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!