The New Playoff Format

On the off chance that you, as a baseball fan, haven’t been paying attention, Major League Baseball is going with an expanded playoff format this year. Six teams from each league will be fighting it out; the two division winners in each league with the best records will sit out the first round of playoffs while the other four battle it out in best-of-three series for the opportunity to face them in the second round.

Here’s how the “seeding” works:

1st seed: Division winner with the best overall record.
2nd seed: Division winner with the next best record.
3rd seed: Division winner with the third best record.
4th, 5th, and 6th seeds: Non-division winners with the three best overall records.

There are a bunch of rules in place to prevent the need for tiebreaking games.

In the first round, the third and sixth seeds play each other, as do the fourth and fifth seeds. In the next round, the winner in that first series (3 vs 6) will play the second seed; the winner in the other series (4 vs 5) will play the first seed.

Pretty complicated, isn’t it. It will get worse should MLB decide to expand the playoffs to seven teams per league, as some are speculating.

Anyway, it is always useful when there’s a format change like this to hop back in time and see what the playoffs would have looked like if these rules were in place at the time…

2019 National League: The Washington Nationals made it through the wild card round over the Milwaukee Brewers to eventually win the World Series. In the new format, the seeding would have been like this:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56)
2. Atlanta Braves (97-65)|
3. St Louis Cardinas (91-71)
4. Washington Nationals (93-69)
5. Milwaukee Brewers (89-73)
6. New York Mets (86-76)

Doesn’t look like much would have changed, though I’m sure that Mets fans would have loved the playoff berth. And if they managed to get past the Cardinals – they won the season series against Washington, 12-7….

2014: Both World Series teams, the Giants and the Royals, were Wild Cards going in to the playoffs….

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (98-64)
2. Baltimore Orioles (96-66)
3. Detroit Tigers (90-72)
4. Kansas City Royals (89-73)
5. Oakland Athletics (88-74)
6. Seattle Mariners (87-75)

Hey! The Mariners ended their playoff drought!

1. Washington Nationals (96-66)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers (94-68)
3. St Louis Cardinals (90-72)
4. Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74)
5. San Francisco Giants (88-74)
6. Milwaukee Brewers (82-80)

The Pirates have the better seed, thanks to taking their season series from the Giants, 4 games to 2. That’s too small a sample size to make a guess at who would have won a best-of-three series between them, but there’s still a good chance the Giants would have been knocked out in the first round. And look! A team with a decidedly mediocre record (Milwaukee) made it in!

2011: This was the season where practically everything was decided on the last day.

1. New York Yankees (97-65)
2. Texas Rangers (96-66)
3. Detroit Tigers (95-67)
4. Tampa Bay Rays (91-71)
5. Boston Red Sox (90-72)
6. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (86-76)

With both Boston and Tampa Bay guaranteed a playoff spot going in to the last week, would Game 162 have been so exciting? They’d have only been fighting for who got to host their three game wild card series….

1. Philadelphia Phillies (102-60)
2. Milwaukee Brewers (96-66)
3. Arizona Diamondbacks (94-68)
4. St Louis Cardinals (90-72)
5. Atlanta Braves (89-73)
6. San Francisco Giants (86-76)

With the Phillies and Brewers getting to sit out the first round, would they be rested and ready for whoever came out of the wild card series? And would the final game for the Braves have been so exciting if they had already clinched a playoff spot?

2007 National League: It took a Game 163 tiebreaker between the Rockies and Padres to decide who would enter the playoffs as the wild card team – and it went to extra innings.

1. Arizona Diamondbacks (90-72)
2. Philadelphia Phillies (89-73)
3. Chicago Cubs (85-77)
4. Colorado Rockies (89-73)
5. San Diego Padres (89-73)
6. New York Mets (88-74)

The Rockies get the higher seed by virtue of taking the season series from the Padres, 10-8 (not including the tiebreaker). Yes, the Cubs have a better seed despite a worse record, because they won the NL Central division. Winning a division must count for something. It would have been a good race, with three teams fighting over the three spots. Keep in mind that the sixth seed would face the weaker Cubs in the second round – and of those three teams, both the Padres and Mets had a winning record against them. Would it be a race to the sixth spot?

2006 National League: The St Louis Cardinals, with an 83-78 record (a game that was rained out was not made up, as it turned out to be unnecessary), are arguably the worst team to ever win the World Series.

1. New York Mets (97-65)
2. San Diego Padres (88-74)
3. St Louis Cardinals (83-78)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74)
5. Philadelphia Phillies (85-77)
6. Houston Astros (82-80)

What a mess of mediocrity. The Padres win the NL West by virtue of taking their season series from the Dodgers, 13 games to 5. Who knows if the Cardinals could have survived another round of playoffs?

2001 American League: The Seattle Mariners ruled the regular season with a 116-46 record, but fell to the Yankees in the playoffs.

1. Seattle Mariners (116-46)
2. New York Yankees (95-67)
3. Cleveland Indians (91-71)
4. Oakland Athletics (102-60)
5. Minnesota Twins (85-77)
6. Chicago White Sox (83-79)

Pity the poor Oakland Athletics. Second best record in all of baseball, and they are stuck dealing with the Twins in a first round, while the Yankees get to rest.

Yes, I deliberately picked some of the more interesting or closer pennant races. If you want to work out the seeding for some of the less interesting races, you are free to do so.

With more playoff berths, more teams to get to enjoy the chance at a championship (and MLB makes more money from the greater number of games). But that also opens up the field for more mediocre teams, and can make it harder for the really good teams to advance. It can also take away a lot of the fun and excitement in a pennant race (I’m looking at you, 2011). And before MLB expands the playoffs, we should ask ourselves if it’s worth giving more teams a chance at a title if it also means that bad teams get to participate….



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