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MLB’s expanded playoff format may actually level the playing field for small market teams

As I sit here and type this article, the Pittsburgh Pirates are 66-76 and helplessly out of the National League Central Division race with 20 games to go in the 2023 regular season.

But while the Pirates are 13.5 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in their division, they are just 8.5 games back of the sixth and final wildcard spot in the National League.

I shouldn’t say “just” when talking about a team that is 8.5 games behind with only 20 to go, but it is pretty amazing Pittsburgh still has a slim shot at the postseason, even while sitting at 10 games below .500.

The reason the Pirates still have a postseason pulse has to do with Major League Baseball’s decision to expand its playoff field to 12 teams a season ago.

If you’re unaware of the new format, it’s similar to the NFL. Six teams from the American League and six from the National League qualify for the postseason. The top two division winners in each league earn a bye to the Divisional Series, while the division winner with the third-best record plays in the wildcard round. Three wildcard teams now qualify for the postseason in each league, with the sixth seed taking on the division winner with the third-best record (the number three seed) and the fourth and fifth wildcard teams facing off against one another.

The wildcard round is no longer single-elimination; it now consists of two best-of-three series in each league, with the higher seed hosting all three games (if necessary).

Under this format, for example, the Pirates, who qualified for the playoffs as the top wildcard for three straight seasons starting in 2013, may have had more success. Instead, Pittsburgh defeated the Reds at PNC Park in 2013 but was shut out at home by the Giants in 2014 and then by the Cubs in 2015.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, they could never surpass the mighty Cardinals for NL Central supremacy and were forced into a single-elimination format for three years in a row. This was especially galling in 2015 when Pittsburgh entered the postseason with 98 wins but was quickly dispatched by Jake Arrieta, the hottest pitcher on the planet, in the wildcard round. The Cubs scored a run in the first inning which was more than enough, as Arrieta, that season’s NL Cy Young Award winner, went the distance for a complete game, 4-0 victory.

The whole “hottest pitcher on the planet” thing wasn’t new to the Pirates, a team that was victimized by Madison Bumgarner, who also pitched a complete game shutout in the wildcard round the year before.

The problem for a team like the Pirates is they’re rarely fortunate enough to have the most dominant pitcher in baseball at any given moment. Those Pirates teams from the mid-2010s did have a great starting staff and an excellent bullpen. They had a good offensive lineup and weren’t too shabby on defense. Andrew McCutchen, the 2013 National League MVP, was one of the best players in baseball at the time.

The Pirates were also one of baseball’s best teams in those days, but they were built to win “best-of” series more than single-elimination games.

If the current Pirates, a team that is young but seemingly improving, can ever find their way back to the postseason, it’s nice to know they’ll at least have more than one game to make their case for advancement to the next round.

And, heck, it’s also nice to know that simply having a .500 record (which Pittsburgh would currently have with just five more victories and five fewer losses) should usually be enough to at least keep a team in the wildcard race until the final days of the regular season.

I think the expanded postseason format, along with the decision to make the wildcard round a best-of-three format, has done wonders to even the playing field for small-market teams like the Pirates.

We saw what a wildcard team–even the sixth seed–could do in 2022 when the Phillies, who finished in third place in the National League Eastern Division with an 87-75 record, advanced all the way to the World Series before falling to the Astros in six games.

Philadelphia defeated the fifth-seeded Padres in the NLCS. San Diego, winners of 89 regular season games, defeated the Mets in three games in the wildcard series and then upset the mighty Dodgers in the NLDS.

You might say the Phillies, despite their wildcard status, were still a big-market team that managed to get hot at the right time.

You’re probably right about that, but any organization can build a good roster if it makes enough sound moves. Unfortunately for small-market franchises, their window to succeed usually closes after a few years.

The Pirates had a three-year window to succeed between 2013 and 2015 but could only get as far as the NLDS once.

It’s pretty obvious that nobody associated with baseball, especially the big-market teams and the players’ union, wants a salary cap.

No matter how much fans of small-market teams call for one, the league is currently making too much money for anyone–including small-market owners–to challenge the status quo.

Therefore, an expanded postseason format, complete with the elimination of single-elimination wildcard games, is about the best possible way for small-market teams to have a chance to compete on a regular basis.

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