September 30, 2022

Reflecting on the changes to the MLB playoff format

Many uncertainties surround this year’s offseason. Negotiations for the new collective agreement have been strained, and that leaves the sport in a precarious position where no one really knows what the rules might be for next season and beyond.

Over the next few months, the outlook is uncertain and many different topics and issues will be in the foreground. One of them is the question of the MLB playoff format.

The current Major League Baseball playoff system seems to be generally well regarded and a sentiment I share. However, there are a few aspects that need to be treated with a healthy sense of urgency. With that in mind, I’ll be looking at a few changes that baseball could use to improve their current system.

Again, the MLB playoffs don’t need major surgery, and I’m not going to come up with anything drastic that will have a huge impact on how the playoffs work today. On the contrary, I would like to propose adjustments that remain within the realm of the possible, even if there are obstacles in place.

The goal behind these changes is simply to try to make the playoffs as fair as possible, without taking anything away from the excitement and unpredictability of playoff baseball.

Here’s the first simple change MLB should consider:

Reseeding after the Wild Card round

The baseball playoffs could improve dramatically in terms of fairness if they were simply reseeded ahead of the divisional series. The reason for this change is very simple. You often hear about rewarding division winners and “punishing” Wild Card teams during the playoffs, but not rebooting after the Wild Card round goes too far.

The payoff for a division title, of course, is that the team goes straight to the Division Series. Wild Card teams must play an extra round. That in itself does enough to penalize teams that don’t win their division.

Take this year for example. The Giants have won 107 games and arguably had their best regular season. But because the two best teams in the NL played in the same division, San Francisco had to face the 106 victories. Los Angeles Dodgers in their first playoff series, after the Dodgers defeated the Cardinals in the Wild Card Game.

Had MLB been reseeded after the Dodgers Wild Card win, LA would have faced Milwaukee in the Division Series, and the Giants would have had a date with the (future champions) Braves. Atlanta sure did run, but if you had given the Giants the chance to face the All-Star Dodgers or the 88-game Braves a month ago, they certainly would have chosen Atlanta.

In the end, the current system just rewarded the team with the worst playoff record. Instead of punishing the Wild Card team, essentially, the number three seed who snuck into a weak division received an unfair reward.

We can even watch the Yankees to see how the playoff system might be changed. In 2018, the Yankees defeated Track and Field in the Wild Card Game and qualified to play the Red Sox on the division turn. It was actually unfair to Boston! The 108-winning Red Sox and the 100 Yankees faced off in the ALDS, while the second-seeded Astros took on the Cleveland team who had 91 wins and just won AL Central that year.

It’s a small change, but it could help make the playoffs run smoother. We’ll see soon enough what changes the MLB decides to make to its playoff structure as the CBA talks progress.

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