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MLB Postseason: Will First-Round Byes Hinder The Title Chances Of The Favorites?

AS IT STANDS TODAY, the Cleveland Guardians and the St. Louis Cardinals would both be protected 3 seeds, while their respective league's top Wild Card holds a better record.

In the case of Cleveland, every Wild Card team would have a higher winning percentage. However, the Guardians and Cardinals would be able to avoid a head-to-head clash with their league's top seed until the ALCS/NLCS. Major League Baseball's new Postseason arrangement is slotted so division winners are 1-3 regardless. And the brackets do not re-seed — serving up the "worst" remaining team to the best — after the Wild Card Series. 

With an ALDS/NLDS upset, Cleveland and St. Louis might not have to play the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers at all. If the far-and-away favorites somehow fail to reach baseball's Final Four, the Guardians and Cardinals would snag home-field advantage by beating their 2 seeds. Should this scenario ("Doomsday" if you're in the league office) play out, the question of why a 3 seed gets to host a 4 or 5 with a better record will arise. But that scrutiny will pale in comparison to the criticism facing the byes, and their commensurate days off. 

The Rest v. Rust debate is as old as time. But solid empirical data on what to expect when baseball employs "byes as a reward" can be found in the sport that lives right next door. From 1991 to 2021, the National Football League provided two byes per conference (four total). This is a direct comp for the setup Major League Baseball has laid out for 2022 and beyond. Bonus: It's a statistical sample size that cannot be ignored.

In 31 years of this 12-team bracket, only eight seasons saw all four teams that received byes advance. That's only 26% of the time. From 2006-2009, in particular, the underdogs greatly outperformed those coming off a week of rest. The AFC/NFC 1s and 2s posted a cumulative 6-10 record over that three-year span; meaning you were statistically better off not being a division winner.

The numbers are especially unforgiving to the 1 seeds: 18 losses out of 64 games. For being the best teams all year, you'd expect better than a .719 winning percentage in that early round. What's worse, both top seeds lost their first playoff game last season — in the inaugural run of seven participants per conference, but only one receiving a bye. That's a glaring 0-2 for the only teams that didn't play a competitive game the week prior. It really calls into question whether or not byes are a blessing or a curse.

In other words, despite all the regular season success, the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, and Mets will not be the last four teams standing. The numbers say one or two of them won't even win a single series.

If parity does reign supreme, is that such a bad thing? Would that oddly be a sign that the byes are "working"? After all, what's the point of the Wild Card Series — and the inclusion of all these new teams to the party  if it's always going to be the 1s and 2s in the Championship Series?

For that comp, we turn to the NCAA men's basketball tournament, a.k.a. the King of Parity Being Good for Business. With its most-recent format change, you could argue that the Big Dance is now a collection of 60 teams that receive first-round byes. They can dress it up with fancy graphics and names, but that's what it is.

What the First Four has confirmed: Momentum is one hell of a drug. Excluding the two 16 seeds that come out of them annually, the play-in games sure create dangerous opponents for higher seeds watching from the couch. An additional game has quickly become a ramp-up rather than a performance-draining layover. Here's the list of those who left Dayton, Ohio as First Four victors and followed it with a First Round upset days later: 

2011: 11 VCU (advanced to the Final Four)
2012: 12 South Florida 
2013: 13 LaSalle (advanced to the Sweet Sixteen)
2014: 11 Tennessee (advanced to the Sweet Sixteen)
2015: 11 Dayton 
2016: 11 Wichita State 
2017: 11 USC 
2018: 11 Syracuse (advanced to the Sweet Sixteen)
2019: Only year with no teams advancing 
2020: - No NCAA Tournament - 
2021: 11 UCLA (advanced to the Final Four)
2022: 11 Notre Dame 

If you're an at-large team on the bubble, it's tough to ignore the data: You'd prefer to be sent to UD Arena prior to the "real" First Round. T
he schools that share the same seed line have a much lower chance of making a deep run. Since the First Four's inception, the "other" 11 seeds — whose tournament begins on Thursday or Friday — have a .517 winning percentage in the tournament. Conversely, the 11s that open up on Tuesday or Wednesday have a March Madness record of 32-16 (.667). It's proof that the probability of winning a race dramatically increases with a running start. 

Playoff tournaments, in every sport, have a rhythm that is atypical of the regular season. Those that can settle into the groove/pace of it sooner is going to be better off. Sometimes it is the very format 
— billed as a hindrance to long-term success — that actually emulates normalcy the best. In that, an overloaded postseason calendar might feel more like midseason; thus taking the pressure/magnitude of the moment off. In the case of the First Four, the volume of games within a single week mirrors November-February. Teams like 2011's UCLA squad unlocked something early and never went long enough without a game to cool down. They could've played every single day and been fine. 

