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!

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.)

The double wild card era, year 2

As I type this, the Reds vs. Pirates wild card playoff is underway.

I lost count of the number of times over the past week that I heard some dutiful announcer say how the excitement of the final stretch is exactly what MLB intended in its brilliant decision to add a second wild card. Count me unimpressed.

The final weekend of the regular season featured, in the National League, a series between the Reds and Pirates. Yes, the same two teams that are playing in today’s first postseason game. The Pirates dominated, winning all three. As a result, they finished the season four games ahead of the Reds. For that, they earn… a chance to lose, in just one game, their spot in the Division Series to the Reds. That is what MLB has created: a second chance for the just-defeated.

By finishing even one game ahead of the Reds, the Pirates earned home-field for the single game. But that is not enough. Single-elimination is just not fair in baseball, and it is especially not fair when it is a game between two teams that finished games apart during the regular season. We saw this happen last year, too: the Cardinals were six games worse than the Braves during the regular season, but the Cardinals advanced by beating the Braves in the single wild-card game.

As for the excitement of that final weekend, it seems to me that a do-or-die series between the contenders for one wild card would have been pretty exciting! Maybe at least as exciting as a battle for home-field in their next match-up!

The AL, for the second year in a row, has a better experience with the two wild cards. The final weekend was indeed exciting, with three teams competing for the two spots, and two of them tying for the second one. (I have no problem with single-elimination when two teams tied through the regular season schedule.) The two teams now set for the AL wild card playoff were just a game apart in the standings. I’d still prefer that the Indians go right to the Division Series and not have a second chance for a team that finished behind them, but at least there was not a four or six game gap. Still, a final weekend involving three teams competing for one slot would have been pretty exciting, too! And the three-way tie that came very close to happening might have resulted in a more compelling tiebreaker had only one of them been able to emerge as a playoff team, rather than two of them playing each other again.

Now that one league has had two cases of multi-game gaps between its two wild card teams in two tries, it should be seen as a major indictment of the new system. But instead, it seems that MLB and the media are patting themselves on the collective back about what a great new system they have given us.

And, yes, I still prefer the various formatting ideas I proposed over three years ago.

Game 7 following a classic Game 6: Will it be 1975 or 2002?

We have just had one of the most incredible sixth games of a World Series–or really any baseball game–ever played. Can Game 7 possibly live up to it?

Drawing from two relatively recent World Series (meaning those of which I have vivid memories), with an honorable mention for a third, we can ask: Will this Game 7 be like 2002 or like 1975? (The third example will come from 1986.)

In 2002, I had the distinct honor of being able to attend both the sixth and seventh games. In Game 6, the Angels came back from five runs down in the seventh inning, and won, 6-5. It was, and remains, the biggest late comeback in an elimination game in the history of the World Series (or, I believe, any other postseason series).

Game 7 started off with an unbelievable buzz in the stands. But once the game began, it just seemed like the visiting Giants were shellshocked, and just standing around waiting for something to happen. That “something” would be a double in the third inning by Garret Anderson that cleared the bases and gave the Angels a 4-1 lead that was never challenged. Game 7 had not come close to Game 6 in its excitement. (No complaints: The Angels won the World Series!!!)

In 1975, we also had a fantastic Game 6, with frequent lead changes, dramatic home runs, and extra innings. It was and remains, by all accounts, one of the great baseball games at least of recent decades, if not all time. The Boston Red Sox blew an early 3-run lead, then overcame a 6-3 deficit in the 8th to tie it. They won on the famous “will it fair” home run by Carlton Fisk in the bottom of the 12th.

Game 7 was not too shabby, either, even if is not nearly as well remembered as game 6. The Red Sox took an early 3-0 lead, but never scored again, eventually allowing the Reds to score the go-ahead run in the top of the 9th, so that Cincinnati won the championship. Thus did they miss a chance to win their first World Series since 1918–they would not win till 2004. (The Giants, on the other hand, waited only 8 years to brush off the tough loss of 2002, and finally win their first since their move to San Francisco in 1958.)

Following last night’s unbelievable Game 6 defeat, will the Rangers be more like the shellshocked 2002 Giants, or the quick-recovering 1975 Reds?

We could also add to the conversation 1986, when Game 6 featured the implausible “one pitch away” meltdown of the Red Sox as they were on the verge of clinching that elusive championship in Game 6. They took a 5-3 lead over the NY Mets in the top of the 10th–much like the Rangers last night (who had also blown a 2-run lead in the 9th). Game 7 featured a 3-0 lead for the Red Sox that held from the second inning till the sixth. They never led again, but made things interesting in the 8th. So in 1986 the in-game events of Game 7 bore a bit more in common with 1975. But like 2002, it featured the shocked loser of Game 6 losing again.

There have been some great sixth games, and some great seventh games. Only a few series have been great in both games 6 and 7. ((1991 springs to mind. No implausible comebacks in either game, just two spectacular baseball games with it all on the line.)) Here’s hoping that, whatever the outcome, this is one of the latter!

An absolute classic

There have been some great sixth games: 2002, 1991, 1986, 1975 (and those are just the ones I’m old enough to remember). Was this one better yet? Twice down by two runs in a would-be final inning. Twice down to the last strike. Wow.

I’ve never been so nervous watching a game that did not involve the Angels. And the tension kept on coming and coming…

This has been some Series. It had to go seven, and what a way to get there. Wow.

These Comeback Cards keep coming back!

Playoff formats

It has been just over a week–and a week in which we have had some pretty good playoff games already–but I still can’t believe the incredible games we were treated to on the last day of the regular season.

Here’s hoping that this epic finish to the wild-card races in each league put to rest the plan, first broached just over a year ago–to add a fifth team to the postseason. Had such a format been in play this season, the collapses by Boston and Atlanta, and late surges by Tampa Bay and St. Louis, would have been meaningless. Each pair merely would have been slated for a new playoff round rather than a loser-goes-home sprint to the finish line of the 162-game season.

I would still advocate my “two divisions, two wild cards” format (which still has four, not five, teams advance). It would not have deprived us of the great season’s finish this year. In a year when the wild card team has the 4th best record, it would never deprive us of a race, under the current format, for that slot. However, in a year when the wild card has a better record than a division winner, which is a common occurrence, it can only enhance the races, by reducing the chance of a division winner with only the 5th or worse record in its league.

Two divisions, two wild cards. Not three divisions, two wild cards.