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.