2016 World Series plate from the baseball Hall of Fame

Thoughts on MLB’s Playoff Format

This past season, with nearly all 100 win teams eliminated in their first playoff round there was plenty of expressed frustration around the expansion of the playoffs. Added to this was the Arizona Diamondbacks making the World Series where they lost to the Texas Rangers. The Diamondbacks were the last seed in the National League and even just a few years back wouldn’t have made it to the World Series. This World Series was also lowly rated and some would attribute that to the Diamondbacks seed going into the playoffs (though I’m sure there’s a market issue there) I have plenty of thoughts surrounding the formant and how it has changed.

The current MLB format has 3 division winners in each league along with 6 wild card winner. The top 2 division winners advance to the league’s division series while the 4 remaining teams play each other base upon seed. The last place division winner plays the last wild card team and the remaining 2 wildcard teams play all in a best of 3 series where the higher seed team is home team in every game.

When baseball first started the teams played a regular season and whoever had the best record at the end of the season was champion. When the American League became a power there seemed to be more desire to see who was best of the two leagues and determine a “World Champion” so at the end of each season so starting in 1903, at the end of the season whomever won each league would be declared the pennant winner and they’d compete for a World Championship. At the time, being the winner of the pennant was just as highly coveted if not even more so coveted than winning the series. This is the way baseball was up through 1968 (aside from the 1904 series when the Giants chose not to compete against the American League team)

Cleveland Indians item and Chicago White Sox World Series Champions hat
A couple of World Series item from the Baseball Hall of Fame (no, I don’t condone the ridiculous Cleveland Indians logo)

After expansion the leagues felt it necessary to break each leagues into divisions and for many years the winners of each division would compete in a championship series with the winners taking the pennant (as an aside I think terms like “pennant race” or “winning the pennant” probably should have been eliminated. I just feel the connotation isn’t the same as when you played a series to win the league.) This is how baseball was when I was a small child.

In 1995 the MLB instituted a wild card team and a new round to winning the playoffs. There were now 3 division winners. Them along with the best team of the non-division winners would all go to the playoffs now. I’m pretty certain that the 1993 playoff race was an argument used to do this when (among other races I’m sure) when an 103 win San Francisco Giants team missed the playoffs as they lost to the 104 win Atlanta Braves.

In 2012 the MLB inserted a 2nd Wild Card per league system, partially as an attempt to incentivize winning the division in a long season as the Wild Card winner basically earned the same reward as a division champion. Now the 2 Wild Card teams would play a one game winner take all match up to go to the “real playoffs”

Starting in 2020 the MLB went to the current format with the shortened 60 game season due to the COVID pandemic. After a 1 year break from it in 2022 the new style of playoffs was created and that’s where we are now.

I think all the systems have some kind of advantage to this. In a way this year’s regular season had more meaning as mediocre teams had more incentive to continue to try to win so they could have a shot at the last playoff spot but I do feel that in this format there’s still less incentive to try to be the best. When it comes to determining the best team I think baseball just works better as a long season sport and it does feel kind of shallow to watch a team dominate a season only to go 2-3 in a stretch (a very normal stretch in the course of a baseball season) vs a mediocre team and have it end 2 rounds before the World Series. While I don’t inherently hate extra playoff teams I’m not sure the advantage is big enough for the better team to make being the better team overly interesting. I’m not sure it’s even possible to create that kind of advantage in this sport so while I think the new system does a great job of making the regular season more interesting in the age of every major sports team turning to tanking as a teambuilding strategy, it doesn’t do a great job of rewarding being the best.

I, personally, liked the 2 Wild Card system in the sense that if you win a division you don’t have to deal with a 1 game coinflip situation but also there was still reason to win the Wild Card as it meant you got a shot. Sure it puts the top wild card winner at a disadvantage but that’s where some incentive to win a division championship still exists.

The major downside to any wild card situation in baseball however is the regular season pennant race/wild card race feels almost dead. One of my greatest memories watch baseball was that 93 pennant race. I didn’t even have a team in the race (I did pull for the Braves however) and just keeping track of if one team won or the other built a level of excitement that the current system just won’t ever replicate. The margin of error was so low for either team that the last month or so of regular season baseball had playoff level of excitement.

There are other great playoff races, too, over the years, and it’s built an importance to regular season baseball that is hard to find in the other major sports leagues (though I think the NFL has a great balance and that’s one of the reasons it’s the country’s most popular sport.) With that said, most of the time the excitement of the playoff race wasn’t there and so many teams had little to nothing to play for in terms of competing for a championship and as modern pro sports has evolved the desire to be a .500 team or to finished “first division” (in the pre division days, when each league had 8 teams, there was pride…..and more prize money….associated with finishing in that top half.) and shooting for those kinds of goals just doesn’t have any meaning for modern-day fanbases so I can see why there’s a push to expand playoffs.

Base from the 2016 World Series at the Baseball Hall of Fame
Base from the 2016 World Series at the Baseball Hall of Fame

I do wonder what the seasons from 1903-1968 were like. When each pennant was practically decided in mid summer the anticipation for that World Series had to be high. It had to have made the World Series feel almost like an event similar to what the NFL has as their championship, as I imagine the build for multiple months when a team has such a high lead in the standings. It’s hard, if not impossible to replicate that kind of anticipation with an expanded post season just because we don’t know the match ups until, at most, the week before the series.

My preference is essentially this, I have curiosity as it relates to the old days of the World Series, when it was the winner of each league and no playoffs. But even in those days, if your desire is to have your leagues champion be the “best team” that still didn’t always come through as there were plenty of times when teams with a very inferior record won the championship.

I like how, even in the age of 1 wild card, making the playoffs did feel like a major accomplishment for the team you rooted for but always hated how the 1 Wild Card team got basically the same advantage as the team with the best record. I essentially have an understanding that in US sports the idea of crowning a champion isn’t based upon who the best is…which is why all our sports have playoffs as opposed to sports like soccer, which work way better at crowning the best as champion. In our country, it’s more about determining the most entertaining way to crown a champion….(another reason I think football is more popular is because the way the NFL determines its champion makes the most sense. There will never be a season where one team plays everyone so there has to be some kind of playoff, one would think, as the schedules would always be imbalanced, and in American sports it’s probably there’s probably the closest connection between the best football team and champion compared to other sports)

With keeping competitive balance in mind while also accepting the entertainment-to-champion ratio (I just made that up) I still prefer the 2012, 2 wild card format. I think the 1 game thing is exciting. I think it kept winning a division meaningful and it seemed that oftentimes the World Series we got was between division winners with the occasional wild card team making a run to keep it interesting.

I’ll throw in one more caveat here. I’ve seen the idea of eliminating divisions and just do seeding by place in the league. This is a personal preference thing for me….I hate the way eliminating divisions would look aesthetically. I personally like the idea of doing at least some kind of placing by winning something. National League East Champion looks more pleasing to me than 2nd place in the league and also gives more structure to the playoffs. In my eyes if a team wins first in the league after 162 games it’s annoying to me they’re playing playoffs in the first place….they already won the thing when somehow with the current format it doesn’t directly call that kind of thing to attention for myself.

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