The MLB playoff system, first (?) rant of 2021

I’ve complained many times about the MLB playoff system. In fact, when I was looking back on September, 2005 (while drafting the entry on this month’s elections) I happened upon my plea for MLB to develop an anti-mediocrity provision, on account of the Padres leading their division in late August, and thus looking assured of a postseason berth, despite being under .500. The Padres did end that season over .500, barely, at 82-80. This was the seventh best record in the National League that year, yet they ended up coasting in to the playoff with a five game lead in their division, while the Phillies (88-74), and Marlins and Mets (both 83-79) sat out. (The Astros were the single Wild Card included in the postseason at the time, at 89-73, being in the same division with the Cards who went 100-62). Every team in the NL East was at .500 or better.

Here we are in 2021, with another absurdity of the playoff format on display as we enter the final weeks of the season. There is no sub-.500 team threatening to make the playoff, fortunately. However, there is a problem potentially even worse: The team with the second best record in the NL could end up playing only one playoff game despite a THIRTEEN AND A HALF GAME lead over the team it would face in the single Wild Card Game. Meanwhile, a team with the fifth best record (currently the Braves, leading the NL East) goes straight to a Division Series.

As I write this, an important regular-season showdown series is about to begin, between the old rivals, the Dodgers and Giants. This will be exciting! The two are currently tied for best record, at 85-49. If there is one good thing we can say about the current playoff format, it is that it certainly matters which of these teams wins the division, and hence goes straight to a Division Series, while the other faces a single-elimination game against the second Wild Card.

Therein lies precisely the problem. It would be a travesty if the team with the second best record happened to lose that one game and be out. You just should not set up a baseball postseason so that one game, rather than a series, can end the post-season of one of your top two teams. Yet at the moment, the second Wild Card slot is held by a team (the Reds) that is 13.5 games behind the Dodgers/Giants. The Padres, who not too many weeks ago seemed a shoo-in for this slot, are another half game back, in a fight not only with the Reds but also with the Phillies (2.5 out in the WC as well as just 2 out in the NL East) and Cards.

It seems that even with two wild cards, there is still a need for an anti-mediocrity provision. I’d say the fundamental problem–now as it was in 2005–is with the privilege in the postseason seeding given to division winners. I understand the value MLB places on having regional representation (kind of like I understand that in electoral systems!), but there needs to be more privilege to the overall national result (again, as in my electoral-system preferences!). I have had a proposal over the years, although it was for four teams per league advancing, not the current five. Surely institutional designers could come up with a better system than one that pits a team that might be just behind–or even tied for–the best record against a mediocre team in a single-game playoff, while still giving an appropriate benefit for being the best regular-season team.

9 thoughts on “The MLB playoff system, first (?) rant of 2021

  1. Looking at the standings in the National League, I would have St. Louis play Atlanta in a best-of-three, all games in Atlanta. The victor of that series plays Milwaukee. If Milwaukee plays Atlanta, it is a best-of-five. If Milwaukee plays St. Louis, it is a best-of-four, all games in Milwaukee, and St. Louis must win three games to advance while Milwaukee only needs two. The Dodgers and Giants would play each other in the other NLDS. If they finish tied, it is a best-of-five. If SF remains in first, it is a best-of-four, all games in SF, the Giants needing two wins to advance while the Dodgers need three.
    In the American League, Chicago plays Houston in an ALDS. The two wild cards play in a best-of-three, all games at the higher ranking teams field. The winner plays Tampa Bay in a best-of-four, all games in Tampa. The wild card needs to win three times to advance. TB only needs to win twice to advance.

    • I like most of this. The problem I see, if I understand correctly, is having some teams remain off while a series between weaker teams is taking place. They do that in the KBO, but it seems the conventional wisdom is that sitting for several days is not good for a baseball team. Of course, CW is often less than wise.

      • The season ends on a Sunday. Game 1 of the division round begins Thursday and in the National League, not until Friday. With no tiebreakers, the best-of-three series could begin the Monday following the final day of the season. Under the current format, division winners already receive three or four consecutive days off. A best-of-three could be played during that time and the division winners would not wait a day longer.

      • Good point, but you still need time for possible tiebreakers and also for any regular season make-up games that must be played to settle a playoff spot (we got one of those in 2020).

      • I know you said, “with no tiebreakers…” but the point is you have to leave room for them, unless you are willing to just delay the start of one of the series if some of those interim dates are needed. And that option presents its own set of complications.

  2. Suppose there is one week to go in the regular season and all playoff spots have been determined. Why not just start the wild card series on the Monday. Yes, you have to leave room until you know when you DON’T have to leave room. This has happened plenty of times when five or more days before the season ends, we know who is going to play who and the wild card game is still played on the Tuesday. Why not play on Monday?
    If a tiebreaker(s) is needed or, might be needed with three or less games to play, then play the wild card series on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. The division series can start Friday. If you know four or more days ahead there will be no tiebreaker, the series can start Monday.
    There are too many off days during the playoffs. A five-game series does not require TWO off days.

    • You are right. The playoffs COULD be more flexible. I’d say they should be.The playoffs definitely have two many days off. To the point where I say that the playoffs don’t properly test a team. A team needs five starters in the regular season, they should have to use five in the playoffs too.

      Even if they abolished tiebreakers (which would be a very sad decision), the players don;t want to be in a position where they have to play on one coast on Sunday and the other coast on Tuesday. A day off before starting the Wild Card won’t be eliminated. But much, much more importantly, the TV dollars are what count. TV really likes setting the schedule. They like more frequent match-ups between ace pitchers. They like stretching out the schedule. They like avoiding football when they can,

      I’d be surprised, though pleasantly so, if a potential three game Wild Card series didn’t have scheduled travel days.

      • I see where you are coming from about each team must use five starters if the series goes at least five games. However, if managers want to pitch players on short rest, that is up to them.
        The proposed playoff expansion included seven teams from each league with only one team from each league receiving a bye. The other 12 would play in best-of-three “wild card” rounds. There would be no travel for these series since all the games are played at the higher ranked team. Whether there are days off between games was not specified.

  3. At the present moment, since the introduction of the second wild card, 17 division series involving wild cards have been completed (2020 does not count). Of those 17, eight have been victorious. In other words, the teams that finished with their league’s best record have lost 8 out of 17 times in the divisional round. Giving these teams only one more potential home game is not enough.

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