Fatigue is not a factor when the slate is leisurely compared to the grind. The NHL and NBA play more games in a week during the playoffs than the regular season. Everyone else slows the frequency way down. And that's what makes sitting around for more time than you've sat in months that is unique. NFL teams that rested their starters in Week 17 go two full weeks without feeling contact and running routes against an opponent's scheme. This is going to be something to watch with Major League Baseball's Postseason. The sport that routinely plays 12 games in 13 days all Summer suddenly gives five consecutive days off to a division winner as some type of "you're welcome." 

You could also argue that the Selection Committee is also steering into the skid. These types of teams popping up annually are ratings gems. They are the darlings that make casual fans tune in that Tuesday prior to the "start of the tournament."
Who could it be this year? Throw a team that has no business slipping down as far as the 11 line and all but assure a First Round upset.

Like a 6 seed in March Madness facing an 11 
— that just won in Dayton two days prior  you can run into a team that's been playing far more meaningful games for weeks in advance of your first. That's an ambush waiting to happen for anyone coming out of a bye week, across the entire sports landscape. 

Should a Wild Card team advance all the way to the World Series, while getting pushed to the brink each round, they would play 22 games (3, 5, 7, 7). 
The record for most games played by a team in a single Major League Baseball Postseason is 20 — set by the Tampa Bay Rays, in that quirky 2020 precursor to the current format. That quantity proved to be a little too much to overcome the mighty Dodgers, who set the record for most wins (13) in a single Postseason. With the injection of byes to this newest equation, seeds 3-6 will now need to match those 13 total wins in order to be crowned World Champs; the top two seeds require only the "traditional" 11. We'll have to wait and see if that disparity prevents Cinderella from ever capturing another one of these titles. In a short race, it is quite the head start for the favorites. Or, like Atlanta last season, perhaps a longer track grants a "meh" team the chance to catch fire and never cool down

The key difference is the win-or-go-home nature of both football and basketball vs. best-of-five series in baseball. 
Needs to be a best-of-seven Division Series.

One would assume the greater assurance of games will allow the cream to rise to the top; with 1 seeds making it out of that round at clip better than 72%

Another factor that isn't apples-to-apples is the concept of a pitching rotation. Same point guard, same quarterback game to game. Those receiving byes in Major League Baseball are going to get to stack the deck with aces 
— while those surviving the Wild Card Series purposely limp in with several cards burned. 

Hungriest dog gets the biggest piece of meat. If all of September felt like a must-win proposition, then it should equate to a few Division Series upsets.

One aspect of this 2022 Wild Card weekend 
 with four telecasts required in four cities on the same days  is that there could be a huge overload of same-time-zone teams. In the old days of the MLB Postseason, you likely had at least one series that shifted to the West Coast that you could naturally start at 9:40 p.m. EDT. Since the Wild Card teams can all hail from the same division, like they essentially do this year, it's going to be a logistical mess.

Cleveland and Atlanta are locks to host games Friday and Saturday, October 7 and 8. Toronto or Tampa Bay will be the third location. St. Louis will be the western-most city that'll be a part of this group, and they're only as far west as the Central Time Zone. So they'll likely be the de facto late game. I can already hear their fans complaining over that 8:40 p.m. CDT first pitch 
— nearly two hours after their home regular-season games. 

And even with that one match-up (Cardinals vs. either Phillies or Brewers) set as the nightcap, what do you do with the other three? Are Cleveland and Seattle going to play just past noon on a Friday? Or do they even care if all the games are thrown on the board at the same time?

No one in the West bails out Major League Baseball by being good enough to host a Wild Card Series, nor bad enough (Astros and Dodgers) to slide down to this play-in round. 

Momentum will be something interesting to look out for in Year 1 of this new format. 

Unpopular hot take: Every single MLB regular season should end on a Wednesday and not the traditional Sunday. Such a shift is happening this year, solely because of the early-season lockout. My proposal is to permanently push the excitement of these four Wild Card Series to a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It puts baseball in a better spot to challenge weekend football, thanks to it being Postseason and not games 161 and 162. They don't mean what they used to. And if there are any meaningful last-game-of-the-season milestones, records, ties in the standings, then they'll have all the spotlight on them on a Wednesday evening. There's no football of any kind to compete with. 

Dodgers haven't played a meaningful game in the ten days since they clinched the West. Will be the longest layoff between competitive games since last year's World Series and the first game of this year's Spring Training. It's a day longer than the All Star Break.

Part of me goes "Toughen up. Handle your business. You're favored for a reason despite any length of lay off." It should provide plenty of Ace vs. Third Starter scenarios. That was the entire push toward the Wild Card Game following the 2011 Postseason. 

The other side goes full Robin Williams in
Good Will Hunting: "It's not your fault." Perhaps the the system is to blame and needs a change. If the disadvantage truly is in getting the bye, then that shouldn't be the reward for having the best regular season moving forward. 

I would bet every penny in my bank account on the American League and National League Championship Series
NOT being two match-ups of 1 vs. 2. In fact, I'd go as far as stating: The likelihood of all four bye recipients being eliminated in the Division Series is greater than all four making it through. I feel like the data supports such a bold claim, because the NFL and NCAA hoops comp is too strong. 

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