The folly of the new MLB format

We are now less than a week away from the end of the regular season of Major League Baseball. ((How can that be?)) Unless something dramatic happens in the final week ((And sometimes something does!)) the standings will showcase the folly of the new format that was introduced for this season.

This year marks the debut of the second wild-card team, promoted by Commissioner Bud Selig and others. Instead of four playoff teams, there are now five. However, two of them–the wild cards–square off in a single game to determine which one goes on to play one of the division winners. The ostensible purpose is to be to make winning the division a greater imperative in cases where two teams are neck-and-neck down the wire, but both would advance anyway.

The basic goal is laudable, but stands on a flimsy premise: that division winners are necessarily more deserving than wild card winners. A secondary premise, though one I have not seen stated, is also flimsy: that both of the now two wild cards are about equally (un)deserving. So let’s throw as many teams as we can into “exciting” end-of-season races, and then have an “exciting” one-game playoff to eliminate one of them and then get on with games involving the more “deserving” teams.

Each league shows the flaws in one these premises. The AL shows the worst case. If the season ended today, a team with the seventh best record in the entire league (Detroit Tigers, leading the Central by two games) would enter the postseason with the advantages of a division winner, while the teams with the fifth and sixth best records (Los Angels Angles and Tampa Bay Rays, currently tied at two games out of the wild card) would miss the playoffs entirely. The two most surprising teams of the season–the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics, with the third and fourth best records, would play a single elimination game. This season’s AL is not a rare case. Many past wild cards over the previous sixteen years had their league’s fourth or better–sometimes second–best record. And several division winners have been fifth or worse. The new format makes this worse, by vastly increasing the penalty against a superior team for being a superior division, while rewarding the winner of a mediocre division.

It actually gets worse still, because this season the Division Series will deviate from its usual 2-2-1 format, whereby the higher-seeded team–never the wild card, even when its record is better–gets to open at home and also gets the decisive fifth game at home if the series goes the distance. Instead, this year, it is 2-3, with the higher-seeded team getting (up to) three home games, but only after the lower-seeded team has had two guaranteed home games. In other words, the Tigers, with the seventh best record, open at home, after an extra off day, on which the A’s and O’s have decided which of two better teams will travel to Detroit to play the relatively more rested Tigers.

In the NL, we see how flawed is the second (implicit) premise: that both wild card teams are equally (un)deserving. At the moment, there is a seven-game gap between the first wild card team, the Atlanta Braves, and the second wild card, the St. Louis Cardinals. A seven-game gap is currently larger than the gap between any two teams that will play each other in a Division Series. ((The gap between Detroit and the team it would play based on today’s standings (the Yankees) is six games.)) And, in fact, the top wild card team now is tied with the West-winning San Francisco Giants for the league’s third best record. Yet all this earns them is one home game in which a team with the fifth best record gets a shot at knocking them off. Of all sports, baseball is the one that least should use a single elimination game instead of a series of 3-to-7 games. ((I think a single game is fine for breaking a season-long tie to enter the postseason, although even here I much prefer the old NL pre-division-era format of a best-of-3.))

It does not seem that this new format is well thought-out. Moreover, introducing the format this year too late to adjust the dates of the various series, which is the ostensible reason for a one-year use of the 2-3 Division Series format, really was inexcusable.

I would still prefer my alternative proposal of Two Divisions, Two Wild Cards (2D2W). The AL would be featuring a good wild card race for two slots between the A’s, Orioles, Angels, and Rays. The Tigers and White Sox would only recently have faded from the race (rather than one of them being ensured a Division Series slot). The Rangers and Yankees would be leading their respective divisions, just as they are under the actual format. The NL would actually not have races involving in vs. out of the postseason, because the top four are so well separated from the rest of the pack. However, in the actual format we have hardly had any division races for at least the last two months. ((This is especially true of the Central and East; the West saw the Dodgers get briefly close in August.)) Under 2D2W we would have a good contest in the East division between Washington and Cincinnati, with Atlanta now four games out. ((San Francisco would lead the West easily, as in the actual format.)) We would not have a race like the one we have had, at least until about a week ago, among the Dodgers and the surging Brewers ((and, on the fringes, the late-coming Phillies and floundering Pirates)) for a wild card slot. But really, why is a race for fifth place among teams barely above .500 something to cheer? ((For those in the affected cities, and for marketing, I get it. But those are not my important criteria.)) In articulating my proposal for the 2D2W alternative in September, 2010, I suggested some ways in which winning the division could be made more valuable than a wild card than was the case in the rules in place through 2011. These mechanisms could still yield significant battles to secure a division rather than wild card slot in the final week.

Bud’s format is a dud. It should be revisited, to maximize the chances that the four best teams advance to the Division Series, under whatever seeding mechanism, and that races do not involve fringe teams, or set up single elimination games between teams that were widely separated in the regular-season standings.

7 thoughts on “The folly of the new MLB format

  1. Two other (related) considerations in your quest to reward the 4 “best” teams in a division are unbalanced schedules, and the variance of quality within each division. A team’s overall record reflects the quality of its schedule. Since teams play so many more games within the division, it matters how good the rest of the division is when piling up wins and losses. A team that dominates its own division might lead the league in wins, even if more of its wins were against lousy teams. This would seem easy enough to adjust for, with a “weighted wins” stat, but that would never ever fly.

    All I’m really saying is that W-L record does not necessarily tell you which are the best 4 teams over the whole season.

  2. True enough, Mike, but without going into weighting, it’s the best we’ve got. A lot more “objective” than the divisions (e.g. this year’s AL Central).

