As I type this post, the Yankees (99-63) and Guardians (92-70) are warming up for the deciding Game 5 in the ALDS to determine who will get the opportunity to face Houston (106-56), the top seed and the AL team with the best regular season record, in the ALCS. In just a few hours, the Phillies (87-75) and Padres (89-73) meet in Game 1 of the NLCS. Free to enjoy a round of golf, an ugly cry over Ben & Jerry’s, or a vengeful Twitter rant are members and fans of the Rays (86-76), Mariners (90-72), Blue Jays (92-70), Cardinals (93-69), Braves (101-61), Mets (101-61), and Dodgers (111-51), all of whom were escorted out in earlier rounds of the postseason than they hoped they would reach.
(Tired of the rambling? Skip straight to the recipe for MLB postseason success.)
Since we face the possibility of 3 of 4 MLB Championship Series teams coming from the shallow half of the 12-team postseason pool, some people naturally want to beg the question, “Should MLB fix the postseason?” by asking the question, “How should we go about fixing MLB’s postseason?“
Before we get too far into this fun little flurry of fan fiction, let me be clear about one thing: MLB’s postseason is just fine, in my opinion.
The opening Wild Card round? Four games a day for, potentially, three straight days? Sorry not sorry, that turned out AWESOME. Sure, Mets and Cardinals fans would have preferred another outcome but I didn’t mind it. Would a Mets/Dodgers NLDS been fun? Sure, that may have been superior baseball, but in this version, the Mets, Dodgers, and Cardinals all lost. Fix that? Forgive me if I’m slow to jump out of my chair.
(No worries, Goliath fans, during a lengthy break from writing, the Yankees escaped into the ALCS to set up another boring-ass matchup with the Astros.)
From an unbiased standpoint, I’ll just add that baseball isn’t designed to have the best team win in the postseason. Tangotiger explains the nitty gritty of the numbers behind the luck factor, but suffice it to say that for an individual game, baseball is the most luck-dependent of any major American sport. That’s why MLB plays a 162-game schedule, to remove all doubt about who the best teams are. They actually have a pretty nice idea of who the best teams are after 69 games, so the length of the season is probably overkill (this will come into play for a few of our alternative postseason ideas).
Now, I say who the best teams are because the regular season, long as it is, doesn’t necessarily tell us who the very best team is. For one, the rigorous duration of the regular season (and the deadline trade frenzy that occurs midway through this luck-defying marathon) metamorphosizes the field of competition. To take our beloved Cubs, for instance. After the first 69 games (26-43) they had a winning percentage of .376. In their final 69 games (38-31) they had a winning percentage of .551. They were a vastly different team at the end of the season than what they were at the beginning. It’s hard to fathom the difference, given the fact that they purged the best of their bullpen midway through the year, but the team that emerged was a superior squad.
I know what you’re going to say, or at least I know what I want to say, and that’s to point out that the schedule the Cubs played at the beginning is very different than the one they played at the end, and I’m so glad you brought that up. Divisional play in the regular season, not postseason format, is the biggest enemy of determining MLB’s true champion. When the 162-game season is unbalanced, with 76 of those games coming against 4 divisional opponents, it becomes somewhat difficult to compare the apples of NL Central teams’ records with the oranges of the NL West. Thankfully, MLB has already done something about unbalanced schedules. Beginning next season, everybody’s going to play everybody else, and the resulting schedule will level the playing field considerably.
As a result of the adjusted schedule, teams within the same division will have 91% of their games in common, an increase from 84% under the old schedule. Schedules among teams in the same league will feature 76% of common opponents, up from 52% in an unbalanced schedule.Mark Feinsand, https://www.mlb.com/news/more-interleague-games-on-balanced-schedule
While I’d prefer getting rid of divisions altogether, this is a big deal for the credibility of regular-season records. 123 games in common (versus a 39-game aberration from interdivisional norms) is probably as uniform as we can really expect MLB schedules to be. How that plays out logistically for players and fans remains to be seen, but I like it. More than anything, I like that MLB is fiddling with its seasons (regular and post-).
For all the pearl-clutching traditionalists who bemoan every change, I’ll remind you that racism, collusion, and substance abuse have reigned as some of baseball’s longest-enduring traditions. We can wax nostalgic about the baseball memories we love without being wedded to the sordid system that produced them.
All that said, I think Major League Baseball is in a really good place as far as its April-November schedule is concerned. Is it possible the Mets were the best team in baseball but were foiled by the crazy luck involved in a best-of-three Wild Card Series? Totally. Is it possible the same could be true of the Braves or Dodgers but with a quick exit in a not-all-that-less-luck-dependent best-of-five NLDS? Sure. Is it still possible that the Astros are baseball’s truly best team but will lose to the Yankees who prove to be better, luckier, or bigger cheaters over the course of a still really, really luck-dominated best-of-seven series? Of course. But it’s still a hell of a lot better than the system that left the 1993 Giants (103-59) out of the postseason altogether.
