How to play ESPN’s Playoff Baseball Classic

Welcome to the ESPN Playoff Baseball Classic!

This brand-new, free-to-play game gives you the chance to win up to $5,000 in prizes, by answering a series of prediction-based questions about the Major League Baseball postseason. Each round, beginning with the Wild Card Series on Tuesday, Sept. 29, and running through the conclusion of the World Series on Wednesday, Oct. 28 (or up to three days sooner, depending upon how many games are required), you’ll receive a new set of questions to answer. Play against your friends, family or co-workers, while you do your best to climb the overall leaderboard and claim the grand prize!

The questions for the Wild Card Round, which runs from Tuesday, Sept. 29 through Friday, Oct. 2, are currently ready for play. They cover a variety of different question types: Series winners, individual player accomplishments, “who will have the most” queries and more. Be sure to answer each question no later than the deadline listed above each one. This means that for American League-centric questions, answers for the Wild Card Round must be submitted by Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 12 p.m. ET, while National League-centric questions have a deadline of Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 12 p.m. ET, due to those series starting one day later.

New questions will be posted as each new series approaches. The Division Series are scheduled to begin on Monday, Oct. 5, the League Championship Series on Sunday, Oct. 11, and the World Series on Tuesday, Oct. 20, so check back before each and heed the deadlines listed above each new question.

OK, so game play is fun and all that, but how about some tips on how to win this thing? Consider all of the following as you fill out your entry.

It’s a different kind of postseason

The 2020 postseason is unlike any other that preceded it. With COVID-19 forcing a shortened, 60-game regular season, the postseason field was expanded by three teams in both leagues, for a grand total of 16 participants (out of 30). All first- and second-place teams within baseball’s six divisions advanced to the postseason, along with the teams with the two next-best records, regardless of their divisions. As a result, here are some of the wrinkles to this year’s postseason you might not yet have considered.

  • What was formerly the Wild Card Game, matching the two wild-card teams from each league squaring off in a one-game, winner-takes-all contest, has now expanded to three-game Wild Card Series — and all 16 teams will participate. These games will all be played on consecutive days — Sept. 29-Oct. 1 for the American League, and Sept. 30-Oct. 2 for the National League — with the team owning the better seed hosting all three games at their home stadium.

  • Beginning with the Division Series, games will move to neutral sites, a change from past years’ arrangements that had games played in the home parks of the participating clubs. The American League will play at San Diego’s Petco Park (both the Division and League Championship Series) and Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium (Division only). The National League will play at Texas’ Globe Life Field (Division and League Championship) and Houston’s Minute Maid Park (Division only).

  • There will be no days off between any games within any individual series this postseason. In the past, there had traditionally been a “travel day” between games when the location shifted from one site to another.

  • Unlike in other sports, there is no re-seeding as the rounds progress. The winner of the No. 1 versus No. 8 Wild Card Series is aligned to play the winner of Nos. 4-5 in the Division Series, even if the Nos. 6 and 7 seeds advance in the other series.

  • The designated hitter will be in effect for all games, just as it was during the regular season.

  • Extra innings will be handled as they were during past seasons, with each inning beginning with no one on base and no outs, rather than the “runner on second base” starting point we saw during the regular season.

Wild things can happen

Expanding the playoff field exposes the highest-seeded teams to a fourth round of play and increases the chances of fluky, unexpected happenings.

Remember, it takes two victories to advance from the Wild Card Series and, while an eight-seed has to do it on the road against a one-seed, it’s not unthinkable that a team which advances to the postseason on a high (due to a hot final weekend of the regular season that earned it that coveted eight-seed) could ride said momentum into an opening-series upset. Supporting that point, of the 16 winners of the Wild Card Game in its eight years of existence (2012-19), seven subsequently upset the one-seed in the Division Series, and two of them — the 2014 San Francisco Giants and the 2019 Washington Nationals — wound up winning the World Series.

Keep in mind, too, that those teams had to win three games in the Division Series, against rested one-seeds, and after having taxed their own pitching staffs merely to advance. This year, all teams — barring a possible makeup game for the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, Sept. 28 — will enter with the same number of rest days. Therefore, if you have a gut feeling about a lower seed “upsetting” a higher seed, go for it! History says it’s likely to happen in at least one series.

Pitching depth might prove the difference

With no days off within a series, pitching depth will be tested more than it has ever been before in the game’s history. Teams traditionally prefer to give starting pitchers four days rest (or more). In fact, only 72 pitchers all year worked on three-or-fewer days rest, and more than half of those were “openers” (relievers who only briefly worked the start of the game). As such, we might see five-man rotations widely used during the Division, League Championship and World Series.

That limited rest might also influence bullpen strategies, as it decreases a team’s ability to piece playoff games together with hard-throwing short relievers. Mike Mayers of the Los Angeles Angels is the only reliever who was asked to work on as many as four consecutive days during the 2020 regular season, and only two relievers worked on as many as three consecutive days during the 2019 postseason.

This is not going to be a postseason where 3-4 dominating arms can carry a playoff series. It’s much more likely to require team-wide efforts. With that in mind, here are the ranked, regular-season ERAs of the 22 teams that remained alive in the postseason race (entering play on Sept. 24):

Los Angeles Dodgers 3.08, Cleveland Indians 3.19, Minnesota Twins 3.52, Chicago White Sox 3.60, Tampa Bay Rays 3.67, Oakland Athletics 3.70, San Diego Padres 3.83, Cincinnati Reds 3.85, Chicago Cubs 3.89, Cardinals 4.04, Milwaukee Brewers 4.16, Houston Astros 4.23, New York Yankees 4.38, Atlanta Braves 4.44, Giants 4.64, Toronto Blue Jays 4.70, New York Mets 4.83, Miami Marlins 4.94, Angels 4.97, Philadelphia Phillies 5.12, Seattle Mariners 5.15, Colorado Rockies 5.52.