  3. Note that we came quite close to having two teams tie for best record, yet one (after a 1-game playoff) would have been made the #2 wild card seed, while the other would have gotten home field advantage through the rest of the league playoffs.

    Did I mention that MLB didn’t think this through?

  4. MSS actually underplays how bad this format is.

    One important point is that at the moment, one third of the MLB teams (ten out of thirty) qualify, sort of, of the playoffs, counting the wild card play-in as a playoff game. This alone is pushing baseball into NHL and NBA territory of having too many teams in the playoffs, to the detriment of interest in the regular season and the eventual finals/ World Series. From a marketing standpoint, you push more of the weaker teams into the playoffs but it drains interest in the regular season from fans of the stronger teams which, short of a Phillies style cascade of injuries, should usually be able to count on finishing in the top third. I happen to be a Yankees fan, and despite a few weeks of bad play in early September when they had their own injury problems, their getting at least to the wild card play in was never really in doubt, though the division title was very much in play.

    Historically, before the 1961 expansion one in eight MLB teams made the playoffs (which just consisted of the World Series). This proportion actually fell to one in twelve teams during the 1960s. The 1969 expansion and introduction of divisions put the proportion at one in six, though in the American League this fell slightly to one in seven after 1976. The post-Wild Card one in four and now one in three teams in the playoffs is historically high for the game.

    Now check out the final regular season standings and consider what the same records would look like using the 1969-93 two league, four division format. The Yankees and the Orioles in the AL East finished two games apart. The Athletics and the Rangers finished one game apart. In what had been the National League West, the Reds finished three games ahead of both the Braves and the Giants. The American League races would have gone down to the last couple of games in the season, with the losing team sitting at home. This is just one year, but if you go back through the records since 1995 it turns out that there were alot of classic pennant races that never happened.

    My own preference would be three leagues of two divisions each, no wild card, with a total of six teams making the playoffs (a one in five proportion). The winner of the championship series of the league with the strongest overall interleague play record would go directly to the World Series, facing the winner of a series between the pennant winners of the two “weaker” leagues.

    This would involve cutting the number of teams in the playoffs from ten to six, but you really can’t restore or build more interest in the regular season without a reduction of the number of teams making the playoffs, because you need the chance of good teams not making the playoffs to have decent races.

  5. One thing I should add that the wild card play-in option is even more artificial than the norm with these things. It was added after a season where several teams at the top ended up tied, creating a number of one game play-ins that were judged to be exciting. So of course MLB is mandating that play-ins happen every season, regardless of whether the actual regular season standings are close.

    A team gets a play-in if they have somewhere between the 2nd best and the 5th best record in the league, almost by definition (unless you have a really weak division, the teams with the five best records will be the three division winners and two two wild cards), but of course it can be a weak fifth or a strong second, and with the number of teams qualifying for the sort of playoffs set, at a certain point the regular season just doesn’t matter as much.

    The weak division winner problem -its possible for a team in a weak division to finish with barely more wins and losses and make the playoffs, this actually happened at least once with the 1969-93 system- could be solved by requiring a division winner to have to win a certain number of games to participate in the playoffs. If a division can’t produce a quality entrant to the playoffs, then a team with a better record from outside the division would substitute. However, I’ve checked and the weak division winner problem, while it happens, doesn’t happen as much as many people seem to think.

  6. Guys, the current system is quite arbitrary I agree. However, to be honest, as a soccer fan, I find having AL and NL separated an arbitrary and silly division.

    I understand having divisions to reduce travel, but it should be purely geographic.

    This would also reduce bad teams making playoffs based on arbitrary divisions.

  7. Its been proposed before to do away with the leagues, but actually MLB’s relative resistance to change compared to other sports is part of its appeal. Many fans, including myself, like the historical continuity.

    Actually, the current management of MLB don’t seem to appreciate that much, and have introduced regular season interleague play (it used to be that the World Series was the only non-exhibition interleague play), and have effectively swapped two teams (one of them owned by the current commissioner) between leagues.

    Anyway, there is a stronger case for doing away with the divisions, which are more recent constructs and have been tampered with quite frequently already. They are also somewhat too large to really reduce travel.

    The two leagues are the historical survivors of a number of attempts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to start professional leagues. With thirty “major league” teams now, I favor creation of a third league, where I would put the ten most recent expansion teams (the teams that came in starting 1969).

    This would enable the playoff scheme I outlined in an earlier comment, where you would have six playoff teams that arrived there by having the best regular season record in their six divisions. It also goes some way to solve an perennial complaint in that teams based in small metropolitan areas can’t compete in paying high salaries to good players with teams based in large metropolitan areas. As it happens, the ten most recent expansion teams tend to be “small market” teams (because teams were placed or moved into the larger markets before 1969). With their own league, these teams only compete against each other until the last rounds of the playoffs. If teams from the third league win several World Series, there is now no need to restrain the spending of, well, the Yankees because you only see them and the larger market teams in a couple of playoff series, which can be somewhat random. If the third league regularly falls flat in the playoffs it can be quietly regulated to the status of an independent minor league, of which there were several serving underserved markets in the early part of the century, and MLB will have effectively contracted, for which a strong case can be made anyway.

    A good example of an independent minor league for an underserved market was the Pacific Coast League, which flourished on the West Coast at a time when there were no major league teams further west than St. Louis. The Negro Leagues are another example, for completely different reasons. The Japan League is a sort of independent minor league today. The minor leagues teams in the United States have been bought out by major league teams and exist mainly to develop or rehab major league players.

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