How many wins will it take to clinch a spot in 2020?

July 3rd, 2020

Baseball will look quite a bit different in 2020, in many ways. For one thing, the usual benchmarks are gone.

In a typical season, we have a pretty good idea what it means for a team to win 100 games, finish at .500, or lose 100. And we have a sense for where the line falls between serious contender and pretender.

Now we have a 60-game schedule. What does that mean for those standards? Maybe it’s as simple as prorating them -- in other words, 100 wins becomes 37. But perhaps it doesn’t translate quite so easily, given the way a shorter schedule could create more extreme outcomes.

Let’s explore that issue more deeply and answer the question of how many wins a team would need in 2020 to feel good about its postseason chances.

But first, some context. In the eight seasons since MLB adopted the two-Wild-Card system, expanding its playoff field from eight to 10, 80 teams have qualified for the postseason. Their median win total was 93.5.

In that time, 94 wins has meant punching a ticket to October, while 85 has been the threshold for getting a foot in the door. Here is a breakdown of the percentage of teams to make the playoffs by win total.

Percentage of teams to make the postseason
Since 2012
94 or more wins: 100% (40 of 40)
91-93 wins: 90.5% (19 of 21)
87-90 wins: 76% (19 of 25)
85-86 wins: 12.5% (2 of 16)
84 or fewer wins: 0% (0 of 138)

In the past eight seasons, the only teams to win 90-plus games and miss the playoffs have been the 2019 Indians (93-69), ‘18 Rays (90-72), ‘13 Rangers (91-72) and ‘12 Rays (90-72). (In ‘13, Texas lost a tiebreaker game to Tampa Bay). The only teams to fall short of 87 wins but still make it have been the ‘17 Twins (85-77) and ‘15 Astros (86-76). Both were Wild Cards.

The 2020 season will feature the same number of postseason qualifiers. But the dynamics will be a bit different.

To address what this will look like with the 60-game schedule, one could simply examine what past seasons have looked like after 60 games. In each of the eight seasons since the implementation of the second Wild Card expanded the playoff field to five teams per league, the club with its league’s fifth-best record through 60 games has always fallen between 30-34 victories, averaging between 32-33.

But rather than relying on past results, what if we looked forward? To do that, consulted FanGraphs senior writer Dan Szymborski, the developer of the ZiPS projection system. Based on those projections, here are Szymborski’s calculations of how likely it is that a certain win total will be good enough to net a team at least the second Wild Card spot in its league -- in other words, making the postseason.

(There are very slight differences between the American and National Leagues in this regard, but for the sake of simplicity, the numbers presented here are for all teams. They are rounded to the closest full win).

Keep hope alive (10% chance at playoffs)
Record: 32-28 (.533) / 162-game equivalent: 86-76
Will a .500 record be enough to crack the postseason picture in this strange season? Unlikely. It seems that 32 wins is about the minimum a team could wind up with and realistically hope to be competing in October. That would involve playing like the 2019 Mets, who finished sixth in the NL, three games out of a playoff spot. Sounds about right.

In the mix (30% chance at playoffs)
Record: 34-26 (.567) / 162-game equivalent: 92-70
Here is where the volatility of 2020 really starts to emerge. With 60 games, there is much less time for teams to regress toward the mean, and it’s much likelier that some will finish with extreme records. So while only one team in the past eight years has missed the playoffs with a winning percentage this high, it could easily happen this year.

Flip a coin (50% chance at playoffs)
Record: 35-25 (.583) / 162-game equivalent: 95-67
As mentioned, 95 wins has been a postseason guarantee since the second Wild Card was born. In fact, the 1999 Reds (96-67), who lost a Game 163 tiebreaker to the Mets, are the only team to miss the playoffs with 95-plus wins in the entire Wild Card era (since 1995). This year, however, a club with the same winning percentage would be just as likely to find itself excluded from the October festivities.

Feeling confident (70% chance at playoffs)
Record: 36-24 (.600) / 162-game equivalent: 97-65
A .600 winning percentage this season certainly would put a club in good position. But it would hardly bring the peace of mind that it would under normal circumstances. It’s hard to imagine the 2019 NL East-champion Braves (97-65) missing the playoffs, but a similar situation is a definite possibility here.

Almost a lock (90% chance at playoffs)
Record: 38-22 (.633) / 162-game equivalent: 103-59
Before the Wild Card entered the fold, teams this strong did sometimes get left out. Just ask Dusty Baker’s 1993 Giants, who went 103-59 but finished a game behind the Braves in what was then the NL West. Expanded playoffs made such unfortunate teams a thing of the past, and it’s likely that won’t change in 2020. A team that goes 38-22 is an overwhelming favorite to be included in the postseason.

But 90% is not 100%. So for a team that wants certainty, to make sure its spot in October is secure, 40 wins would be a safer target. A 40-20 record would be the equivalent of going 108-54 over 162 games, a feat last accomplished by the World Series champion 2018 Red Sox. Over a normal season, this .667 pace would have a team running away with a playoff spot. But in this season that is setting up to be anything but normal, it might be just enough.