The three divisions, two wild cards, format (2015 edition of a recurring rant)

Regular readers will know how much I dislike the current major-league baseball format of three divisions (which we have had for a while now) and (more recently) two wild card teams who face each other in a single game to decide which one goes on to the Division Series. Just last night I again heard an announcer praise how wonderful this format is; I think they must be under some sort of directive from on high to repeat that mantra.

I am still not sold, despite the fact that my team’s* only shot at the playoffs this year will be if it can win the second wild card. For supporters of the format, the AL is turning out this year the way they like it: three mediocre teams (Angels, Twins, and the team they currently are chasing, the Astros) are all in contention here in the last week. Also good for their cause, the Astros were only recently supplanted for the AL West division lead by the Rangers; a similar reversal took place just a while ago in the AL East (Blue Jays overtaking Yankees). That there is one race in the final week–really the only one still realistically alive in either league–and that teams recently dumped to second place in their divisions can look forward to, at best, winning a single game to advance, are points in favor of the current format. That is, if you do not object to mediocre teams fighting it out to potentially win just one game against a team that was their better by potentially 4+ games during the regular season. (As of today, the Yankees hold the first wild card, and thus the home field, by a 4.5 game lead over the second wild-card Astros.)

The NL is, however, a very different story. And not for the first time. The two wild card teams (Pirates, then Cubs) are currently separated by 5.5 games. Mets fans have to really love the current alignment of the divisions. Their team gets to be the first to clinch a division title… despite having the FIFTH best record in their league. (When the Dodgers lost a little later on Saturday, the Mets backed into fourth place by half a game.) It makes no sense that a team that–barring a significant closing of the gap in the final week–has finished so far behind the other wild card gets a single shot to knock out a superior team.

On the plus side, however, the second wild card may prevent the “injustice” of the league’s third place team (Cubs) having no playoff games while the fourth and fifth likely get crowned as division titlists. Even so, the way it is set up, one of the (current) top three teams would be eliminated in a single game, and either the fourth or fifth best (Dodgers, Mets) is guaranteed to be in the NLCS. I call this an institutional design fail!!

Although I still prefer my old two-divisions, two wild cards proposed format, with (or without) asymmetric series to privilege the division winners, I recognize that two wild cards are here to stay.** One small tweak I would like to see, however, is having the team with best record play in the first round the team among those still standing that had the worst record. Instead, it automatically plays the wild card, regardless of regular-season record. The principle ought to be to maximize the chance that the LCS pits the league’s two best, and in this year’s NL that is evidently going to be two teams from the Central, while one of the inferior teams is guaranteed to advance to the Division Series simply because it beat out weaker competition in its own division.

Whatever the outcome, October ball is almost here, and even dumb institutional design can’t ruin that!


*The Angels, for those who are not regular readers. Regulars, of course, know this well.

** Besides, I have to admit that this format gave us last year one of the best games in years. The two-divisions, two wild-cards, also is not very workable with the realignment to 15 teams in each league, which took place at the same time as the second wild card was implemented. Given that this is a blog that is largely about institutional design, I invite readers to come up with a format that involves 15 total teams per league, five of which advance, but without a single-game playoff or the other anomalies I have identified. (An obvious solution of a wild-card playoff that goes longer gets little traction because giving the division winners a few days off is not generally considered to their advantage.)

16 thoughts on “The three divisions, two wild cards, format (2015 edition of a recurring rant)

  1. I will say that there can be better systems. And I certainly will say that the team with the best record should be playing the team with the worst record in the Division Series.

    However I don’t mind the current system. At least in theory, baseball runs six championships a year–the six divisions. Those teams then play off against each other to see who will be over the overall winner of the World Series. The Mets and Dodgers proved that they are the best amongst the teams that played (more or less) the same schedules as they did. The Cubs and Pirates have proven themselves inferior to a Cardinals team playing (more or less) the same schedule. If each team in a division actually did play the same teams the same number of times, the system would be better.

    As for a five team playoff that might be better…here is one that would never work. Teams make the playoffs as now. Over a five day span the team with the best record hosts a round robin. Two double headers and one team sitting out each day. Either the top two teams advance to the LCS or only the worst team is eliminated and the remaining four play in a delayed LDS.


    • Mark, I have thought of your round-robin idea. But I always conclude (as you do, too) that it would not actually work.

      I hear you on the division winners point, but the problem is that their schedules are not that similar anymore, given the current format of inter-league play. Of course, on a relative basis, they are still more similar than when compared to teams outside their division.

      The most similar schedules of all must be the three that have the top records in the NL, all of which are in one division. So the worst thing about the current format, from my perspective, is that one of these will play only one postseason game.


