A defining characteristic of Major League Baseball’s 2019 season — beyond the record home run totals — is how predictable it was.
Of the 15 teams with the lowest preseason playoff probabilities, per FiveThirtyEight’s predictions, only the Oakland A’s exceeded 50 percent playoff odds at any point in the season. (The A’s, who opened the season with the 16th-best playoff odds, are the only team from the bottom half of our preseason predictions to earn a postseason berth.) The only other bottom-half clubs that exceeded 40 percent playoff odds at any point in the season were the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Seattle Mariners. The Diamondbacks spent eight days with 40 percent or greater odds, topping out at 48.2 percent on May 4. The Mariners reached season-high playoff odds of 40.8 percent on April 11, and then quickly faded.
Teams that started in the top half of our playoff predictions rarely saw their playoff probabilities fall below those of the bottom half. In the American League, the division-winning Houston Astros, New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins enjoyed strong playoff probabilities for much of the season.1
FanGraphs produced a similar pattern with its playoff probabilities — and even did a little better than ours: Their preseason bottom 15 included the Colorado Rockies, who were 15th in our preseason rankings, and excluded the A’s.
I continue to be amazed by this pre-season forecast at @fangraphs . The bottom 15 teams forecasted, all at under 25%, never exceeded 30% chance at any point in the season. And are the bottom 15 of 16 teams to make the playoffs right now. (Redsox joining the crew.) pic.twitter.com/zBzftlso3X
— Tangotiger (@tangotiger) September 21, 2019
MLB’s postseason field expanded in 2012. But even with the double-wild-card format and 10 total postseason berths, there wasn’t much drama this September. As of Sept. 13, eight teams had either clinched playoff berths or had 90 percent or greater playoff odds and would go on to clinch. Only the AL wild-card race and NL Central crown were up for grabs in the final week, and the runner-up in the NL Central — either the Milwaukee Brewers or the St. Louis Cardinals — was guaranteed a wild-card berth.
By some measures, there has never been a greater divide between the baseball Haves and Have Nots. The super teams and tanking teams have taken over: For the first time in MLB history, four teams recorded 100-plus wins in a season, with the Astros, Yankees and Twins eclipsing the mark to capture their respective divisions in the AL and the Dodgers surpassing it in the NL. And for the second time in MLB history, there were four 100-plus loss teams in a season.2
Super teams like the Dodgers and Astros have astutely acquired talent and become player development machines. Meanwhile, tanking has become more tolerated, in part because the Astros and Cubs offered models to follow, using premium draft picks accrued from 100-plus loss seasons to help build championship clubs.
And perhaps these trends also make for more predictable October baseball. The last three World Series champions each won 100-plus games in the regular season preceding their title. The Astros and Dodgers are the favorites to meet in the World Series, as they did in 2017. If they do, it will make the MLB postseason finale feel like an inevitable conclusion to an incredibly predictable season.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.