The problems with MLB’s schedule and postseason, summarized
I’m just going to catalog the biggest gripes (with no commentary about their popularity or validity) about the way MLB runs its postseason (and season) now along with some criticisms of past scenarios and proposals for the future:
- 162 games is too long of a regular season
- 12 teams is too many teams to make the postseason
- Giving teams who obviously weren’t the best team in baseball a chance at winning a postseason crapshoot devalues the regular season
- A small playoff field gives lesser teams no incentive to improve
- A large playoff field gives better teams no incentive to excel
- 12 playoff teams is basically the NBA or NHL but somehow worse because look at all these regular season games
- This is all a big cash grab
- Divisions render the regular season record meaningless
- Doing away with divisions would render the regular season unwatchable
- Every division has a winner, even if it consists entirely of losers
- The regular season is so long that a team in October bears little resemblance to the same team in April
- That same team probably goes through a significant, immediate metamorphosis at the trade deadline
- A team who has to exhaust their pitching staffs might enter the postseason in terrible shape to compete
- A team who coasts at the end of the season and/or gets a WC-round bye might enter the postseason in terrible shape to compete
- MLB owners would never go for (insert whatever the best solution would be)
- MLB players would never go for (insert whatever the best solution would be)
It ain’t broke, let’s fix it
Whatever your reason might be for wanting to reformat the postseason or MLB in general, here are a few alternatives to the current system. We’ll start with some that could be incorporated into the league without dramatically altering the way the league is constructed. We’ll propose a few ideas for really blowing everything up later.
Old School Wild Card but Best of Seven
Baseball could go back to the era of an 8-team postseason: three division winners and one wild card team per league. No more one-game elimination rounds or best-of-three or even best-of-five series that seem to make the playoffs extra hazardous for 100-game winners. Just let the regular season speak for itself. This format would honor the merits of the marathon accomplishment of each league’s best full-season performance by requiring any challengers at the very least to beat them four times out of seven.
I don’t hate it. I don’t particularly like it because in any given season there is no guarantee whatsoever that every division will include among its members a team that truly deserves to make the postseason more than 11 other teams in their league. The thing I love about a 12- or even 14-team postseason with 3 or 4 Wild Card teams is that it greatly reduces or eliminates the possibility that a team misses the postseason despite being better than one or more of their league’s division winners.
Optional twist: If the best team in either league finishes 10 full games ahead of the would-be wild card team, said wild card would be denied entry into the postseason. And yes, this would have eliminated the Mets in 2022 as well, though I would propose the tiebreaker game would need to reenter the system to prevent something like that from happening were this twist introduced.
Less twisty principle: Insisting that the Divisional Series and League Championship Series be best of seven (at least) can be applied to pretty much any idea, but doing so constrains what will work logistically within the window Mother Nature allots for playing outdoor baseball games in some parts of the country.
The 14-team Option
The 3-game WC, 5-game DS, 7-game LCS, and 7-game WS format can proceed as is with 14 or even 16 teams involved. MLB’s original proposal for postseason expansion was a 14-team option in which only the teams with the very best record in each league received 1st-round byes and there were six opening rounds of Wild Card games. There was also a twist allowing each wild-card-playing divisional winner to choose which team they’d face in the opening round.
I’m glad MLB kept it to 12 teams. Two first-round byes in each league just feels right to me, but I wouldn’t have hated it had each league welcomed another team. Does the added risk of yet two more divisional winners losing it all because of back-to-back losses outweigh the plus of seeing two more fanbases have a little bit more baseball to watch in October? Probably not. But I contend that the advantage of hosting all three games at the divisional winner’s (or top Wild Card’s) home field is significant enough to make it not a ridiculous risk.
Optional Twist: Give the divisional winners a 1-0 advantage to begin the Wild Card Series to make quick upsets that much less likely. My main objection is puke. No advantage should include runs that never actually scored or games that never actually took place.
Offseason Twist: One proposal was to further incentivize teams to actually try to win their divisions (as opposed to just coasting into the postseason because it’s all a big crapshoot anyway) was to award the each league’s best regular-season team with more crap to shoot, ie an entry in the lottery for the top six picks in the next year’s draft. It’s an interesting way of compensating a team for having a postseason that’s riskier than their record would otherwise promise. I actually kind of like the idea of awarding it not to the team with the best record but to teams ejected prematurely from the postseason. If you win your division but lose in the Wild Card Series, you get entered along with the 16 nonplayoff teams in that lottery.
The Wild Card games and Divisional Series typically take about 10 games to complete. You could eliminate just as many teams with even more games played by having a round-robin tournament in each league. If 6 teams from each league participated, every team could play the other five teams twice apiece, 10 games in 12 days. (You could make this work with any number of teams involved.) Top two teams advance to the LCS with tiebreaker games as needed.