  2. MLB needs to return to the 154 game regular season schedule. That will leave more time to tinker with playoff rounds, which is apparently where the money is, since all the major sports have done the same in recent years.

    It may be premature to call the Angels ‘mediocre’. With a 6 game winning streak and 4 games left with the Rangers they still have decent chance to win the division. I know this prediction may be premature too but…


  3. As MSS has recognized, the key feature in any playoff system is how many teams and the percentage of teams you want in the playoff. The structure of the playoffs and who qualifies follows from that. And the major league baseball owners and executives clearly want ten teams out of thirty (33%) in the playoffs.

    I happen to think that percentage is too high, both aesthetically and in terms of how much money the owners make (eg they are making a mistake). What they gain from additional playoff gains and having more teams with fans thinking there is a chance of postseason success, they more than lose in diminished interest in the World Series (ratings have been following steadily) and the regular season which is seen as more meaningless. I think 20% of the teams in the playoffs, or six teams, is a much more reasonable figure.

    Nonetheless, I designed a better playoff system on the premise that ten out of thirty teams should make the playoffs. I think my system would work better than the one in place. My particular goals were to:

    1.) Get ten teams in the playoffs.

    2.) Increase the chances that the teams with the strongest records that year play in the World Series, while still preserving the chance of an upset.

    3.) Bring back as much as possible the old school, pre 1995 pennant races where you either won your league/ division or went home.

    4.) Keep to tradition as much as possible, which is much more central to the appeal of professional baseball than other sports.

    My system also focuses baseball more on local and regional rivalries, which are stronger than in other sports and where I think the future appeal of the game lies.

    I propose to keep the two leagues, but to divide each league into five divisions of three teams each. The ten teams with the best regular season won loss records in their divisions would make the playoffs.

    The regular season would be shortened and would end on Labor Day. The first round of playoffs would be held through September and the first week of October. The five playoff teams in each league would be seeded according to their regular season record. Each of the five playoff teams in each league would play four games against each of the other four playoff teams, at the home stadium of the team with the better record. This would be similar to the first round of the World Cup. The team with the best regular season record in each league would wind up playing all sixteen games at home.

    The two League Championship Series would feature the two teams with the best records from the first round of playoffs, same as now, with seventh game home field advantage held by the team with the best playoff record. The World Series would be the same as now and over with before November.

    There would still be a place for Wild Cards. A team would have to have a winning (.500 plus at least one game) record to make the playoffs, even if it won its division. A division winner without a winning record would be replaced by the team with the best regular season record which did not win its division.

    To wrap the regular season up by labor day, it would be necessary to reduce the number of regular season games to 154 or even less. I envisage an extremely unbalanced schedule, with each team playing the other two teams in its division 24 times each, and each of the other teams in the league in other divisions 8 times each, for a total of 144 games. If its possible to fit in more games, add 10 interleague games to make it to 154.

    Bud Selig,, who hijacked the Seattle Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee to replace the National League Milwaukee Braves, succeeded while Commissioner in moving the Pilots, renamed the Brewers, to the National League and moving the Astros to the American League. The precedent having been set, I think four more teams should swap leagues, the Angels, Mets, Nationals, and Rays. This system would work a lot better if this happened (I think the current leagues would improve with this swap), though could work if the two leagues remained the same.


  4. To give an example of how my proposal would work, I took the standings as of the morning of September 29th, and divided the teams into my proposed divisions. I did this with the league swaps for the Angels, Mets, Nationals, and Rays happening (the swaps affect all the divisions and it would tedious to do another division line-up).

    Since the regular season schedule and opponents would be drastically different, the regular season won loss records would be considerably different. I am using games behind to show the relative strengths of the teams. Two of the division winners currently have losing won-loss records, but I don’t think this would actually happen much, since even weak division winners would be playing 48 of their games against the even weaker teams in their divisions.

    As of September 29th, there were six games left in the season. Again, the number after each team are the games behind the division leaders (or league leaders for the playoff seedings) in this system:

    National League

    Wagner division

    Reds 31.5
    Phillies 35.5

    Aaron division

    Marlins 6
    Braves 13

    The Rays will have a losing record this year

    Musial division

    Cubs 7.5
    Brewers 32.5

    Mays division

    Diamondbacks 7
    Rockies 14

    Robinson division

    Angels 5
    Padres 14

    Projected playoff seedings

    Pirates 4
    Dodgers 11.5
    Giants 16.5
    Cubs 7.5 (wild card, substitutes for Rays)

    American League

    Ruth division

    Yankees 3
    Red Sox 13

    Ripkin division

    Blue Jays
    Nationals 11
    Orioles 15

    Cobb division

    White Sox 4.5
    Tigers 4.5

    The Indians currently have a losing record

    Ryan division

    Rangers 7
    Astros 7.5

    Henderson division

    Mariners 7.5
    Athletics 16.5

    Projected playoff seedings

    Blue Jays
    Royals 1
    Mets 2
    Twins 1 0
    Yankees 5 (wild card, substitutes for Indians)

    As with the current system, the National League playoff seedings would be pretty much set, but with six games to go there would still be considerable uncertainty about the American League outcome.


