Sports

91 games (and counting?): How MLB’s cancellations could rock the playoff races

Ninety-one games. So far.

That’s the number of games that have been lopped off the schedule after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s news conference last week. We can only hope that the number doesn’t go up.

For now, if an agreement is reached post haste, the plan is for each team to pick up its regular-season schedule with the beginning of its third series. That might be the simplest way to go about it, but it’s far from ideal. That’s not just because it means less baseball, but because the cancellations will affect each team a little bit differently.

There are seven teams that, as of now, will lose seven games, but even within that group there are disparities. While the Dodgers, Marlins and Athletics will all lose seven home contests, the canceled games of the Tigers, Yankees and Giants were to all be played on the road. The Royals will lose four at home and three on the road.

That’s not the only wonky thing about a schedule that is now both full of oddities but is also what we are now forced to hope for because it would mean that the lockout gets settled, and fast. Five teams are slated to lose five games and 18 will lose six, and the home-road splits among those groups varies from club to club.

How big of an effect might this have?

We’ll get to that question, but in the end, teams will play between 155 and 157 games apiece. That might not seem like a huge deal, yet if you lose a division race or miss out on a wild-card spot by a half-game, well, call up your favorite member of the 1972 Red Sox to commiserate.

Because this has happened before.

The precedent

In 1972, a players’ strike over a pension dispute resulted in 13 days of lost games, totaling 86 contests in all. There have been other seasons with lost games — 1981, 1985, 1994, 1995 — but the most analogous to the current lockout is 1972 because of the timing on the baseball calendar and, so far, the similarity in the totals of lost games.

As is the plan for 2022, when play began in the 1972 season, teams just picked up the schedule as it was originally laid out, beginning with the day they were ready to go. The 86 lost games were simply just gone, lost to history. As will be the case in 2022, the resulting schedule was inequitable. Teams played between 153 and 156 games in 1972, but that was only part of the problem. For example, the Twins lost seven home games, while the Angels and Padres both lost only one home gate. Weird stuff.

The one disparity that had lasting ramifications was that between the Tigers and Red Sox, and it serves as what should be a cautionary tale for MLB in terms of balancing whatever remaining slate we get in 2022.

The Tigers lost six games off the front of their 1972 schedule, three of them at Tiger Stadium, while the Red Sox lost seven, including four that would have been played at Fenway Park. That doesn’t seem like a big deal until you consider that Boston ended up losing out on the AL East title by a half-game to Detroit. The Tigers went 86-70 in their 156 games, while the Red Sox went 85-70 in their 155 outings.

Forever after, the 1972 Red Sox became the team that lost a division title simply because they played one fewer game than their chief competitor. At the time, this didn’t generate as much uproar as you might think. That’s mostly because Boston and Detroit played a three-game series to finish the season at Tiger Stadium, and that captured most of the attention. The Red Sox entered the series up by a half-game but the Tigers won the first two games, with Boston plating only two total runs, to clinch the AL East and render the season finale moot.

At the time, Carl Yastrzemski called the narrow divisional loss the biggest disappointment of his career but, you know, the 1978 Bucky Dent game was several years off in Yaz’s future. There is, incidentally, a reason why we harken back to Yaz’s reaction to that long-ago misfortune. Stay tuned.

Fifty years later, the case of the ’72 Red Sox still looks like a glaring injustice, one that tends to get overshadowed when the old tales of rotten Boston luck are dredged up. The thing is, it’s not just that the Red Sox lost the crown by a half-game, but one of the series that was wiped out early on was what would have been a season-opening three-game series at Fenway against Detroit. There was also a game between the teams in Detroit lost to the strike.

The context of the current dispute is very different from the one in 1972, beginning with the fact that one is a lockout and the other one was a strike. Still, the issue of how the season gets played out is similar. What baseball ended up with in 1972 does not look great through the historical lens. And yet, here we are again.

Effect on the races so far

Amid all the CBA squabbling, it would be so much better if we could just talk about baseball. One thing we can discuss, about actual competition, is the schedule. Because with one glance, we can see that as things stand, the cancellations are far from equitably distributed.

