Playoff-qualification formats, 2018 complaint

I’ve had some version of this complaint since at least 2005 (click the category links at the bottom to see past posts). Even though the playoff format has changed in a big way in the interim, I still don’t like it, and 2018 American League again shows why.

First, however, the National League of 2018 shows some clear advantages of the current format. The Cubs and Brewers have a weekend showdown (albeit not playing each other) over which one will win the Central. Whichever one does will also have the league’s best record. The other will be the first wild card. The stakes are high! The Dodgers and Rockies also have a showdown (again, not playing each other directly) over which one will win the West. The loser of that contest might be the second wild card, but the Cardinals are still alive, and so the loser of the West race could get left out entirely while the Cards get the (second wild) card. And to add spice to it, the Cards and Cubs (long time rivals!) play each other over the final weekend with both teams having playoff berths (or at least seeding) on the line.

Meanwhile, in the American League, we see the fundamental problem with the current format on full display. The Indians clinched their division a full week ago. At the time, their record was 86-68. The Tampa Bay Rays had the exact same record on that date, yet were on the brink of elimination. The Seattle Mariners were, on the same date, 85-69. Three teams within a game of one another in the standings. Yet one of them got a week to get rested and set up its rotation, while the other two will sit out the postseason.

The AL situation this season reminds us of the arbitrariness of the divisional alignments. While they are geographically accurate (unlike the NL before 1998), they can reward a mediocre “division winner” while shutting out teams with approximately identical records who just happen to be in tougher divisions. A related effect is that the AL Wild Card one-game playoff is going to pit the third and fourth (possibly second and fourth) best teams in the league (by W-L) against each other, while the fifth (or possibly sixth) best team gets to go straight to a Division Series as the League’s No. 3 seed.

While I was praising the NL situation earlier, I would be remiss if I did not note that, despite the good races to the finish in that league, there actually will be a similar unfairness in the outcome. The NL West winner is likely to finish with a worse record than the first wild card, and possibly in a tie with the second wild card. It just won’t be as stark a difference as the one in the AL.

Could this be remedied with better institutional design? Of course! I still prefer my Two Divisions, Two Wild Cards idea, first proposed in 2010, years before the current format (which is three divisors and two wild cards) was adopted. Of course, it is very unlikely that MLB will reduce the postseason back to four teams from the current five. As much as I do not like the one-game postseason “series” of the current wild card playoff, I could live with it–in modified form.

How about Two Divisions, Three Wild Cards? Bear with me a moment. I want a system that maximizes the chances that the best teams face off in the LCS and one of the very best makes it to the World Series. I don’t want to spot a mediocre team a top playoff seed just because it happened to win a weak division (i.e., this year’s Indians, but also several recent division winners). And I don’t want a first wild card that is well ahead of the second to have just one chance to get beat by an inferior opponent. The basic problem is small divisions magnify the odds that a weak team gets a division title. So two divisions are better than three!

It is not ideal to have divisions of different size in a league. With 15 teams per league, this proposal would require it (unless some more cross-league shifts were made, making the leagues different sizes instead of the divisions within each league).

With three wild cards, the first of them could get an automatic advance to the Division Series, while the second and third play a one-game playoff. (I’d prefer a best-of-3, but there really is no time for that.)

If this were in place now (and we’ll assume the records would be the same as they actually are), the AL teams would be: Red Sox (AL East, as actually), Houston (AL West, as actually), Yankees and A’s (first two Wild Cards, as actually), and a still live race between the Indians and Rays and, more marginally, the Mariners for the third Wild Card.

The proposal would work better still if the Division Series themselves were asymmetric, an idea I included in my earlier Two Divisions, Two Wild Cards proposal. I quote myself (because I can):

One could still introduce a first-round playoff structure that rewards division winners over wild card winners, if one wanted to do so. For instance, the first round could be a best of seven with the division winner having the first three games at home, instead of only the first two–while still having the last two if it went that far. Or under a best of five, one could similarly ensure the division winner four home games if the series went the distance. Another thought is an asymmetric series: the division winner advances after winning two games, but the wild card has to win three. I will not consider any of these integral to 2D2W [or the new proposal]; they are additional considerations.

Every institutional structure one can devise has problems as well as advantages. That is true of baseball championships as much as of electoral systems. And it is certainly true of this one. But I believe it would be an improvement on the current format.

In any case, enjoy the last weekend of the regular season, and the playoffs that follow!

