Through Two Rounds, These Postseason Games Have Been Up in the Air

Jordan Alvarez
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sport

We’re expecting the signature intensity of the MLB postseason. The clash of the league’s best teams with all that’s at stake is bound to produce some memorable storylines, and two weeks later the 2022 playoffs were no exception. The top four seeds in the NL — the Dodgers, Braves, Cardinals and Mets — were upset by the Padres and Phillies, leading to heated debate over the merits of a playoff format that remains a crapshoot. The Mariners ended their drought and beat the Blue Jays on the road to earn a playoff game in front of their long-deserving home fans before losing to Yordan Alvarez and eventually Jeremy Peña in the ALDS. The Yankees and Guardians traded shots for five games in the only Division Series to go the distance.

What doesn’t come naturally in the playoffs is that the games themselves will be competitive regardless of the game’s stakes. Given the level of talent on the field, we’re expecting some worthy clashes, but it’s an inevitability of sport — maybe an inevitability of sport in general — that some games end up back and forth and others end up, well, something like 8-2 in the fourth Inning. The results may be the same, but after all, baseball is about the fan experience and it’s a lot more fun to watch when you don’t know who’s going to win. This postseason, we’ve been fortunate to get more of the former than the latter.

To try and quantify the experience of watching these games, we can turn to Win Expectancy. By giving us snapshots of who has the advantage in the game and by how much, Win Expectancy gives us a pretty good sense of how exciting it is to watch a match. A game in which the winning team has an 85% win expectancy in the fourth inning, as the Yankees did in Game 5 on Tuesday, is obviously not as exciting as a game with a 50/50 split. The most exciting games can have many hin – and involve floats, but in general it’s a pretty good game if you spend most of the game with the result in the air.

In other words, we can try to distinguish a “good” game to watch from a less exciting one by the point at which the eventual winning team has taken a position of fairly clear control – let’s say somewhat conservatively, an expectation of winning of 75%. That’s an arbitrary threshold, so let’s look at a few examples of what that means.

In Game 1 of the Phillies-Braves NLDS, Philadelphia scored two goals at the end of the first. Atlanta took one back before the Phillies scored two more in the third, two in the fourth and one in the fifth to extend the lead to 7-1. The Phillies boosted their winning odds to over 75% when they went 4-1 up in the third, floated around there for about half an inning and then finally surpassed 75% after keeping Atlanta scoreless in the bottom half. That seems to pass the sniff test. From the point the Phillies stretched their lead to 4-1, the Braves weren’t that close to victory until Matt Olson brought them to one with a three-run homer in the ninth — but with just two left outs to tie it . Atlanta’s winning percentage never rose above 11.4%.

As another example, take another Game 1 from the same day. As the hosts of the Padres, the Dodgers went up 5-0 in the first four innings and held a 95% win expectancy. But San Diego hit back, scoring three goals in game five, and as the Padres began to rally in game six, they briefly reduced Los Angeles’ winning percentage to 65.3%. That makes sense: for a moment, the Padres were back in the game, and it’s fair to imagine they had about a one-third chance of winning it. This game should get credit for getting exciting again. But with a rally-killing double play, the Dodgers rebounded over 75% and never looked back.

We can tweak the rating one way or another, but this seems like a pretty good argument: the later in the game the winning team 75% finally passes, the more likely this game is to have the kind of drama that makes a game great to watch.

A few quick notes: Firstly, due to the stakes of the games in the playoffs, the fan experience is quite elevated. While in the regular season a game where a team comes out in the third 4-1 lead and never loses that lead is unlikely to be as exciting a game in all likelihood, that lead probably makes us feel a little less comfortable in a postseason Game. The threshold for a game to be “boring” is much higher. But this is probably more about the impact a loss would have and less about the likelihood of it turning out differently. In any event, however arbitrary, this 75% threshold can help us quantify the control that the eventual winner has over the game.

