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Letting Losing Teams Into the Playoffs Is Okay, If Only for 2020

MLB has a new phrase each year for the T-shirt worn by teams that clinch a playoff berth. You could be forgiven for missing that the phrase does, in fact, change, because each annual selection seems to come from the same pool of generically hyped-up postseason language. Even if you can’t remember any of the specific shirts from recent seasons, you can probably guess some of their messages, just from a passing familiarity with the genre: Take October, Let’s Get Wild, October Reigns, Defend [Insert City Here]. That kind of stuff.

But 2020’s is slightly different. It’s not a declaration, but a dare, with a presumption layered underneath. RESPECT [CITY], the shirt reads. Respect Toronto, Respect Houston, Respect Cleveland. It pulls from the same generically hyped language as the shirt usually does. But the tone here is peculiarly different from one team to the next. (“Respect New York” does not hit like “Respect Cincinnati,” no matter the context, and “Respect Los Angeles” feels silly—a message for all those out there disrespecting the team that just captured its eighth consecutive division title in the largest city on the West Coast!) It’s a little more aggressive than, say, Let’s Get Wild or Take October, and it implies both that there is a risk of people not currently respecting these clubs and that there is a need for it. The message, however weird it reads for some of the teams, is clear: If you don’t respect these clubs, you should, because their playoff spot is worthy of respect.

So: Do you respect these Milwaukee Brewers? These Houston Astros?

Of course, that’s a little unfair. The Brewers and Astros are no more or less deserving of respect than any other team that ever finished a season with a winning percentage of .483. It’s just their luck that this record can now come with a playoff spot.

When the new postseason format was announced back in July, the idea that a losing team might qualify was bandied about as the worst outcome, a sign that the whole enterprise was so risky that it should be abandoned. A sub-.500 team in October would be a sort of illegitimacy that the game simply could not bear. And now it’s here (twice over). So what does it mean for baseball?

Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman (2) reacts after a pitch during the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Minute Maid Park.

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First, an important note in that not all losing squads are created equal. Of our two .483 playoff-bound squads, Houston ended the season with a positive run differential, at least; Milwaukee did not. By PythagenPat—the adjusted-record statistic hosted on FanGraphs—Houston deserved to win one more game than it actually did and Milwaukee deserved to lose one more. The Astros ranked roughly middle-of-the-pack on both pitching and offense: 14th in baseball in ERA+ and 17th in OPS+. Meanwhile, the Brewers were fine on the mound (10th in ERA+) and a nightmare at the plate (24th in OPS+). Milwaukee was never above .500 at any point in 2020; Houston managed to keep its head above the mark as late as September 22. The teams finished with the same record, but in terms of merit (or, per the t-shirt, “respect”), there’s a clear difference between them.

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But the fact that one of these is worse than the other is really beside the point. It’s the fact that either of them are here at all. The link between MLB’s regular season and its playoffs is different from that of the NBA or NFL or NHL; each year does not form one cohesive arc that tries to identify the best team and award it a championship. (If this doesn’t precisely describe the format of the latter three leagues, it’s generally close enough, and the fact that upsets stick out so clearly is an exception that proves the rule.) Instead of that cohesive arc, MLB has two completely divorced sections: a lengthy regular season, stretched out as much as it can be to minimize the effects of randomness, and a comparatively hyper-abbreviated playoff, governed by a different logic and marked by chaos.

This is why the playoff field has historically been kept small compared to other sports. And it’s why the expanded playoff of this season threatens the structure of the postseason so greatly. An 8-seed will pretty reliably lose to a 1-seed in the NBA or NHL. But an 8-seed versus a 1-seed, especially in a series that lasts just three games, could be anything in MLB. The randomness that feels like a delightful quirk in a tight playoff field feels more like a disaster when the doors are thrown wide open.

None of this bodes especially well for a future where MLB decides to keep the expanded playoff format beyond 2020—which, by all accounts, it intends to do. But baseball isn’t there quite yet. It has these playoffs to get through first, and for this season, a pair of losing teams in the playoffs feels… just right.

This regular season has demanded serious work in unprecedented conditions from everyone involved. And it has also, at times, felt like farce. Without even getting into Houston and Milwaukee, the playoffs feature one team that played without a hometown for a third of the season before landing in Buffalo (!) and two that spent weeks sidelined by the coronavirus before being forced to remake their rosters on the fly for a sprint through a disordered schedule. The fans are cardboard. The soundtrack was ripped from a game for PlayStation. The sample sizes are still insufficient for rigorous calculation of most advanced stats. So what are you going to do?

Respect Milwaukee and Houston, that’s what.