20 thoughts on “Playoff-qualification formats, 2018 complaint

  1. I didn’t mind when, several years ago, someone was seriously pushing for a 15 team, one division format in each league. The top five teams would make the playoffs. It made sense, but alas it was not to be. I can live with the current division setup. Teams play their divisional rivals 19 teams a piece and (generally) play (mostly) the same teams interdivision and interleague. The team with the best record of those quintets rightfully go to the playoffs. Comparing records is a lot like comparing random candidates of different parties in different districts in a FPTP election. Tampa Bay is the third best of the teams playing a (not entirely dis)similar schedule.

    The only real problem that I see is the bracket. I think it is fundamentally unfair that the teams with the best records will be rewarded with a five game series against…the teams with the second best records if they win the Wild Card Games. Boston and the Cubs should the LDS participant with the lowest winning percentage. Or just go back to the good old days of the preset preset rotational matchups.

    • I agree with Mark here. The WL records are endogenous to the divisional alignment. Would Boston and the Yankees have so many wins if they didn’t have Baltimore to beat up on all season? Now that the division more or less make geographical sense, I don’t mind the current system. My only quibble is with the 1-game playoff. Especially given all the travel it requires, that’s pretty dumb. Making it a true series (even best of 3) would mean even more travel, and a WS that drags deeper into November. Not sure what to do about that.

      • In theory a best of three played in one park over three straight days would only add two days to the playoffs. Game 7 of the World Series would be on November 2nd this year under such a system, if the started the wild card series on Tuesday and Wednesday.

    • Yes, fixing the brackets as Mark suggests would be useful, whether or not the divisional alignments change.

      It is true there is some endogeneity, as Mike notes, given intra-divisional match-ups and different inter-league opponents. I am way too lazy to attempt an adjustment to those factors, but doing so might make the Indians look even less deserving, in that I am pretty sure their average opponent was easier than was the Rays’ (who had more games against the Red Sox and Yankees in addition to more against the Orioles).

      I definitely do not like the one-game Wild Card playoff. But the time just makes it untenable to do a best-of-3, I am afraid. Not only because of pushing the World Series later into November, but also the problem that the extra days off for the other postseason teams is potentially a disadvantage for them.

  2. A solution for the length of season problem is to revert to the 154 game regular season (even under the current division format I think this could mean that each team plays the other teams in its division 17 times instead of 19?). That should leave time in the fall for another, short playoff round.

    • The only way I could see a drop from 162 would be if the playoffs expanded–and I don’t mean just the length of the wild cards’ match or the LDS. If you’re going to ask teams to given up four home games, you’d need to offer them good additional sources of revenue in the form of relevant September games and more money from October TV deals.

      So how about the Split Season
      –Two halves, 78 games each (9×4 intradivisional games (36); 3×10 intraleague (30), 3×4 interleague (12))

      –Three to six division champions; teams that win both halves get a bye into the second round of the postseason. Two Wild Cards; the two teams with the best 156 game records not already qualified

      –1st Half Ties settled in first schedule 2nd Half meeting. 2nd Half Ties settled with playoff game, if necessary. Teams that won the 1st Half or who would be a Wild Card are excluded from tiebreaker

      –I would prefer 0-3 Division Series pairing 1st and 2nd Half Champions and Wild Card Series as first round; but I could live with the 2-8 first round participants to be paired by 156 game record. Ideally best of three series.

      –2nd & 3rd Round matchups detemined by overall record. Preferably both are best of seven.

      –World Series as normal.

      • I totally HATE the idea of a split season!!!!

        I am old enough to remember 1981. What a travesty (even if wild cards determined over a full season offset it somewhat). And some minor leagues do it. That’s not an idea I’d even want to entertain.

  3. Going from 154 games to 162 games was a cash grabbing mistake, and as MLB keeps adding playoff games, the case for going back to 154 gets stronger. This should be done irrespective of alignments and playoff formats, but would be a key part of improving playoff formats.

    Sabremetrics types would prefer that the two best teams play in the World Series, but the ideal way to do that would be for a completely balanced schedule, one league, no divisions, teams with two best records play in the World Series, but really in that situation the team with the best record would be the best team that particular year period. But people commenting on this tend to underrate the cost of travel and the value of rivalries between nearby cities. You actually want to get teams in nearby cities playing each other as much as possible, which leads to geographic divisions, unbalanced schedules, and now you have the need for playoffs.

    The other factor is which percentage of teams you want in the playoffs, and the owners have tended to prefer to maximize that. This drives the playoff format, and not the other way around. In the classic era, before 1961, one eighth of the team made the playoffs. This went down to one tenth of the teams in the 1960s and since has climbed. I think one fifth of the teams making the playoffs is the target to shoot for, but the owners now prefer one third, or ten teams out of thirty. If that is a given that has to be worked around.

