The strange circumstances surrounding the 2020 MLB season got even stranger just hours before the first pitch of the season yesterday, as the players and the league agreed to expand the playoffs from a 10-team field to a 16-team field. The change means that eight teams per league will make it, with division winners choosing their opponents for a best-of-three wild card round in a televised selection show.
For the baseball teams from whom nothing good was expected this season, that change makes a big difference. With a shortened 60-game season plus a bigger postseason field, the opportunity is there for things to get weird.
At Fangraphs, other anticipated bottom-dwellers have had big boosts to their chances. The Mariners have gone from a 1% postseason chance to 5.3%, the Tigers have gone from 3.1% to 11.6%. In the National League, the Marlins have gone from 2.5% to 9.4%, the Pirates have jumped from 4.5% to 13.7%, and the Giants have leapt from 3.1% to 10.4%. Fans of those teams, and the teams themselves, can think that if a few things break their way and they get off to a hot start, maybe something interesting will happen.
Then there are the Orioles. The good news is that the Orioles playoff odds are 800% of what they were three days ago. The bad news is that in actual numbers, they’ve gone from a 0.2% chance of making the postseason to a 1.4% chance. That’s about 70-1 for the O’s to make the playoffs. The next-worst team is Seattle at about a 19-1 chance.
It’s not like it’s news to any Orioles fan that the fortunes for the team are not expected to be great this season. Since the July trades in 2018 and especially since Mike Elias was hired as general manager, moves have been made with the future in mind and not the present. For Elias’s first season in 2019, that mostly showed with a philosophy of “leave the team the same while building under the hood.” Heading into 2020, the trades of Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Villar moved things in the direction of “be bad now to be better later.”
Even before COVID-19 had disrupted the whole baseball schedule, Trey Mancini’s cancer diagnosis meant that one of the team’s best players from 2019 would be missing significant time. I hope that his long-term health will be OK. And just within the days leading up to Opening Day, last year’s Orioles All-Star, John Means, hit the injured list with “dead arm.” So did reliever Hunter Harvey, one of two actual prospects who had been expected to make the Opening Day roster.
No one needed some projection system’s low number to tell them there’s not much to be excited about for the 60 games that the Orioles are about to get to play, assuming that the same pandemic that delayed the season doesn’t eventually overtake this two-month experiment before it can be completed. A starting rotation that will see Tommy Milone, Alex Cobb, and Wade LeBlanc pitch in the first series speaks for itself.
Still, it stinks seeing it illustrated so much. Every other team who “everyone” “knows” will be bad can at least squint and cling to the idea that they could be relevant, if this or that goes right. The Orioles are probably still going to miss out even if absolutely everything goes right.
Just in case you’re curious, a 16-team playoff in the last decade would have seen the 2013 Orioles tied for the #8 seed with the Yankees, necessitating a tiebreaker game just to get into an expanded field.
The 2015 Orioles, who had a .500 record, were tied at 81 wins with the Indians for the #8 seed, though the Indians had an 81-80 record due to not making up an irrelevant game. If they had made up that game and won it, the O’s would have missed out, and if the Indians lost that final game, there would have been a tiebreaker there as well.
The expanded playoff this year, putting a new format that’s never been seen before into an already-strange 60-game season, will probably lead to a lot of people claiming there should be an asterisk on the championship of whatever team wins. It wasn’t a “real” season, so the team that wins won’t be a “real” champion.
Those people will be wrong if for no other reason (and there are several) that fans of the team that wins it all will still get to have the experience of seeing their favorite team be the last one standing. There’s no question it’ll be different, since there probably won’t be an immediate post-game dogpile and there surely won’t be a parade, but as the saying goes, the flag will still fly forever. There’s just a 0.0% chance that it’s going to fly for the Orioles.