December 2, 2022

New MLB playoff format rewards mediocrity without adding drama


With about a week and a half until the playoffs start and the playoff teams already almost determined, Major League Baseball has to accept the truth.

Its new postseason format did little to increase the end-of-season intrigue.

This is the first year the league has let 12 teams into the game, and it’s easy to see who at least 11 of those teams will be. The race for the final National League wild card spot is the only do-or-die scenario, and even that isn’t as juicy as fans hope. The So-So Milwaukee Brewers arrive Monday — which kicks off the last full week of the regular season — 1.5 games behind the Phillies for the final playoff spot.

The San Diego Padres are only a game and a half ahead of the Phillies, so it’s certainly not impossible for them to miss the playoffs. But there is no doubt that the last two NL wild card spots (the Braves or the Mets will get the first) will go to two teams in the San Diego group, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. After the Brewers, the next team in the standings is the San Francisco Giants, who are under .500. In terms of talent, the Brewers are much closer to these Giants than legitimate NL contenders.

In the American League, there’s an even bigger gap. The Seattle Mariners currently occupy the final seat on the ship, with the Baltimore Orioles four games away. Seattle also owns the tiebreaker over the Orioles — if two teams finish with the same record, their regular season head-to-head matchups determine who would make the playoffs, not a tiebreaker — so that the lead is more like five games. Again, the next team in line is under .500, with the Chicago White Sox floundering at 76-77.

Rather than the expanded playoffs keeping more teams in the hunt, less is shown to be more when issuing playoff invites. It’s both becoming increasingly clear that there aren’t 12 really good MLB teams, and that limiting wild card spots to two or one allows for a better finish. Under last year’s format, which gave playoff entry to two wildcard teams in each league instead of three, the battle for last place in the NL would be a bloodbath right now. San Diego, Philadelphia and Milwaukee are separated by just three games in total in the loss column, giving each team a realistic chance to trade places with each other on the stretch, whether that means climbing the standings or the to make fall.

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If these three teams fought for one spot rather than two, all of their remaining games would be that much tenser, creating the exact situation that MLB wants. Instead, the Phillies are 3-7 in their last ten games and haven’t lost their spot in the playoff bracket. Last year, San Diego passing them would mean the Padres would come in while the Phillies would stay home. This year it’s just the difference between the fifth and sixth seed, and you can make a very convincing case that the sixth seed is better anyway.

The Mariners also had the newfound luxury of playing very poorly for most of September without hurting their playoff chances. The M’s are 11-11 this month, having recently lost series to the Angels, Athletics and Royals. It would usually be a code red disaster at this point in the schedule. But with the team extra wild card now, the Mariners’ odds of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, have dropped from 97.3% to September 1st at…99.9% on September 26.

In other words, treading water has proven to be just as effective as winning games. Due to the fact that there are simply fewer games left on the schedule now than there were at the start of the month, and the teams behind them aren’t particularly playoff-worthy either, the Mariners and Phillies were able to play below average baseball for weeks. without having to worry too much about it costing them their playoff shot. Philadelphia is 10-11 in September, a month that saw them go on a three-game losing streak and a five-game losing streak. That’s okay, because nestling in the sixth seed means avoiding the Mets or Braves in the first round and not seeing the Dodgers until a possible National League Championship Series.

Same goes for the Mariners, who, if they end up in the sixth seed, will face Cleveland in the first round instead of Tampa Bay or Toronto. Beating Cleveland, who they went 6-1 against this year, would then earn the Mariners a date with the far more beatable Yankees rather than the death machine in Houston.

So, for those keeping score at home, the new format will let mediocre teams make the playoffs, did nothing to increase the drama of late September, and in some ways provided an incentive to be an underseed. . The team with the worst record among their league’s division winners isn’t even guaranteed a division series anymore. This year, that means the Guardians and Cardinals could both go home in the wildcard round rather than get the five-game streak they deserve for winning their division. The fifth seed in the National League is also a little punished, as she will face the wild card round against the Mets or the Braves, who could both achieve 100 wins.

This Mets-Braves power struggle is one of the best things right now, but a tussle for the NL East crown would have been possible last year, the year before and 20 years before that. The new playoff bracket had no impact on divisional runs, which MLB knew. But that too, tragically, seems to have had no impact on wild card racing either. Although Milwaukee is still technically heavily involved, for weeks it feels like we know exactly who will make the playoffs, the only question is what order they will finish in.

Maybe next year will bring a bit more spice to the end of the season, but this year may be a definite whiff.

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