    And the problem with the wild card was pretty much getting rid of the “win your division (or league) or sit out the postseason that made the pennant races so interesting, and getting rid of that in the divisions with the strongest teams and potentially the most interesting playoff races. You had situations, which would have occurred in the AL East and NL Central this year, where you had such a juggernaut team during the regular season that the runner up in the division was actually the second best team not year, not the team the juggernaut would face in the playoffs, but preventing these situations was not worth giving up the compelling playoff races.

    Weak divisional winners in small could be partially addressed by having a minimum games requirement to make the playoffs, I would start out with requiring at least a winning record, in which case there is a legitimate use of the wild card as the replacement team for a weak divisional winner, but it shouldn’t be a constant feature. If all the divisional winners are strong enough there should be no wildcards.

    So how do you reconcile ten teams in the playoffs (not my preference, but the owners are set on that), small geographically based divisions with unbalanced schedules, and no wildcards (except as replacements for weak division winners)?

    The solution I came up with was ten three team divisions (divided into the two historical leagues). There would be 154 regular season games, 72 (36 each!) against the other two teams in the division, 72 against the rest of the league, and 10 interleague games, so you have way less travel. The ten divisional winners make the playoffs, with wild cards substituting for any divisional winners that couldn’t win a majority of their games. The first round the five divisional winners each play three games against each other, with all three games taking place at the stadium of the team with the stronger regular season record. The two teams with the best record from the first round face off in the League Championship series, the winners as at present go to the world series. And it would be a good idea, though not necessary, to swap some more of the post 1961 created teams between the leagues to create tighter geographical three team divisions.

    • Well, yes, technically, 10 teams do make the playoffs, but two of them for only 1 game. That change wasn’t made to affect the playoffs, but to keep the end of the regular season interesting (and lucrative). Even so, compare 10/30 to the NBA (16/30) and NHL (16/31), for which the regular season almost seems pointless.

  4. The flaw I see in the wild card era is the results of the season do not matter. What I mean by that is whether a wild card finishes one game back or 17 back, the SAME rules apply. The Yankees were not close to winning their division, but win the wild card game and they just have to beat Boston three times to eliminate them. The two best teams in the AL are Boston and Houston. Any team that finishes more than 4 games out of first should not be allowed to play post season ball. I had an idea similar to the 2D2WC; The top two teams from each of the four divisions qualify. The second place team plays its divisional opponent in the division series but must win 4, 5, or 6 games depending on how many games back it finished. The division winners need to win only 3 games. Something similar to this could be applied to the current format. The wild card, or runner up, plays the top league winner but is already down one game. If the runner up finished four or more games back of first, it gets no home games along with being down one game in the division series. If either New York or Oakland wins, they play ALL the games in Boston and must win four times. If Chicago wins, they play the first two at Milwaukee, then the next two in Chicago, then games five and six back in Milwaukee if it goes that far. It makes sense they would have to spot Milwaukee a game because they finished one game behind them.

      • I’m not familiar with their system. I know the KBO system has the top wild card advancing if victorious, but the second wild card must win twice. I doubt a format where a team must spot their opponent a game or all the games of a series are played at one park would be adopted in MLB because the owners and players want every participant in the post season to have about a 50% chance of advancing to the next round. Teams with home field “advantage” in division series have gone on to win those series 51.08%.

    • Taking a look at the results of this season, the only tiebreaker game that should have been played was the one between LA and Colorado. The winner plays Atlanta. Chicago and Milwaukee, finishing tied with the best records, should have played each other in a best-of-five division series for the division title. Nothing artificial about it.
      In the AL, Cleveland plays Houston in a best-of-five and NY plays Boston in a best-of-six. If NY wins four games over Boston, they advance. If Boston wins three, they advance. Because Boston won their division so easily, ALL the games of this series are in Boston. Can NY defeat the Red Sox four times in Boston? I would say the odds are 16%. This is more than they deserve for finishing so far behind them in the standings.

  5. These are the reasons to have wildcard teams:

    1. The NFL, NBA, and NHL have them.

    2. Its a way to get more teams in the playoffs without smaller and weaker divisions

    3. Its often been the case that the runner up in a divisional race is actually the second best team in the league and elimination by pennant races would be unfair, with the wildcard the team with the second best record always makes the playoffs.

    4. Leagues have gone or should go to balanced schedules so you won’t get a case where a team with a better regular season record in a weaker division is actually the worse team compared to a team with a worse regular season record in a stronger division.