    • I’ll do an update on my hypothetical two league, five division system now that the regular season is over.

      Its actually really uncertain what happened in the American League. First, as indicated would happen a few days ago, the team with the best record in the American League, the Blue Jays, finished only two games better than the Royals, and three games better than the Mets. With schedules being really different, especially with the Mets who now are in the National League, this could well have changed.

      Another complication is that the Indians, which I have in the “Cobb division” with the Tigers and White Sox, finished with a winning record, but at 81-80. Teams are supposed to play 162 games currently. It appears that they had a game rained out against the Tigers, and MLB didn’t bother to make it up because neither team was in contention (if this was the decision I disagree with it). I would not allow winning record be produced only because a team didn’t play one or more games on its schedule. However, in a situation like this, where a team would play 48 out of 154 games per year against two really weak teams in its division, it would probably wind up with a winning record. But then the Yankees, who would substituted for the Indians as the wild card, finished only 3 games worse than the Mets, and given how different the schedules would have been, especially for the Mets (the National League as a whole is probably weaker than the American League at the moment), could well have won the division instead of the Mets.

      (by the say I didn’t explain the league switching in the previous post, but with three team divisions it makes sense to take advantage of the opportunity to produce tighter regional alignments, reducing travel and increasing fan interests. I did not touch any of the original sixteen teams)

      As for the Angels, in the actual playoff system they missed the wild card play-in by one game and the AL West division championship by three games. Have them switch leagues and play against the Dodgers in a Southern California division as in my proposal, though and they would have probably done worse this year.

      The National League is more solid, with one exception. There were only two teams in the MLB with records better than .600 each year, the Cardinals and Pirates. There were also only two teams in the MLB with records worse than .400 this year, the Phillies and Reds. So if my system was in place, the Pirates, one of the best teams in the National League in a division with the two worst, would have wound up with a better record than the Cardinals, who would have been in the same division as the Cubs, and gained home field advantage throughout the first round of the playoffs.

      By replacing the Rangers and Astros in the playoffs with the Twins and Giants, this year my system would have had slightly weaker playoff teams overall, let alone possibly substituting the Indians for the Yankees.


  5. Agree with you that current systems could often punish the second best team in the league having to play a 50/50 game.

    Two divisions/two wildcards has the flaw of divisions being asymmetric @ 8-7. Since baseball really likes to reward division winners, it really only makes sense that divisions have the same amount of teams. However, two divisions and two wildcards mitigates that issue somewhat since it’s unlikely that the Top 4 will all be from the same division. So overall, your suggestion’s better IMHO.

    Unfortunately, MLB’s unlikely to reduce the numbers of teams in the playoffs for the obvious reason. Therefore, a good approach stolen from another league: Division winners get no worse than a 4 seed, home field is given to team with better record no matter of seeding. Yes, that’s exactly the NBA wording, so it can’t be defeated immediately by some counterargument that not rewarding the division winner is un-American.


  6. Good outside-the-batters-box thinking here! (Not endorsing any specific proposal, but glad we are discussing alternatives.)

    Yes, I was too quick to write off the Angels. As of right now, they are only two games out of the AL West, and they play the leader (Rangers) in a 4-game series to end the season (in Texas). It would be a tall order to win the division, but it is still plausible. And that is quite amazing given how awful their August was.

    I think the three AL West contenders are all pretty mediocre, but the Angels’ stunning rise from .500 a little while ago reminds me of what they are capable of.


  7. One thing I should add to my comments is that it mattered this season that the Royals were placed in the American League Central and not the American League West. The Royals are far enough west that it didn’t necessarily have to align this way, and obviously without the switch of leagues between the Brewers and the Astros, it would make more sense to have the Royals in the West and the Brewers in the Central.

    While the Royals had the best record in the American League, the American League teams playing in Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland either had losing records or barely finished above .500, though part of that was due to playing the Royals more often than they otherwise would have. Nor did the Brewers do so well. Even with the current system, a small geographic change in the divisional alignments would produce a different playoff picture. Of course this is an argument for wild cards, or just putting the teams with the best records in the playoffs, and ignoring geographic divisions or even leagues.


