The Regular Season Is Lacking Intensity
This is Chris’ first piece as a FanGraphs contributor. Chris is a data journalist based in Boston. He started his career working in baseball, first as a media relations intern with the 2014 Cubs and then with the Red Sox media relations department from 2015 to ’19. In addition to thinking about baseball, he reports on data topics ranging from education to climate to COVID-19 for US News and World Report. Chris has long used FanGraphs to describe what data journalism is to confused friends and family.
The baseball fan’s proposition is a delicate balance. We’re asked to tune in for 162 games that are of relatively little individual importance to the team’s World Series chances, an act of faith anchored somewhat in the premise that “anything can happen” in the postseason. If your team is able to survive the regular season grind, the game assures you, they have a shot to bring home the ultimate reward.
But with less than three weeks to play, the 2022 regular season is looking a little flat from a competitive standpoint. The playoff field, with its new three Wild Card structure, is looking relatively set, and this year’s regular season is shaping up to have been, well, mild when it comes to non-home run chase drama.
After play on September 14, with three weeks left in the first regular season with six Wild Card slots up for grabs, there were 16 teams with a less than 10% chance of making the playoffs and another 10 with a chance of 90% or better , leaving just four teams – the Padres (82.3%), Guardians (81.6%), Brewers (21.4%), and White Sox (15.0%) – somewhere between despair and a near-certain postseason berth. That number was just five with a full four weeks left in the season. By comparison, with three weeks to go last year, eight teams fell between 10% and 90% in terms of playoff odds. In the last five full seasons, an average of seven teams have fallen in that range with three weeks to go.
With three Wild Cards in each league, you could imagine a September full of thrilling chases and surprise contenders. Instead, while playoff seeding is yet to be determined – most crucially, which team will come away with the NL East title and the first-round bye that’s likely to come with it – most teams are playing for home field advantage at best, and what essentially amounts to draft order at worst.
Part of the issue is the disparate nature of the haves and have-nots in the league today. FanGraphs projects four teams to win 100 games – the Dodgers already have – which would match the record set in 2019. A remarkable nine teams are projected to win fewer than 70, which would also be a record in a 162-game season. Part, of course, is a chance. But the lack of stakes in an underwhelming playoff chase exacerbates the issue of a regular season already diluted in its importance thanks to a busier postseason bracket to work through at the end of the road.
To quantify what’s at stake in the regular season, we can look to Championship Leverage Index (cLI), a metric developed by Dave Studeman and Sky Andrecheck a little over 10 years ago and now hosted on Baseball Reference. cLI aims to measure the impact of a particular game on a team’s chances of winning the World Series by simulating season outcomes for each game outcome, with the baseline of 1.00 calibrated to represent an Opening Day game in the two Wild Card playoff format.
The more critical the game is to a team’s chances of winning the World Series, the higher the cLI value. When the Blue Jays hosted the Yankees in the final week of a Wild Card race last year, the September 30 series finale had a 2.74 cLI for Toronto and a 2.18 for the Yankees. The Yankees’ win that day raised their playoff chances from 84.2% to 97.0%, while Toronto’s loss dropped their odds from 22.9% to 13.5%; Their World Series chances were impacted accordingly.
On the other hand, teams that know they won’t make the playoffs – as well as teams that are relatively certain of their playoff position – have less at stake on any given regular-season day. With extremely comfortable playoff positions, neither this year’s Dodgers nor Astros have played a game with a cLI higher than 1.00 since before the All-Star Break.
Between the new playoff format, which has drawn criticism for a number of reasons, and the way wins have been distributed this season, 2022 is shaping up to have featured the lowest-leverage average regular season game since the playoff format switched to a two Wild Card format in 2012. The average team-game this year has had a cLI of .68 (including games played on or before September 19), down almost 20% from the same point in last year’s season (.81). In the nine full seasons of the two Wild Card era, the average regular-season CLI through this point in the season ranged from .78 in 2019 to .93 in ’14.
Maybe these numbers are heating up as the season nears an end? Not this year. Through Monday, in each team’s last 20 team-games, the average cLI has been a paltry .43, thanks in part to the fact that only seven teams are averaging values over 1.00 during this stretch. Eleven teams were averaging over 1.00 during this stretch last year, when all teams averaged .60 over the 20-game period.
Looked at another way, 68.4% of the over 4,000 team-games played through Monday have had a CLI of less than 1.00, up from 55.5% in 2021, and 34.7% had a value of less than .50.
An imbalanced league and a dose of bad luck has meant that most fans have spent the final month of the season with their October plans made, but the CLI tells a story of a weakened regular season overall. Major League Baseball has spent years working on ways to cut down the time of an average game, but in the meantime, the expansion of the playoffs has contributed to an erosion of a more sacred asset: the value of a game.