This is Chris’ first piece as a Contributor to FanGraphs. Chris is a Boston-based data journalist. He began his career 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 reflecting on baseball, he reports on data topics ranging from education to climate to COVID-19 for US News and World Report. FanGraphs has long been used by Chris to describe what data journalism is to confuse friends and family.
A baseball fan’s suggestion is a delicate balance. We were asked to set 162 matches of relatively little individual importance to the team’s chances of a world championship, an act of faith fairly firmly rooted in the premise that “anything can happen” in the post-season. If your team is able to survive the regular season, the game assures you that they have a chance to bring the ultimate reward home.
But with less than three weeks to play, the regular season of 2022 looks a bit flat from a competitive standpoint. The Qualifier Stadium, with its three new Wild Card structure, appears to be under consideration relatively groupand this year’s regular season is shaping up to be, well, Nice When it comes to stalking drama out of the house.
After playing on September 14, with three weeks remaining in the first regular season with six Wild Card slots available, 16 teams had less than a 10% chance of making the playoffs and another 10 had a 90% chance or better, leaving only four teams – the Padres ( 82.3%), Guardians (81.6%), Brewers (21.4%), White Sox (15.0%) – somewhere between desperation and an almost certain post-season harbor. That number was only five with four full weeks left in the season. By comparison, with three weeks remaining last year, eight teams fell between 10% and 90% in terms of qualifying odds. In the past five full seasons, an average of seven teams fell into that range three weeks ago.
With three Wild Cards in each league, you can imagine a September full of exciting chases and surprising contenders. Alternatively, while the rankings in matches have yet to be decided – and more importantly, which team will take the NL East title and the first round they’re likely to come with – most teams are playing for a home advantage at best, and what? It basically amounts to a draft order at worst.
Part of the problem is the divergent nature of the rich and poor in the league today. FanGraphs expects four teams to win 100 games – which the Dodgers already own – which would match the record set in 2019. An impressive nine teams are expected to win under 70, a 162-game season record. Part, of course, is serendipity. But the lack of stakes in a disappointing chase exacerbates a regular season problem that has already been watered down thanks to the busiest postseason arc to work through at the end of the road.
To determine what’s at stake in the regular season, we can look at the Championship Leverage Index (cLI), a metric developed by Dave Studeman and Sky Andrecheck just 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 Championship by simulating season results for each game result, with a baseline of 1.00 calibrated to represent the opening day match in two versions of the Wild Card.
The more important the game is to the team’s chances of winning the World Championship, the higher the cLI value. When the Blue Jays hosted the Yankees in the final week of last year’s Wild Card race, at the end of the September 30 series it was 2.74 cLI for Toronto and 2.18 for the Yankees. A Yankees win that day raised their odds in the playoffs from 84.2% to 97.0%, while a Toronto loss dropped their odds from 22.9% to 13.5%; Their World Championship chances were affected accordingly.
On the other hand, teams that you know won’t play in the playoffs – as well as teams that are relatively certain of their place in the playoffs – are less at risk on any day of the regular season. With very comfortable playoffs, neither the Dodgers nor the Astros have played a game with a cLI above 1.00 this year since before the All-Star break.
Between the new look of the match that he drew Cash to number From Reasons, and the way wins have been distributed this season, 2022 is shaping up to feature the lowest level of regular season leverage since the match format switched to Wild Card format in 2012. The average team game this year was a 0.68 cLI (including games that played on or before September 19), down about 20% from the same point in last year’s season (.81). In the full nine seasons of the Wild Card era, average regular-season cLI during this point in the season ranged from .78 in 2019 to .93 in ’14.
Perhaps these numbers will increase towards the end of the season? Not this year. As of Monday, in each team’s last 20 collegiate games, the average cLI was a meager .43, thanks in part to the fact that only seven teams were above their 1.00 value during this stretch. Eleven teams averaged over 1.00 during this stretch last year, when all teams averaged 0.60 over a 20-game period.
If we look another way, 68.4% of the more than 4,000 team games played through Monday had a cLI of less than 1.00, up from 55.5% in 2021, and 34.7% had a cLI of less than 0.50.
An unbalanced league and a dose of bad luck meant most fans had the final month of the season with their October plans, but cLI tells the story of an overall poor regular season. Major League Baseball has spent years working on ways to cut back on average game time, but in the meantime, the expansion of the playoffs has eroded one of its most sacred assets: the value of the game.