Cubs’ Playoff Probability Gets Worse, World Series Chances Improve as MLB Season Gets Shorter

It stands to reason that an abbreviated MLB schedule will create much more competitive postseason races in 2020. With less distance over which to run away from the pack, there’s a lot more room for randomness to dictate the proceedings. Even a relatively minor injury to an ace pitcher on a contending team will have a great deal more impact in an 81-game season than it would otherwise.

Spending a month on the IL means missing a quarter of the season, assuming baseball makes it back in June, and a breakout from an unlikely star could propel a middling team into contention. All things considered, the best teams will see their playoff odds drop dramatically as the number of games in a season drops off. Just think about how the Cubs would turn on the jets down the stretch in their best seasons. That opportunity gone if you cut 20-plus games from the schedule.

In order to see just how significantly the playoff odds shift for each team at different season lengths, FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski reconfigured his ZiPS model to run various scenarios. The result is a more even distribution of playoff odds, with the top teams getting closer to the rest of the league the shorter the season gets.

The Dodgers (-27.3) and Yankees (-27.2) saw the biggest percentage drops in playoff probability from a move to an 81-game season, while the Rangers (17.7) and Angels (17.6) jumped up the highest. The Pirates (12.6) were way up there as well, but they’re still at just 13.4 overall. The Reds (8.8), Cardinals (5.9), and Brewers (3.6) all look better with fewer games, but the Cubs (-7.0%) take a big hit.

Wait, that would mean the Cubs are favored to win the division. Indeed, every iteration of the ZiPS projections has the Cubs finishing in first place by 2.0 games ahead of the Brewers. The Cardinals and Reds remain static in second and third, which makes it feel as though the model is simply reducing the number of games and leaving everything else untouched.

As you can see from the numbers below, however, the probability that the Cubs will win the division and make the playoffs drops off in a big way with shorter season lengths. But hey, their odds of winning the World Series go up at the same time.

The best scenario for the Cubs appears to be a 140-game schedule, though that is likely made impossible by the myriad factors involved in re-starting the season. Moving to 110 yields the biggest drop in the Cubs’ division and playoff percentages, so maybe that one should be avoided.

The flip side of this is that many of you might think these projections are far too kind to the Cubs, which means their odds would get better and their opponents’ worse with fewer games. If we go with that idea, maybe it’s best to target 110 games after all and just split the difference.

Even though I know no one who’ll comment about it actually read this far, I suppose I should acknowledge that projections can only be trusted to a certain extent. At the same time, everything is hypothetical right now since we don’t even know with any degree of certainty when the season will start. Man, I need a beer.

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