  8. Just as a follow up to my earlier posts, the 2015 World Series features the Royals and the Mets. The Royals, who are somewhat better in terms of their record and comparing statistics, have taken a 2-0 lead after winning the first two games at home.

    The Royals have the best record in the American League with 95, while the Mets with 90 games have the fifth best record in the National League. The Royals obviously belong in the World Series, and the beat the team with the second best record in the American League, the Blue Jays, in the league championship series. If the MLB were still using the two league, four division, two round playoff system that they instituted when the Royals were created in 1969, both the Royals and the Blue Jays would have played in the league championship series.

    With the Mets its not as simple, since four National League teams had better regular season records. The Mets themselves beat two of these, the Dodgers and the Cubs, in the playoffs, while the Cubs did them a favor by knocking the Pirates (in only one game) and the Cardinals out of the playoffs. The Mets were essentially the fifth team in the National League playoffs, after baseball decided that a fifth team should be in the playoffs. You don’t have to change the playoff system or the divisional systems by much to keep them out of the playoffs altogether.

    Still, there has been at least one World Series where neither team had won 90 or more regular season games, so this particular World Series matchup isn’t that bad compared to recent history.

    In the system I proposed, you also probably wouldn’t have seen the Mets in the World Series. I proposed that they be switched to the American League, where they would have been in the playoffs but probably knocked out by the Royals or the Blue Jays. Keep them in the National League and they might not get there at all. The World Series would have been the Royals and probably one of the four NL teams who had won more than 90 regular season games.

    There has been at least one instance of a team in the World Series losing its first two games at home, let alone on the road as the Mets has, and winning the Series, so I shouldn’t be so quick to write off the Mets.


  9. One thing is left out of this discussion. I think Fox wants the World Series over by the end of October due to November being a sweeps month. Sweeps months ratings are what local TV stations use to charge advertisers, and yes it’s a big deal in the industry. I’ve written this before,but its the reason why the NBA and NHL finals are in June now. May is a sweeps month. The problem ML:B, NBA and the NHL have is that ratings for their championships are only good in the two cities that are in the finals. Ratings tend to lag in cities that are not involved. So, with the 10 team post season and one month to do it, the only change I can see is changing the play in series to best of three and shortening the LCS back to best of five. I do like the five division plan proposed here, but what happens if down the line, MLB expands by two teams? I don’t see that happening for at least another 15 years, though, but you could see four four-team divisions in each league.


  10. I’ve always disliked three divisions. The optimal number of teams in a division is 6,7,or 8. I propose two division winners and three wild cards from each league. The two lowest seeded wild cards play in a tiebreaker game, the winner playing the team with the best record. In the division series, if the wild card has the same or better record than the division champ, the series is a best-of-five. If their record is worse by one game, they need four wins to advance. If it is worse by two or more, they need five wins. This feature places much more importance on the season and brings backs more excitement to divisional races. The owners will like this because the number of playoff games can only increase.
    As for the schedule, divisional opponents play each other 13 or 14 times and non divisional opponents 7, plus 22 interleague games.This follows if there are 15 teams in each league which I don’t care for. I prefer 14/16 and doing away with interleague. Divisional opponents play each other 14 times and non divisional opponents 8 in the 16-team league. In the 14, div. opp. 14x and each non div. opp. 11 over three series. One team will be played 12x.


  11. I know msshugart invited responders to come up with a format without a single-game playoff but the game would be between either the 3rd and 4th, 3rd and 5th, or 4th and 5th best records which in my opinion, should not be in the playoffs anyway. These teams could not win their divisions and there is a team with a better record that also could not win its division. The road to the World Series should be more difficult for these teams. To remedy the one-game playoff, the higher seeded wild card needs one victory while the lower needs two. The potential for more playoff games could push the end of the World Series into later Oct/early Nov. This could be avoided by simply reducing the number of off days during the playoffs. A five, six, or seven-game series should have one off day to reflect more of what the season is like.


  12. Pingback: Baseball’s wild cards strike again | Fruits and Votes

  13. I think a new idea for the playoffs could be implemented. While my post is about NFL playoffs, I think it could work for MLB as well:

    Include any team that didn’t win their division but had at least a record of .500 to qualify for the wild card playoffs.

    This would allow for wild card playoffs to have at least 2 teams, but with a competitive league, it opens up the competition!


    • Are you guaranteeing two wild cards? Because while I wouldn’t do the math in baseball, the NFL schedule shows there are ways to have only the eight division winners finish above .500. For example, if every team goes 5-5 outside the division and in each division one team sweeps and the others go 2-4 (splitting games with each other), the final standings in all eight divisions sees one 11-5 team and three 7-9 teams.


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