Also note that I have specified the to win team a few times. If the team that first overtakes 75%, at the end loses the game, that suggests a pretty exciting game. Take a Game 1 of the Third Division Series: The Mariners went into the second inning with a 4-0 lead and an 85.6% winning percentage. That mark was 91.4% when Alvarez threw in the final pitch that hit him for a walk-off home run, marking the most dramatic change in winning probability in a single game in playoff history. It goes without saying that this should be recognized as a very exciting game.

In the Division Series, the 12 playoff teams played 25 games. In 17 of those games, the winning team finally crossed the 75% threshold in the sixth inning or later. More than half exceeded the threshold in the seventh inning or later. And in seven, that threshold was not crossed until the ninth inning or later, including three extra-inning games that ended in the 10th, 15th, and 18th. In other words, in just eight games this postseason — 32% — Win Expectancy was at least 75% confident of being the eventual winner for as much as the last four innings.

This is a stark contrast to last season’s playoffs, when 16 of 37 games, 43%, were ‘decided’ before the sixth inning – ie the winner was favored by odds of 75% or more.

When did the winning team pass 75% WE forever?

inning 2021 2022
Before the 6th 43.2% 32.0%
6th or later 56.8% 68.0%
7th or later 45.9% 52.0%
8th or later 37.8% 36.0%
9th or later 24.3% 28.0%

Another metric we can use to assess in-game intensity independent of the game’s stakes is the Leverage Index (LI), which effectively measures tension by identifying opportunities for fluctuations in expected wins. A plate appearance that will have a large impact on the outcome of the game has a high LI, and a plate appearance with little impact potential is rated low, with 1.00 representing the average. These methods of assessing a game’s competitiveness are related; If a team has more than a 75% chance of winning, the LI results will be lower than when the odds are more even. We can use the Championship Leverage Index to identify fluctuations in World Series odds, but to look at the intensity of games even outside of the playoff context, plain old LI will suffice.

By the end of the Division Series round, this year’s playoffs have an average LI of 1.04, despite an incomplete ALDS Game 5, which would be considered the highest for a full postseason in nearly a decade since 2014 (1.15) and significantly higher than last year’s 0.94. Considering only games across the DS for previous seasons, this year’s mark was the highest since 2016 (1.14). This suggests that the overall excitement of the average plate appearance across all games this postseason is higher than in previous years.

Average Leverage Index Through Division Series Games

Year aLI
2014 1.19
2016 1.14
2012 1.08
2022 1.04
2010 1.01
2021 1.01
2011 1.01
2020 1.00
2017 0.97
2015 0.96
2018 0.95
2013 0.95
2019 0.90

These averages include all lower leverage games in addition to those with high aLIs. But another way to look at leverage is how many of the games themselves have high aLI scores, indicating that they maintained high levels of intensity throughout most of the game. There were 50 team-pitching games in the Division Series this postseason, and 14 of those had aLIs over 1.25, including seven with scores over 1.50. Even with this measure, 2022 will be one of the more intensive postseasons of the recent past.

Percentage of playoff games with high aLIs

Year team games % over 1 % over 1.25 % over 1.5
2022 50 44.00% 28.00% 14.00%
2021 74 41.89% 25.68% 12.16%
2020 106 44.34% 23.58% 9.43%
2019 74 31.08% 20.27% 8.11%
2018 66 48.48% 24.24% 13.64%
2017 76 38.16% 22.37% 9.21%
2016 70 45.71% 30.00% 12.86%
2015 72 37.50% 19.44% 9.72%
2014 64 62.50% 40.63% 20.31%

What does it all mean? Well, there’s little to suggest it’s anything but random. It’s not necessarily that teams are more balanced this postseason, or that gameplay has changed in any way to intensify the product on the field. It doesn’t necessarily predict that the NLCS or ALCS or the World Series will feature closer games than usual. It’s possible that an elite pitching match will give you a higher chance of a close game, but for the most part it’s a dice roll as to whether you get a nail biter or a blowout in a given game.

What it means is that so far this October we’ve experienced an intense, competitive playoff atmosphere at a level we haven’t seen in years, and it’s worth appreciating that fact for what it is. That intensity in the game sets the stage for some of our historic playoff moments: 15th-inning walk-off homers, clutch-off saves, plays to the last shot. May we be so happy to see more in the coming rounds.