MLB Postseason Futures: How Much Do the Standings Matter?

Fenway Park Green Monster Scoreboard
The Fenway Park scoreboard shows the standings for the AL East in July of 2019 during a Yankees vs. Red Sox game. Adam Glanzman/Getty Images/AFP

Last week’s trade deadline was the final chance for teams to make a significant change to their rosters in preparation for October’s postseason. Now, we pretty much know who everyone is taking into the final two months of the season.

It’s the dog days of August, and many divisional stretch run races appear to be over before they began.

The Dodgers swept the Padres the first weekend of August to open up a 15.5-game lead in the National League West. The Yankees have hit a bit of a hiccup but still have a 9.5 game lead over the Blue Jays and Rays in the American League East, and, despite a hot run by the Mariners, the Astros still lead by 11 in the A.L. West.

If you’re planning to make some MLB postseason futures bets, however, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the second-place teams. It also doesn’t mean that the division winners are preparing a cakewalk to the World Series.

What Are the Futures Markets?

You can bet on just about everything that will happen at the end of the MLB season, including the winners of the MVP, Cy Young, and other major awards, but the biggest interest is usually in which teams will make, and win, the World Series.

Now that we know what the rosters will look like in October, many gamblers choose to put down money on futures at different sportsbooks immediately after the trade deadline.

Beware of Favorites

The Dodgers have opened up a five-game edge in the race for the best record in baseball, while the Astros and Yankees are neck-and-neck in the push to be the top seed in the American League.

That’s not necessarily a good thing, however.

Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays and San Francisco Giants were top seeds in the American and National Leagues respectively. Neither one survived their first-round playoff series, losing to the AL and NL Wild Card game winners.

Wild Cards Have Shown Up

Ignoring the expanded playoff field in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the top seed in each league has won one of the last four series. Only the 2019 Astros survived the first round, eventually losing in the World Series to the National League Wild Card team, the Nationals.

Going back to 2014, the Wild Card Game winner has an 8-6 series record against the top seed in each league in the first round of the playoffs.

In the 26 years that the MLB postseason has included Wild Card teams, in various playoff formats, a Wild Card has advanced to the World Series 13 times, an average of every other year. And a Wild Card has won the title seven times, or better than once every four seasons.

Rust vs. Rest

One possible reason for the top seeds’ struggles in the playoffs is the fact that the best teams often have the race wrapped up in August. That gives the top teams plenty of time to get healthy, rest their star players after a long marathon of a regular season, and get the pitching rotation in order for a postseason run.

All of that would seem to provide the top seed with a benefit entering the postseason, but the Wild Card teams have the benefit of already being in a playoff mindset.

Playoff Mindset

Often, the Wild Card teams needed to win a fierce stretch-run race to wrap up a spot in the season in the first place, then they had to beat the league’s other Wild Card in a one-and-done game to earn a shot at the top seed.

Playing with that urgency for days or weeks helps toughen a team for the increased stakes at playoff time. And a team that may be better and healthier on paper but isn’t used to the postseason atmosphere may get knocked back at the change in stress levels come playoff time.

Changes on the Horizon

Before putting down your money on the likely Wild Cards, or shorting the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers, there is one other factor at play this year: the playoff format is changing.

Over the last decade, the two Wild Cards in each league play a win-or-go-home game for the right to face the top seed in a best-of-five series.

Starting this year, each league is adding a third Wild Card team. The team with the worst record will play the division winner with the worst record in a first-round series, while the other two Wild Cards play for a chance at the top team. Instead of a single game, both of those series will be best of three.

That means that, before facing the top team, the Wild Card winner will have had to play multiple postseason games. While playing one gives the team a chance to shake off any rust and be ready to go, a best-of-three could further scramble the underdog’s starting rotation and bullpen, which could give the top seed a bit more of an advantage.

Spicing Things Up

It also creates a new set of issues with the two-seed. Now, the second-best division winner in each league faces the same rest vs. rust issue that the top seeds have seen for years.

They get a first-round bye while the three-seed plays a Wild Card.

Everyone has an opinion on how much the new format will change the fate of the Wild Cards and the top teams in the postseason, which will create a handicapping challenge that should help spice up the old dog days of summer.