If you were to design a playoff format from scratch for a 30-team baseball league, what would it look like? How many teams would you invite? How many rounds would precede the championship? How many games would there be in each round? Could the Angels ‘loan’ Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani to the highest bidder for a month?
MLB’s new 12-team, four-round experience is one week old. The wild card round, which consisted of three two-game sweeps, quickly made history. What’s left on the baseball calendar will be mostly familiar to fans, minus a few travel days. Until then, we should probably withhold judgment on whether MLB “got the job.”
As for me, I’ve seen enough. To make the October version of the sport more entertaining, I’m a fan.
As a measure of teams’ fitness – an attempt to crown the most legitimate champion in the US and national leagues – I remain skeptical.
In Southern California, we are subjected to annual laments over the failure of the Angels to feature Trout and Ohtani in the playoffs enough to fill a tome of the Old Testament. Not having a wildcard spot again only heightened the pre-existing frustrations of those inside and outside of the angel organization.
Consider for a moment, though, who benefited from the expanded playoffs. We received a Philadelphia Phillies club with a real, known player — rare in baseball — and the stigma of the National League’s longest playoff drought.
In the AL, the wildcard third team (the Tampa Bay Rays) featured a Game 1 starter (Shane McClanahan) who was arguably the best pitcher in his league when healthy. Game 2 featured a former Cy Young Award winner (Corey Kluber) against his old team, and it wasn’t over until a 15th inning home run earned a 1-0 win, ending the streak for the Cleveland Guardians.
At least in Year 1 of the 12-team experiment, we have to admit that Trout and Ohtani are the exceptions to the rule of stars missing the playoffs. Between Aaron Judge, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Yordan Alvarez, Juan Soto, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Jose Ramirez, Bryce Harper, Albert Pujols, Julio Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole, Freddie Freeman – I’ll stop there, you get the picture – this playoff has no shortage of stars young and old.
If that was the main goal of inviting more teams into the playoff dance, mission accomplished. Yes, that’s a long way from the days when AL and NL champions qualified directly for the World Series with no intermediate rounds required. Maybe that’s a good thing.
The other big North American team sports – the NFL, NBA and NHL – have an easier time bringing their biggest stars onto their sport’s biggest stage. This is because a greater percentage of the team is likely to score a point on the board at any time. More offensive players are on the playing surface at all times. You’re more likely to see a star player take control of a game and lead their team to victory. It’s all in the rulebook.
Baseball doesn’t have that luxury. Exactly 11% of your starting lineup – one in nine – has a chance of getting a hit when your team is at bat. That leaves an 89% chance that your star hitter won’t be in the batting box at the big time.
The playoffs are less watchable when the best players are left out. NASCAR – a sport whose individualistic orientation more closely mimics baseball – seemed to understand this when it all but built a playoff series into its schedule, ensuring that the best individual drivers would be elevated above the worst for the final months of the season.
It was 18 years ago. MLB only expanded its playoff field from eight to 10 teams in 2012. The pace of change has accelerated over the past decade, but that perception is exacerbated by the glacial pace of change under the commissioner. Bud Selig and his predecessors. But forget the rhythm. The main question is, as always: was this latest change for the better?
Not if you’re the St. Louis Cardinals, who just became the MLB First Division champion to be knocked out in a wild card game or streak. The reward of being the third best division champion in each league is hardly a reward.
Again, the same could be said for teams with the best two records in each league. Five days off after the regular season can be more of a curse than a gift. Three of the four teams that earned a first-round bye took longer than usual to get their sticks working in their Division Series opener — victims, perhaps, of a long layoff. foot that disrupted their timing.
The best way to increase the integrity of the playoffs while increasing the number of games played would have been to make the Division Series a best-of-seven affair. This would have come at the cost of including more teams and potentially more star players.
The choice between integrity and star power truly presents a dilemma. I don’t know if MLB made the right call, but I really enjoyed the first week of games. Maybe that’s all that matters.