To get a sense of what complications may arise, we simulated the 2022 schedule in two ways. The first was to just play the whole thing with no cancellations. The second was to run the simulations with the canceled games removed.

For the playoff format, we went with a 12-team bracket, adding two more teams from the 2021 postseason format. We also used a best-of-three wild-card round with the higher seed getting all the home games, and we did not reseed between rounds.

Based on the differences between the two simulations, we can estimate how much each club is affected by a weird schedule. The differences are small in the context of a long season, but that doesn’t mean they won’t matter. We can look at the example of 1972 to know this.

Here are the numbers we ran for each league — and some observations.

American League

Observations:

• While two of the division races aren’t close, the AL East is a barnburner. The Blue Jays end up winning the division by 1½ games but if the Yankees had not seen their road schedule clipped by seven games, perhaps that might have been a more comfortable gap.

• In a screaming referendum for a realignment that makes sense with a 12-team playoff format, the battle for the No. 2 seed comes down to a one-game edge for the Blue Jays over the White Sox. In a miracle of miracles, the respective changes in the schedules of these teams is very minor. They both lost six games, three at home and three away.

Any difference would come down to the caliber of competition. But that matters: The White Sox lose six games against the Royals and Twins, while the Blue Jays sidestep a series against the Rays, though they also lose a set against the Orioles.

• In a battle for the No. 6 seed, the Red Sox avoid the fate of their 1972 predecessors by eking out a one-game edge over the Angels. Both teams lost six games to the lockout, but all of Boston’s canceled games were slotted for Fenway, while the Angels avoided six road contests. So perhaps this race ended up closer than it should have been.

National League

Observations:

• The NL East race turns into chaos. The Braves edge the Mets by 1½ games. New York fans will surely protest because of the canceled games. Atlanta avoided a six-game road trip because of the lost games, while New York missed five games, all at Citi Field. And two of those games: Yep, they would have been against the Braves.

Also worth noting: Because the third-best division champ doesn’t get a bye in the 12-team format, the stakes in this prospective Mets-Braves race aren’t as high as they might have been.

• The Dodgers end up with one of the biggest schedule penalties by having a seven-game opening homestand wiped out, while the Giants pick up an average of a full win in the simulations by missing road trips at San Diego and Milwaukee to start the season.

There’s enough gap in the forecasts between the Giants and Dodgers that it doesn’t have a huge impact on the divisional race, but if the race is close, look out.

• The Braves and Brewers end up in a fairly close race for the No. 2 seed and the bye that comes with it. Again, the Braves get that big boost from skipping their opening road trip, while the Brewers have a seven-game homestand obliterated. In this scenario, the Brewers have a big enough gap on the Braves to earn the bye anyway.

• The race for the sixth seed in the NL is a mess.

You’ve got the Phillies and Cardinals at 81-76, followed by the Giants at 80-75, who are slated to play two fewer games than those clubs. If you carry the average simulated wins out to a decimal point, Philly gets the edge over the Cardinals. Philadelphia and St. Louis are on somewhat equal footing in that they both lose five games, all on the road, due to the cancellations.

The Giants get that aforementioned seven-game road trip wiped out, but that’s not all they get. Because San Francisco plays two fewer games than the Phillies and Cardinals, and all three teams finish five games over .500, here is how they stack up according to winning percentage:

Giants: .5161

Phillies: .5159

Cardinals: .5159

Oh dear. What now? Would MLB opt for tiebreaker games, though strictly speaking the teams aren’t all tied? Do we just go with that miniscule difference in percentage? As of now, winning percentage, no matter how many decimal points are required, would carry the day, though all parameters related to the playoff format are subject to the terms of the CBA.

Well, if we have to go to four decimal points in winning percentage to sort out a wild-card spot competition between teams that didn’t play the same number of games, that’s probably apropos to a 2022 season that is starting under a very dark cloud.

On the other hand, you can be sure that Giants slugger Mike Yastrzemski would be calling up his Hall of Fame grandfather, Carl, to let him know that in one small way, family history has been set right.

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