yankees finally broke through and won the AL East by finishing with 103 wins, although they were the 2 seed after the 107-win Astros. In reality, the Yankees faced the AL Central champion Twins in the division round and the Astros in the ALCS. Under the 12 team format, the Yankees would received a bye through the Wild Card round and would have faced the winner of the 3-6 matchup in the ALDS. That would have been the 101-win Twins and the 93-win Guardians.
Last year, the Yankees went 92-70 in a frustrating season and went on the road to Boston for the Wild Card game as the 5th and final playoff seed. If the same were to happen in 2022, the Yankees and Red Sox would have played a best-of-three series with the winner taking on the top-seeded Rays in the ALDS. The 6 seed would have been the 91-71 Blue Jays as the AL East would have sent four teams to the playoffs.
Takeaways and 2022 outlook
My first takeaway is that the Yankees have won the division only once since 2012. From 2013-2021, their finishes in the AL East are: 4th, 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 3rd. They have finished fourth more than they have finished first in the division. Everyone knows of the Yankees playoff struggles since their last World Series win in 2009, and every team goes through periods of ups and downs. One divisional title since 2013, however, just makes me think of how out of touch Aaron Boone sounded when he talked about how the league had caught up with the Yanees after the 2021 season ended. The Yankees continuously promote their process-over-results ideology, but at a certain point, they do not hang banners for good processes.
Another key takeaway: the three seed under the new playoff format is the worst division winner and the four seed is the best wild card. That is not new, but what is interesting in the new format is that the six seed, who plays the worst division winner in the Wild Card Round, is often preferable to the five seed, who plays the top wild card team. In 2018, for example the three seed was the 91-71 Guardians and the four seed would have been the 100-win Yankees. This is not a one-off either, The new format may incentivize the five seed to rest their starters down the stretch in order to fall down to the six seed.
Many people do not like the idea of adding an additional team to the playoffs because it devalues the regular season and can allow mediocre teams into the playoffs. I agree with the first point, but when it comes to the six seed, they have averaged 88 wins in the American League since 2012. That is a far cry from the 92-win average of the five seeds, but 88 wins is still a solid team, and only once since 2012 would a team with a losing record have made the playoffs in the American League.
As for what this means for the Yankees outlook in 2022, the expanded postseason obviously gives the Yankees a better chance to make the postseason. It also plays into exactly what they have done over the past decade: the Yankees have willingly sacrificed their financial advantage over all teams not named the Dodgers and have fallen back to a middle-of-the pack team over the last two years.
I imagine that Yankees management is thinking that if the Yankees can make the playoffs with 88 wins, why should they spend untold extra millions on star players when they are probably already there without them. I am not saying that I agree with this, especially with the Dodgers ponying up for Freddie Freeman and the Mets set to be running out a payroll of close to $300 million, but I believe that is what they are thinking.
Perhaps I, and the rest of Yankees nation, is being too hard on the current team. The projections systems love the Yankees: Fangraphs has the Yankees winning the second-most games in the American League (91) behind only the Blue Jays (93). PECOTA, meanwhile, projects the Yankees at winning 98.5 games, more than 6 games ahead of the White Sox (92) for best in the American League.
The problem is twofold:
1) The projections systems were high on the Yankees for pretty much all of last season and
2) The Yankees were fairly mediocre during the shortened 2020, so this is no longer a small sample of the Yankees being closer to average than truly at the top. If anything, the Yankees overperformed in 2021: their run differential of +42 was well behind that of the Rays (+206), Blue Jays (+183), and Red Sox (+80). And their BaseRuns win total of 88, while two games ahead of the Red Sox ,was well behind that of the Rays (100) and Blue Jays (97). The Rays are hardly losing anyone of consequence from last year’s roster and while the Blue Jays have lost an MVP bat (Marcus Semien) and the Cy Young winner (Robby Ray), they have replaced them with Matt Chapman and Kevin Gasuman. It is difficult to argue that the Yankees roster is appreciably better than last season, even with the recent trade with the Twins. Instead, it appears that the Yankees are banking on their excellent pitching sustaining its success from last season and numerous position-players (D.J. Lemahieu, Gleyber Torres, Joey Gallo, etc.) bouncing back from their struggles to get back to their pre-2021 established levels of production. It is a risky bet, made all the more so by their refusal to engage at the top of the free agent market, but it appears that the Yankees believe that the expanded postseason affords them more room for error than in years past.
The depth of the American League is not necessarily strong, either: the White Sox appear to be the only strong team in the AL Central and while the Astros appear once again to be the class of the West, the Mariners and Angels have their own significant flaws. The AL East can very well send four teams to the playoffs.
I am not exactly ecstatic about this offseason, even if I liked the Donaldson trade, but I do believe that the Yankees are a playoff team in 2022. And as the Braves proved last year, once you get into the playoffs, all bets are off.