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Here’s how new playoff format will affect races

2: 48 AM UTC

Though Blue Jays starter Alek Manoah has been prone to peeking at the standings every so often this season, the exercise has left him empty.

“One time I looked, and I think we were winning the [American League] Wild Card by like five games,” Manoah said. “And then a week later, we were not even in the Wild Card spot. I’m like, ‘Why am I even looking at this?’”

Yeah, it can make your head spin. At the All-Star break, 18 teams out of 30 were within 3 1/2 games of a playoff spot. With so many teams in the mathematical mix for the three Wild Card spots in each league, things can turn on a dime.

The 2022 season is Major League Baseball’s first with a 12-team postseason format — a feature negotiated as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that runs through 2026. And as the second half of the season dawns, we’re about to learn a lot more about how this format impacts the approach of front offices, managers and players.

As a reminder, the new format is as follows:

In each league, the three division winners and three teams with the next-best records advance to October. The top two division winners (in terms of regular-season record) in each league will receive first-round byes.

The division winner with the worst record of the three and the three Wild Card teams per league will play three-game Wild Card Series to advance to the Division Series. (The third-ranked division winner will face the Wild Card club with the worst record, while the two top Wild Card clubs will face each other. This opening round will take place in a three-day window, with all games played in the home park of the higher seed.)

This will be a bracket-style postseason. Teams will not be reseeded after the first round.

That all looks good on paper. But now we get to find out how it plays in reality. Here are five intriguing questions posed by the new format in this particular campaign, with input from a handful of All-Stars.

1) How will it impact the Trade Deadline?

This is obviously the most pressing question of all. The Aug. 2 Trade Deadline is eight days away, and it will be fascinating to see how the sheer wealth of teams still alive in the hunt for October affects both inventory and approach.

Under the previous format, there was less incentive for a team like this year’s Giants – far back in the division race (16 1/2-game deficit) but in the thick of the Wild Card race two games back of the last spot) – to make an impact, short-term acquisition if the best possible regular-season outcome was a chance to play in a one-game Wild Card. But with the Wild Card a best-of-three (and hosting duties at stake), there is, perhaps, a stronger argument for an aggressive approach.

Teams with long postseason droughts – the Mariners and Phillies – also have stronger incentive to land impact pieces, and a young team in transition – like the Orioles – might be moved to rethink a seller status that had seemed obvious only weeks ago.

“You don’t want to see non-competitiveness,” Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “You want to see teams go in and push really hard to get to that third spot.”

2) How will it influence the Central contenders?

Though a lot can happen in the second half, a pretty clear divisional dynamic has developed in both leagues: The East and West division winners look likely to land the top two spots, while the two Central winners would be relegated to the whims of the Wild Card Series.

This would, in theory, diminish the value of winning the Central. Should the first-place and second-place teams in the Central both advance, the only potential benefit the division winner would have is home-field advantage in the opening round.And depending on how the standings shake out, the second-place team might earn that advantage for its series, anyway.

*While home teams have a .548 winning percentage in all postseason games in the Wild Card era, dating back to 1995, they went just 19-17 in the brief history of the Wild Card Game.

So while winning the division remains the ultimate goal, if two Central squads are both in playoff position in the season’s final days, there might be just as much incentive to rest/rearrange pivotal pitching pieces to prepare for the Wild Card Series as there would be to nail down the division’s top spot.

Having said that, should a team in either Central Division get hot enough to both run away with its division and close the overall standings gap on the beasts of the East and West (not inconceivable, given that their late-season schedule is so heavily skewed toward intra-division games against the likes of the Tigers, Royals, Pirates, Cubs and Reds), the new format would give them a reason to shoot for the No. 2 seed, as opposed to No. 3.

“Even if you’re in a weaker division, there’s still something to fight for,” White Sox closer Liam Hendriks said. “That was the issue, I think, the White Sox had last year. We were so far up in the division, and [the September results] didn’t really affect much. But if we had been playing to avoid that [first] round, I think that would have been a heck of a motivation to kind of get it all going.”

3) Rest or rust for the top division winners?

OK, but what if the Yankees, Astros, Dodgers and Mets/Braves (the top two teams in the NL East are both out in front of the NL Central-leading Brewers) never take their foot off the gas? What will late-September/early October look like for them?

Teams that have successfully secured attractive seeding well ahead of the last game on the regular-season schedule have long had to contend with the question of how much rest for regulars and starters is too much. But with the opening round (and accompanying bye) extended, that question is a little more complex.

Containing the entire three-game Wild Card Series in a single venue limits travel and prevents the top division winners from having to sit around longer than is necessary. And facing a team that has burned (at least) its top two available starters adds to the advantage that already existed for division winners facing Wild Card clubs. But these top division winners will still have to be careful with how they manage rest down the stretch.

“How much time off for the hitters is too much,” Yankees reliever Clay Holmes said. “I don’t really know the answer to that.”

4) Will the AL East eat itself?

As of the All-Star break, all five AL East teams had a .500 record or better, which is fun. Those five teams have combined to go 162-106 (.605) against teams outside the division.

Again, though: The final stretch of the season is weighted toward intra-division play. So on paper, that would mean a more difficult schedule for the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays and Orioles than the teams they are competing with in the Wild Card race. That’s a potential disadvantage down the stretch. But whichever teams make it out of the East alive will have earned it.

“It’s the AL Beast,” Manoah said. “If you can make it out of the Beast, you’re going to be sitting pretty good. It’s kind of like when you grow up with an older brother and you grow up getting your butt kicked. Then you gotta go against a guy your age, and it’s easy peasy.”

5) Will the math get messy?

One final point to remember in the season’s home stretch: In order to prevent division winners from sitting around even longer at the conclusion of the regular season, the Game 163 tiebreaker to advance to the postseason has been scrapped in favor of a mathematical tiebreaker. This will allow the first-round series to begin promptly after the conclusion of the regular season.

Should two teams tie for the final playoff spot, the team with the better head-to-head record would advance and the other team would be left on the outside looking in. Should the head-to-head season series be even, the team with the better intradivision record would advance. Should that also be a tie, the team with the better interdivision record would move on. The next tiebreakers would be record in the last half of intraleague games, then last half of intraleague games plus one game.

So while we won’t have tiebreaker game chaos to root for anymore, at least we might still have reason to delve deeper into the regular-season results. It could be that a series that has already been played will have a more consequential impact on the playoff picture than we realized at the time.

Ultimately, the new format has brought more teams – and therefore more complication – into the playoff mix. It will be fun to see how that plays out. And you’d better believe Manoah will be studying those standings along with the rest of us.

“I think it’s kind of sick,” Manoah said. “I think the extra playoff spot is going to be great for the fans. It gives us more playoff baseball, and that’s the environment that we want to be in. It’s gonna be awesome.”

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