How do the rotations stack up?

This might be the most important postseason in history in which to evaluate each team’s rotation. One way I like to do this is to take the formulas from my Forecaster, and apply them to all of the projected postseason rotations. Eliminating all ballpark factors or matchups (in other words, evaluating all starters from a pure skills perspective) and projecting a full, five-man rotation for each club, here is the order in which the Forecaster grades the 22 rotations:

Rays, Padres (note that this assumes a healthy Mike Clevinger), Dodgers, Indians, Yankees, Reds, Mets, Twins, Cardinals, Astros, Cubs, Brewers, Blue Jays, Phillies, Marlins, White Sox, Athletics, Angels, Giants, Braves, Mariners, Rockies.

What about the offenses?

It has often been said, “Pitching wins championships.” That said, especially in a year where more of the back-end of pitching staffs will be asked to work, the offenses might play a bigger role in 2020 than in postseasons past.

Using runs scored-per-game as the measure, here are how the 22 teams rank in order: Braves, Dodgers, Padres, Yankees, Phillies, White Sox, Giants, Angels, Blue Jays, Mets, Rays, Athletics, Astros, Rockies, Twins, Marlins, Brewers, Cubs, Cardinals, Mariners, Indians, Reds.

The Forecaster, for the most part, concurs. It is, however, a bit more bullish on the Astros and Cardinals, and much more lukewarm on the Cubs, a team that struggled mightily with the bat in September.

What do the oddsmakers say?

(Note: All mentions of Caesars sportsbook odds are as of Sept. 24.)

Interestingly, while the Dodgers are the sportsbook’s overwhelming favorite to win the World Series at +275, both the sportsbook’s League Championship and World Series odds hint that it expects a much greater chance of an upset happening in the National League than in the American League. Five AL teams have tightly bunched AL championship odds — Athletics +350, Yankees +350, White Sox +400, Twins +425 and Rays +425 — while the fourth-seeded Padres have the second-best NL championship odds at +450.

What’s curious about that is the prospect that someone will probably draw a Wild Card Series assignment against the Reds and their strong one-two-three of Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, which might prove to be the most challenging matchup from among the bottom-four seeds in either league. The Indians, however, with their Shane Bieber-Zach Plesac-Carlos Carrasco trio, could also end up as a tricky matchup.

The Marlins, depending upon their Wild Card Series matchup, also have an apparent “upset” lean, the sportsbook having them as +1000 to win the National League pennant, the fifth-best odds in that league. They’re severely lacking in terms of experience, but might continue to ride their feel-good story into a strong showing in a short series.

On to the individual-player picks!

For the Wild Card Series, there are four player-specific questions. For each of these, as well as any that pop up in the subsequent rounds, knowledge of the players’ matchups themselves can go a long way towards giving you an edge.

Which of these players will record the most extra-base hits in the Wild Card Series: Jose Abreu, Nelson Cruz, Matt Olson or Luke Voit?

In terms of isolated power, a statistical category that only rewards players for extra-base production, Voit is this group’s regular-season leader (.347), followed by Abreu (.316), Cruz (.309) and Olson (.249). Voit, too, has an overwhelming league-leading .505 isolated power in his home games, and Yankee Stadium’s home-run friendly environment is sure to make him a popular pick, despite his being less of a “name brand” than the others. He might, however, be the only one of these four tasked with playing his Wild Card Series on the road, where he has mere .192 isolated power. Abreu and Cruz, meanwhile, could benefit from drawing an opening-round matchup with an Astros team that has struggled with pitching injuries this season, boosting their prospects here.

Will Gerrit Cole record a win in the Wild Card Series?

Cole will get only one start during the series, so your answer comes down to whether you think he’ll pitch deep enough in his Game 1 start and get the run support needed in order to secure a win. Considering Cole notched a win in 58% (7-of-12) of his regular-season starts, he’s in good shape, but he’s likely going to be pitted against the Minnesota’s Kenta Maeda (55%), Chicago’s Lucas Giolito (33%) or Cleveland’s Shane Bieber (67%), so there’s a real chance that his start could go down to a battle of the bullpens. Go with your gut here.

Which of these pitchers will record the most strikeouts in the Wild Card Series: Yu Darvish, Max Fried, Clayton Kershaw or Dinelson Lamet?

On a per-start basis during the regular season, Lamet (8.1) averaged the most strikeouts, followed by Darvish (8.0), Kershaw (6.6) and Fried (4.5). That would seem to make Fried the “one of these things is not like the others” option, while Kershaw’s so-so postseason history (6.3 K’s per career postseason start) probably works against him here. Still, as each of these pitchers seems likely to make exactly one start during the Wild Card Series, the matchups themselves might drive your decision-making. Consider that the Brewers (26.6% rate) and Reds (25.2%) rank among the most strikeout-prone teams in baseball, and their numbers in September alone are 26.9% and 27.9%. Conversely, the Giants have struck out only 21.5% of the time this season, and 20.2% in September, so that would influence your decision in the opposite direction.

Will Mookie Betts hit a home run in the Wild Card Series?

Entering play on Sept. 24, Betts had homered once every 3 1/2 Dodgers games, which would seem to give him strong odds of going deep during the Wild Card Series. Another factor to consider is that, from 2018-20, Betts has homered in 5.4% of his trips to the plate against right-handers — compared to 3.6% of his plate appearances against left-handers. Among prospective Wild Card Series opponents, the Reds, Brewers and Phillies all project to have entirely right-handed rotations for their three games.

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