MLB Ruined the playoffs – is there a way to undo this madness?
After the MLB overhauled its postseason format last season, we’ve officially gone through two iterations of the new-look Wild Card Series. With four matchups happening between the two leagues each year, we’ve seen eight of these best-of-three series so far, and seven have been two-game sweeps, with the Mets-Padres series from 2022 being the only one to yield a winner-take-all game three.
We’re also seeing some seemingly-fluky Division Series results, as the league’s best teams “enjoy” a bye, but appear to lose momentum and lose to inferior squads. For instance, last year’s historic Dodgers, who won 111 games, lost to a Padres team from their own division who finished 22 games below them. This year, the top-seeded Orioles, who won 101 games, were swept by a 90-win Rangers squad that squeaked into the playoffs, and the #2 Dodgers are a game away from suffering the same fate against a mediocre Diamondbacks team.
Both of these trends amount to absolutely awful television, so how can we fix it? Let’s take a look at three paths to a better October
Option 1: Go Back
The obvious argument against this one is of course financial; fewer teams, fewer games, less broadcasting time, less money. But in terms of entertainment and on-field product, the Wild Card game was outstanding. The Wild Card game produced iconic World Series Champions, the 2014 Giants and 2019 Nationals, who needed a gutsy comeback to get through their one-game playoff, and gave us some absolutely phenomenal ballgames.
The Rockies lost an 11-8 barn burner against the division rival Diamondbacks in 2017, and then won a 13-inning marathon against the Cubs the very next year by a score of 2-1. The 2015 Pirates won 98 games, just to meet the third-placed Cubs from their own division, who won 97. Over in the American League, the 2014 game was an absolute spectacle that took 12 innings to finish, as the eventual pennant-winning Royals beat the Oakland A’s by a score of 8-9.
The AL East serially produced contestants, as Aaron Judge’s “Baby Bomber” Yankees came back to beat the Twins in 2017, and lost to the rival Red Sox in a memorable Fenway clash in 2021, while the 2015 Blue Jays took 11 innings to get past the Orioles.
Overall, the Wild Card game was tremendously fun baseball, and started every postseason off with the thrill of a game seven. It offered the perfect blend of giving enough teams a chance, but still making the regular season count, as nobody wants their whole year to boil down to one game. There was nothing wrong with this format; the MLB could always just admit their mistake and return to the status quo.
Option 2: Go WAY Back, With a Twist
If we’re being totally honest, there were very few complaints about the MLB playoff format post-1995, when the league introduced Wild Card teams, and thus the Division Series. The Wild Card teams were often long shots, but some absolutely iconic World Champions were given their postseason spot by the idea.
The then-Florida Marlins grabbed rings in 1997 and 2003 after joining the league in 1993, both times as a Wild Card in the NL. The Angels grabbed their lone ring as the AL’s 2002 Wild Card, while two years later, the Boston Red Sox secured perhaps the most famous ring of the modern era after taking down the division-rival Yankees, a series that couldn’t have existed pre-Wild Card. Finally, the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals won a ring as the NL’s Wild Card in the final year of the format, before the one-game playoffs took place.
If the league wants to reduce randomness, thus keeping their best teams on the field for longer, while still getting more games to televise, they could return to the four-team format, but make the Division Series best of seven, like the League Championship and of course World Series. This would give the best teams more of a chance to shine, and eliminate the bye factor, while of course maximizing the number of games played. This approach could also be bundled into option 1, with the seven-game Division Series kicking off after the one-game playoffs take place.
Option 3: Phone a Friend
This one is a little bit out there, but it just might be the best way to proceed. If the league wants to provide more of an incentive to win the division, give a chance to as many teams as possible, and get the Wild Card round done at least slightly faster than it is right now, they should take a page out of another major American sports league’s book and concoct a variation off of the NBA play-in format.
The NBA play-in format requires three games played per conference, but we’re going to get away with two. In this iteration of the MLB Playoffs, the postseason starts with the five-seed in each league hosting the six-seed. The loser’s season is over, while the winner goes on to play a road game at the four-seed’s ballpark. The winner of that second game gets a spot in the Division Series against the top-seeded team, just like in the 2012-21 format.
Under this format, the postseason is guaranteed to start with four win or go home games, regardless of how each individual matchup goes, and the networks get to televise two more games than they did under the pre-2022 format. Six teams still get a crack at the postseason, but there’s much more incentive to finish fourth as opposed to fifth or sixth, and there’s certainly reason for teams to push to win their division and avoid the whole play-in ladder entirely.
To return to the winner-take-all excitement of the 2012-21 era, and capture the electric six-seeds of the past two years, this is the way to go. The networks might get a bit of a smaller piece of the pie, but if the sweeps keep coming under the current format, it’s hardly any better.
This is an article written by Will Schwartz
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