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What Can Be Done to Adjust MLB Playoffs?

The playoffs are a breeding ground for the absurdity and chaos that comes from the game of baseball. After grinding out 162 games, with some teams winning over 100 games, a season can be over in the blink of an eye after they get swept in a series.

The 2023 playoffs have already been a surprise as three Wild Card teams have advanced to the League Champion Series, and none of the teams remaining have more than 100 wins. In fact, the three teams that one 100 games went a combined 1-9 in the playoffs and the top five teams went a combined 1-13. Two of the top teams were swept in the Division Series while the Atlanta Braves fell flat, losing in four games. The baseball world has begun debating the current playoff system and whether or not it needs adjustment since it seems it negates the significance of the regular season and seemingly punishes teams that did well. There are arguments are both sides and it’s worthwhile to address them both.

The First Round Bye

Since the implementation of the Wild Card in 1995, there has been an option that the “worst team” could end up winning the World Series. Since 1995, there have been seven Wild Card teams to win the World Series and 14 Wild Card teams that have reached the World Series. As it stands, 2023 could see those numbers become eight and 16 respectively with the current playoff landscape.

The main argument is that the first-round bye punishes teams that did well in the regular season. Unlike other sports, baseball is one where extended days off can be detrimental. After playing games every day with an off-day or two thrown into the week, five days off suddenly feels like forever. It’s possible that it can throw off the hitter’s timing not seeing regular game speed action as there is only so much you can do in a simulated team game.

Layovers are bound to happen in the postseason, that’s just the nature of the beast when a team pulls off a sweep while another series drags on the full length. The prerogative is to play as few games as possible on your way to a World Series title, but the new playoff format has an intended twist on the format. Because of the new, expanded playoff field featuring three Wild Card teams per league, the Wild Card round has become a best-of-the-three series as opposed to a one-game faceoff when it was just two Wild Card teams.  The top two division leaders find themselves with nearly a week off since their last game which is huge for a team preparing for the playoffs.

Momentum is huge in baseball, especially in the postseason. When a team gets hot at the right time, they are a force to be reckoned with regardless of their record. Colorado Rockies fans will recall in 2007 when the team was the hottest in baseball and swept their way to the World Series, they had to wait nine days between their last game and the start of the World Series. The team had cooled off with inactivity and was swept by a Boston Red Sox team that caught a hot streak to stage a comeback against the Cleveland Indians in seven games. Time off can be detrimental to a team. It’s not the end all, be all of excuses for some team’s failure, but it can play a role.

Regular season records can be subjective in terms of how good a team really is. Strengths of schedule can play a role, as teams like the Dodgers regularly beat up poor teams while being more evenly matched against competitive teams. The path to the postseason is often decided in the final month of the season as a team may find themselves struggling down the stretch, unable to finish the marathon. If a team is playing poorly, days off could benefit, while a team that is hot could find it detrimental. There is really no single way to explain why the Division Series had the results they did. You can blame the bye and wait time, but you can also point to the questionable pitching and the fact that the best players in the league didn’t rise to the occasion to perform on the biggest stage when their teams needed them to. The byes allow you to have a seat at the table and get your affairs in order to prepare for the sprint in October, but there are adjustments that I believe could be made.

The Wild Card And Division Rounds

The key to everything boils back to the Wild Card. The Wild Card presents an attainable goal for every team. Sure, it probably rewards worse teams a chance to arrive at the dance, but not all teams are built equally in MLB. Teams like the Marlins are going to have a hard time taking the crown in the NL East, but a third Wild Card spot is just what the doctor ordered to give them a chance. Giving more teams a chance to make the postseason in the current format is beneficial to the sport, but it shouldn’t be easy for them to advance. For the second year in a row with this new playoff format, two Wild Card teams will be in the National League Championship Series.

A change that would likely address the current complaint is to revert the Wild Card round to a single elimination game. Two days after the final day of the regular season, the first game of the four Wild Card matchups began. All the matchups resulted in two-game sweeps, and with the Division Series already scheduled to start on Saturday, there were two off days before things started in that round. Bringing back the single game could help reduce waiting time for the teams with a bye. A single elimination is a do-or-die moment that leads to some incredible baseball and forces teams to use their ace which limits when they could conceivably be used in the Division Series.

Now, this could prove unfair to the third-division winner which would likely necessitate another Wild Card team which would mean half the league is making the playoffs, something that doesn’t exactly benefit the league. Another adjustment that could be made is to just have the bottom two Wild Cards play a single elimination game, with the winner playing the top Wild Card team in another single elimination. The ultimate winner would then move on to play the top seed in the Division Series. This would allow all the division winners to have a bye and add one small layer to the previous format pre-2022. Also, it may prevent the Wild Card teams from riding the high of a two-game sweep to gather momentum.

One last minor change is to make each round after the Wild Card a best-of-seven series. Both the NHL and NBA follow this format in their playoff format, yet MLB has made the Division Series a best-of-five series. Not only would an adjustment to this structure help keep a relatively same amount of games for MLB to make money, but it will level out the field in a game. It adds to the drama and excitement of having to win 12 games in total for most teams, leaving some room for error in that first round, especially if you maintain the current format with the wait time. A four-game sweep can be difficult to achieve and when it does happen, it’s notable and says a lot about a team.

Conclusion

I agree with the sentiment that the MLB playoffs do cater towards Wild Card teams in a way. It’s nice that all teams have a better chance at making the playoffs, but it unintentionally does work against the better teams with better records. I love that the “best teams” were upset by the “worst teams” because that is the magic of the postseason. However, adjustments can be made to not only limit the excuses of those better teams that do fail to deliver but also better replicate the results of the regular season. The MLB playoffs are some of the best in sports, but they aren’t perfect and discussions should constantly be had between the league and the players to make sure it is not only fair but competitive and enjoyable for all involved.

 

 

 

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