Baseball playoff formats

In keeping with the theme that sparked considerable interest earlier in the week, I just wanted to make an observation about the current system of baseball championships, compared to the one it replaced.

I have always thought there was a certain “divine justice” in the way the 1993 and 1994 championship races unfolded. With it known that 1993 was going to be the last year without wild cards, we were treated to a NL West race that went down to the last day of the season. Two teams winning over 100 games, but it was winner-take-all. One of them was going to go home while the other advanced.

Then in 1994, the first year of three divisions and one wild card, we were spared the embarrassment of a possible first-ever playoff team with a sub-.500 record only by the player’s strike that ultimately resulted in there being no playoffs at all that year. The Rangers were in first place in the AL West at 52-62 when the season was called off. That was the eleventh best record in the league! They, or whoever might have ended the West on top, surely would have climbed the overall standings if the season had continued, but not inevitably into the top five or even top seven. We will never know, and it is probably just as well.

While the 1993 NL West race was a thrilling old-fashioned “pennant race,” all it got the Giants, who finished one game out in the West with 103 wins, was an early winter vacation. The Braves went on to lose to the Phillies (97 regular-season wins).

So at the conclusion of one great season, we got both our last great winner-take-all race, and a demonstration of why having winner-take-all divisions, with no wild card, can be inherently unfair. Just because the two best teams in the league happened to be in the same division (the “West,” despite Atlanta’s actual location), a 103-game winner sat out the postseason in favor of an inferior team.

The 1994 races gave us a clear demonstration of the problem of small divisions. If several mediocre (at best) teams happen to be concentrated in one region, especially one that comprises a division of only four teams, a manifestly undeserving team can enter the postseason as a “division champion.”

The only reason I did not invoke 1994 in the earlier discussion was not that the season was incomplete, but that it was played under a “balanced schedule” that meant teams within a league played each other team the same number of games. Some years into the new format, an unbalanced schedule was brought back in to ensure more games against each intra-division rival than against other teams. The unbalanced schedule makes clearly undeserving division winners less likely than the 1994 format. But as the 2005 Padres showed it is not a guarantee that a team in the middle of the league’s overall standings pack won’t be crowned a division champion. And that was the main problem that my proposal of two divisions with two wild cards was meant to address.

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