This is my baby. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen in this or any of the other iterations suggested because no major American sports team does it. We’ve probably played in a Little League, softball, or volleyball tournament with a round robin starter, and that whole World Cup event has a similar feature, but baseball? Professional baseball? Yes, I think it would be great. You could weight home-team advantage, and there would be two weeks with 4-6 games every day.
Or, you could get a lot more creative with it if you also changed up the regular season. Here are some fun ways to do that and to open up the postseason to a whole new world of exciting possibilities.
Shorten the Season
A 162-game season constrains our creativity quite a bit, but the postseason could be a lot more entertaining (without compromising the meritocracy with which it crowns its champions) if they shortened the nonpostseason to 144 games or fewer.
Or it could be boring
Keep everything as it currently is but make all the series longer. 5- (or 7-) game WC. 7-game DS. 7-game LCS. 7-game WS. This gets us into NBA and NHL territory, so whatever. This somewhat reduces the crapshoot effect, but not by as much as everyone wants. Luck is still a bigger factor in baseball than it is in other sports, so slightly longer series would still produce a lot of underdog victories. I love that, but a lot of current Dodgers fans and 1990s Braves fans really super hate it. Cleveland Indians fans would like to know why none of the lucky roads lead to Cleveland, though now that I put it like that they totally get it.
Round Robin + 7-Game LDS +7-Game LCS + 7-Game WS
Ok, no, this is my baby. In this setup, every team makes the postseason. Each division winner will “host” a pool of five teams. They select the teams that will be in their respective pools, and those five teams play each other three times apiece. The team with the best regular-season record in each league automatically advances along with the top team in each pool (if the best regular-season team also wins their pool, the second-place team with the best record advances as well) but the team records in the opening round would determine seeding and home-field advantage for the LDS, LCS, and World Series with regular-season record being the tiebreaker in every case. (e.g. if every team went 6-6 in the Opening Round Robin, the teams with the best regular-season records would advance, seeded according to those records.)
I like this system because it a) rewards the team in the AL and NL achieving the best regular-season records; b) rewards the teams who have become the best at the end of the season; c) allows the fans of even the crappiest teams to enjoy a slight window of hope and optimism.
Optional twist: if a division winner doesn’t win their pool, the winner of the pool must defeat them in a one-game playoff to advance to the LDS, essentially giving all division winners a baker’s dozen worth of games to salvage their place in the playoffs.
Split the Season
Another way to improve obliterate the current postseason format would be to cut the season in half (or so). Since we know as few as 69 games would give us a pretty accurate understanding of who the better teams are, MLB could play an 81-game season and then take things in a few different directions to determine how to arrive at a champion.
1981 Two-Halves Scenario
A strike midway through the 1981 MLB season forced baseball to get creative with their postseason. (This was the first year I knew what baseball was, so it might have something to do with my obsession with constantly changing the playoff structure.) At that time there were just two divisions in each league. When play resumed after the strike, they just decided to zero out everyone’s records and start a second half. The division winners from the first half squared off against their second-half counterparts in an 8-team playoff. The Division Series and the League Championship Series were both best-of-five. (As luck would have it, the NL West first-half champion Dodgers won the World Series that year despite finishing in 4th place and just a game above .500 in the second half.)
MLB could make that a thing and simply add a first-round bye to the two teams in each league with the best overall record. This approach would probably change the trade deadline in a really weird way in that teams who secured a place in the postseason wouldn’t have to try to improve themselves at all in the second half and teams who lost damn near every single game wouldn’t have to become sellers and could become buyers in an attempt for second-half glory. MLB owners are really good at figuring out how to get the greatest benefit out of the least investments with the shittiest intentions and lousiest ethics imaginable, so it would be really fun to watch them compete at being super sleazy and see how that would affect the way their teams compete on the baseball field.
Full disclosure: 80% of what I know about professional soccer I learned from Ted Lasso. But one way MLB could shake things up considerably would be to implement a relegation of sorts at some point during the season. There are too many variations within this idea to discuss them broadly, at least not if I plan to finish this post by the end of the World Series. So I’ll propose just one with an optional twist.
One hundred games or so into the regular season would be, for lack of a better word, relegation. At that point, the National League would become the premier-ish league and the American League would become the more championesque variety. To preserve geographic divisions, you’d basically arrange the ten teams from each divisional alignment (the 10 West, 10 Central, 10 East teams from both leagues) by record, and the five best would become the new National League and the five worst would become the new American League. The rest of the schedule would proceed as normal, only the standings and league assignments would be different. The three NL division champions and five wild cards would play an eight-team playoff with three best-of-seven rounds.
Optional Twist: The relegated American League could have a playoff of their own to determine an AL Champion that would enter the NL playoff tree as a wild card.
Sorry, One More Optional Twist: The new league arrangements could carry over into the next season with the unbalanced divisional schedules assigned accordingly.
Okay, I’m sure there are more possibilities, but I’ve exhausted my capacity for writing about them and, I’m sure, your capacity for reading about them without arguing. So, let’s have it. Rip all these to shreds and let us know what the real best regular season/postseason setup would be.