    The first two reasons are marketing reasons, but as I argued in my earlier comments, smaller and potentially weaker divisions are not really a problem if your playoff format sufficiently handicaps the weaker division champions, including excluding them altogether unless they have won a minimum amount of games.

    The second two reasons are more valid, but really the runner-up just has to try to win the next season, just like the losing team in any championship series, and the leagues don’t in fact have balanced schedules, nor should they if local rivalries and cutting down on travel time is important. Otherwise get rid of divisions altogether, and if you must have lengthy playoffs go to a round robin format with however many teams you want to see play with them.

    Pretty much the wild card functions are either not that important, as in ensuring the team with the second best record in the league is always in the playoffs, or there are more elegant ways to handle things.

    • These are the reasons to NOT have wild card teams:
      Over the 90+ years of MLB from 1901 to 1993, dozens upon dozens of pennant races going into the final week or weekend of the season.
      Baseball is not like football or basketball. Why does baseball have to jump on the bandwagon? No wild cards was a uniqueness of baseball. It was an endangered species. I suppose if a species is known only to live in an isolated part of the world, it should be exterminated because, LOOK! Everywhere ELSE it doesn’t exist.

  6. I very much agree with Thaddeus on this point, in particular:

    “Chicago and Milwaukee, finishing tied with the best records, should have played each other in a best-of-five division series for the division title.”

    Forcing either of these two teams into a one-game playoff for the Wild Card was simply unfair.

    Of course, this would require MLB to give up on the Wild Card game for a given league and postseason, under the contingency that two teams tie for best record. But that seems like a feature, not a bug (to me, someone who need not consider marketing!).

    • There doesn’t need to be a tie for the best record for this to occur. ANY tie for first will do. Suppose Chicago ended up with 96 wins and Milwaukee 95. The Cubs being division champs would play Atlanta, and Colorado would play LA for the West title in the other NLDS. Teams have 162 games to finish first and that is enough, unless of course, a tie occurs. I understand the strong/weak division argument, but every team gets ONE HUNDRED SIXTY-TWO games to show it is the best from that grouping. Those are plenty of chances. There can be ways to deal with weak division winners; If their records are separated by ten or more games from their playoff opponents, the format goes 2-2-3, the weaker team receiving only two home games. Of course, this would require a best-of-seven division series, which I am a proponent of because, the longer the series, the more likely the better team wins. But as I had stated a few days ago, the owners want every post season participant to have about a 50% chance of advancing to the next round. This is baseball after all. Bad teams defeat good teams frequently so an 87-win team can defeat a 98-win team in a short series and no one is shocked by the result. The wild card round is one game, the LDS are a 2-2-1 format, and the LCS are 2-3-2 because of the reason I stated.

    • I seem to be the only person who thinks MLB has right tiebreaker for division/wild card situations. Neither the Cubs nor the Brewers won their division title in 162 games. For over a century, baseball’s rules state that teams with equal winning percentages are equal. Naturally and rightfully their seasons were extended by an extra game to decide the matter. The Brewers won the division by a half game. The Cubs, as the best non-division winner, earned the right to host the Wild Card Game. Which they lost.

      If the Cubs wanted to make the NLDS they should have either won their division or won the playoff against the Rockies. This is sports, not real life. The rules were set at the beginning of the season. The best record is a meaningless concept in baseball. The best record of the three division records, yes. The best record of the two teams in the Wild Card Game or the World Series, yes. The best record in the league, no. (Though to be fair, the Cubs were a half game worse than the Brewers and did not have the best record.)

      Now excuse me, I feel like I either need a shower to find someplace to defend first past the post as the only truly democratic way of electing leaders, especially when the majority’s least preferred candidate wins.

      • Actually, the Brewers won their division by one game. Why not break the tie by playing a five game series? When teams tied for the pennant, a best-of-three was played, at least in the NL. During the one wild card era, if both teams tied and qualified for the playoffs, no game was played, which was awful. If there were no wild cards, then I would agree a one game tiebreaker must be played. If there is one wild card, those two teams that tied should play a best-of-five like the other division series. Adding another team to the playoffs was another mistake. The argument for two wild cards is winning a division has more meaning which is nonsense. The Dodgers played in a tiebreaker. They played 163 games just like the Yankees did. Were they put at a disadvantage? What seems to be overlooked is, the wild card IS A DIVISION ITSELF. With this one, an artificial tie is made for it every season. Adding more teams just allows worse records into the playoffs.

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