If you want to make a prediction that’s sure to be right, here are two simple rules: DON’T predict MLB playoff results, no matter how good or bad the teams are. Expect a certain subset of baseball fans with really big megaphones to be reflexively hostile to change.
Three of baseball’s four 100-win teams were eliminated from the playoffs in the first two rounds, two by the 89-win San Diego Padres and one by the 87-win Philadelphia Phillies. Before the two conquering underdogs could meet to begin their National League championship series, the threat known as anecdotal evidence forced the baseball world to stop and debate whether their invigorating victories were really bad.
The confusion seems to stem from the confluence of two events: a new playoff format taking effect this season and the Los Angeles Dodgers – winners of 111 regular season games and the strongest of the fallen favorites – losing before even arriving in the NLCS. As you will see, these are unrelated events, but when two Twitter users with 3.8 million combined subscribers rub them together they can quite start the fire.
In short, a lot of people were suddenly outraged that the World Series didn’t necessarily crown baseball’s best team as champions. And it’s true, the World Series does not crown the best team. The MLB playoffs — especially since the introduction of the joker in 1995 — aren’t designed to find the best team in baseball. They’re designed to send a collection of baseball’s top teams crashing into each other for dramatic effect.
It’s not a product of the new playoff format, though. It’s a product of the playoffs in general.
What MLB’s New Playoff Format Really Changed
Since there seems to be some confusion, here’s what really changed in the MLB playoffs this season: where each league had allowed two wildcard teams in addition to the three division winners, there are now three. Instead of a one-match, win-win battle between the two jokers, there is now a round known as the joker streak. On either side of the bracket, three-game series pit the weaker division winner against the weaker wildcard team, then the top two wildcard teams against each other.
The top two division winners in each league get a bye to the Division Series, where they would have started their playoffs anyway under the old format. They had a longer than usual layoff between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, but that would generally be considered an advantage and we don’t have enough information or enough pattern to Say the opposite.
Let’s see what the NL field would have looked like if we had adapted this season’s results to the format that reigned from 2012 to 2021:
The loser of that game would have faced the Padres in a wild card game for the right to face the Dodgers.
The winner of the NL East tiebreaker would have advanced to the best of five NLDS against the Cardinals of St. Louiswho themselves would have reached this stage automatically instead of playing a best-of-three series.
The only thing that would have definitely changed the result? The Phillies wouldn’t have made the playoffs at all and therefore wouldn’t have eliminated the Cardinals and Braves.
What the numbers say about MLB playoff upsets
The consternation over the changes would lead you to believe they introduced the chaos that toppled the titans. But that’s just not the case. The best teams lose all the time in October.
Since 1995, when a fourth team was added to each league’s playoff field, 40 teams have won 100 games. Of the 39 whose seasons have ended (this season Astros plug in right away, unfazed by the new format that’s supposed to kill favorites), here’s how far they’ve gone:
Lost in World Series: 6
Lost in Championship Series: 8
Lost in Division Series: 19
Lost in wild card round: 1 (Sorry, Mets fans)
Nearly half of them descended into ALDS or NLDS! Of those, 17 lost to teams with worse records – winning upstarts arrived with 8.47 fewer regular-season wins, on average.
We can also expand the focus to look at teams with the best records in their leagues, as not every season features a 100-win team, and recently many seasons have featured multiple 100-win teams that couldn’t all be the best. . (If you want to raise an issue with the playoff setup, maybe drop one for the relatively recent phenomenon of 100-win teams being forced to play other 100-win teams in that first round. That includes the series Giants-Dodgers 2021, as well as Yankees-Twins in 2019 and Yankees-Red Sox in 2018.)
Of the 57 teams since 1995 that have finished the regular season atop the AL or NL heap (including teams tied for honor), it’s a similar story.
The Padres, winners of 89 games, aren’t even particularly notable as underdogs. Braves from last year – remember them? – knocked out a 106-win Dodgers team en route to their World Series title after winning 88 games. The 2001 Seattle Mariners, who had 116 wins, lost to a 95-win Yankees team in the ALCS.
Remember, under the 2012-21 format, the Padres could have easily won a wildcard game against the Mets and ended up in the same game against the Dodgers.
It’s definitely not the extra teams that create problems for the favorites. The top teams fared better from 2012 to 2021 – when two wildcard teams had to play against each other instead of the top wildcard team going straight through a series of divisions. From 1995 to 2011, only 30.6% of the top regular season teams reached the World Series. From 2012 to 2021, 45% have succeeded.
The best teams, if any, improve. But no one can do anything against the whims of a short series. The margins between a bad MLB team, an OK MLB team, and a good MLB team are small enough that we need, you know, 162 games to sort it out. More than three to five games? Between two good teams? There is practically no margin.
Some on Twitter have called for expanding the Division Series to the best of seven, both the final two rounds of the playoffs, but that wouldn’t make a big difference. As NFL analyst Michael Lopez pointed out on Twitterto match the NBA’s rate of best team advancing in a playoff round, baseball would have to play the best streak of 75 (!!!).
In fact, to do that would be ridiculous. The answer, if the whole goal of the league was to find and crown the best team, would be a Premier League-style system where the regular season is the whole kit and caboodle. But that’s not the goal of the league, and it never has been.
As an entertainment commodity — competing with the NFL, NBA, and countless other options — MLB needs the tension under pressure and release in what we’ve seen in San Diego and Philadelphia this weekend. He has to sell hope to a few dozen fanbases, offering the more realistic possibility of being better than the Dodgers for four days when passing them for four months is next to impossible. It needs playoff baseball, a super-dense version of the game that evokes extreme states of play – the singing summer game sucked into a black hole and re-enacted as a cage game.
There are fair arguments to be made about how high the playoff threshold is to encourage maximum competitiveness, and whether the sport should be doing more to recognize regular-season excellence before throwing everyone on a fundamentally equal playing field. There are a LOT of arguments that wouldn’t happen at all if we could recognize what three losses really says about a team with 111 wins. But there is no doubt: the sport would be less entertaining and less popular without the playoffs.
Disruptions, at this point, are just part of the tradition.