What MLB’s new playoff format has meant so far this year — and how it could be even better

What MLB’s new playoff format has meant so far this year — and how it could be even better post thumbnail image

It was the best of pennant races, it was the worst of pennant races; it was the summer of drama, it was the summer of weariness. Any of these things could be true and we wouldn’t have to change a single score from the 2022 regular season.

Right now, after nearly five months of baseball, 18 teams are either in possession of a slot or within seven games of one. That’s the story of this season, played under baseball’s latest set of rules: a 162-game regular season — 142 intraleague games and 20 interleague contests for each team — in a structure of two leagues and six divisions, with six playoff slots up for grabs in each circuit.

But a century ago, baseball was played under different rules. Let’s say the extant Major Leagues had kept its original two-league structure, in which only one team from each league made the playoffs. With 30 teams rather than the traditional 16, that would make for some unwieldy standings, but hang with me for a moment.

Most big league cities would be very much looking forward to the upcoming start of the football season. The Houston Astros would hold a narrow three-game lead over the New York Yankees in the American League, but no other club would be closer than 11 games out of the AL’s top spot.

In the National League, the picture would even be more grim. The rampaging Los Angeles Dodgers would hold a 7½-game lead over the New York Mets and a 9½-game edge over the Atlanta Braves. The fourth-place St. Louis Cardinals, red hot as they are, would be a distant 14½ games back.

In essence, we’d have three teams battling for the two slots in the World Series, with nearly six weeks left. That, instead, would be the story of the 2022 season.

Format is narrative, and the story of any regular season in a professional league is dictated by the logistics of the structure. Those factors — league and divisional assignments, playoff format and schedule formula — inform the narratives we create and remember about any given season.

Which makes this a good time to examine the dynamics of this year’s format. As we know, this season the playoff bracket expanded from 10 teams to 12. On Wednesday, we got the details of another fundamental change that we knew was coming, as the new interleague-heavy schedule for the 2023 campaign was released.

Thus, this seems like a good time to consider baseball’s evolving format. What’s working? What might be tweaked? What stories about the baseball season can we tell — and what will they look like a year from now?

The playoff bracket

As mentioned, as we close in on Labor Day, more teams are alive in this year’s playoff chase than are not. Eighteen teams all retain at least a 3% chance at the playoffs, according to my latest run of simulations. Of those, only one club — the Boston Red Sox — is under .500. That’s actually good news, as under this format there will be years when a number of sub-.500 clubs are in the race and, invariably, someday one of them will get into the playoffs.

Let’s shift the clock back a few weeks to Aug. 1, which is roughly just after the trade deadline in any given season. The deadline, of course, is when teams generally declare themselves a contender or non-contender for the stretch run, depending on how they make deals.

There were 19 teams within eight games or closer to a playoff spot when this season’s deadline arrived (on Aug. 2, thanks to the delayed start to the season), all with nonzero hopes for the playoffs.

That’s the goal, of course — to get more teams involved in the races later in the season. And this year we had a relatively active deadline, with teams angling for the wild-card slots and division leaders patching holes where they could.

But in truth, that number, 19, is actually a bit low. From 2013 to 2021, under this year’s new 12-team format (leaving aside the shortened 2020 season and its 16-team playoff bracket), that figure would have been anywhere between 18 and 26. The average is 21.8.

Those teams averaged a .536 winning percentage, which translates to 87 wins over a full season. On average, 5.9 sub-.500 teams per season would be within hailing distance of a playoff spot.

In a 10-team format, the average number of contenders drops to 19.9 and the average number of sub-.500 contenders falls to four. The typical contender would be on an 88-win pace.

So you can see the trade-offs in play. More playoff spots means more contenders, though with each expansion of the bracket, you’re stretching the definition of what a contender looks like. Here’s a summary of a bunch of different formats, using seasonal averages from 2013 to 2022:

The aforementioned trade-offs leap out at you. The smaller the bracket, the stronger the field. The larger the bracket, the more “contenders” you have — but also the more losing teams that hang around.

Which format is the best? That depends entirely on what you are trying to accomplish and your personal proclivities. It seems we can all agree, though, that some sort of balance needs to be maintained between keeping hope alive in a number of markets and completely undermining the competitive integrity of the races.

Does this format achieve this balance?

Pros of the current format: Keeping hope alive

On the plus side, there are a lot of teams still well in this season’s chase. While, sure, mediocrity is good enough to keep hope alive, at least there isn’t a deluge of losing teams vying for a shot at the Fall Classic. (All seasons won’t be like this.)

Now, let’s remember our playoff format: Two division winners in each league get byes. The top seed plays the winner of the No. 4 versus 5 matchup in the wild-card round, which is a meeting of the top wild card and the second-best wild card. The No. 2 seed gets the winner of the wild-card series between the No. 3 seed, which is the third-best division champ, and the No. 6 seed, or the third-best wild-card entrant.

There is no reseeding. So if the No. 6 seed springs an early upset, the No. 2 seed would get an easier matchup (in terms of win-loss records) in the LDS round than the No. 1 seed.

This format does have one nice dynamic to it on top of the overall number of teams it keeps in the race. That would be the races for the first-round byes among the division leaders, which will be really compelling in some seasons. This isn’t one of them, as both leagues have a Central division that will have a champion that lags well behind the pace of the other divisions. But in many seasons, when two or all three of the division leaders have similar records, the races for those byes will create some considerable stretch-run tension.

In a season like this, that tension is lacking. Sure, we might wonder if the Yankees can catch the Astros for that No. 1 seed in the AL, but the stakes don’t seem incredibly high. Thus our eyeballs go to the division races still in play, and the races for the wild-card slots. The best teams in the sport are already looking ahead to the playoffs, when we will once again focus on them.

In the two-team playoff format example we began with, in which our only real race is the one between the Yankees and Astros, the biggest virtue is that it’s a winner-take-all collision between behemoths. That’s where our eyeballs would go — and that’s what we lose with the gradually expanding playoff format, where our eyeballs tend to shift down in the standings toward the teams in the middle.

That is a trade-off worth making when you have 30 teams. But it is worth remembering that in a larger playoff field, one in which all the elite teams are assured of inclusion, the regular season loses some steam at the top of the standings board.

The other nice dynamic to this format is the decision to put all the games in a wild-card series on the home field of the higher seed. While playing a best-of-three series on the road isn’t exactly a death knell in baseball, it will mean something to the clubs. Because of that, a 4-seed is meaningfully better than a 5-seed.

Because the 3-seed automatically goes to the third division winner, that means only the top wild-card team gets to host a wild-card series in each league. In this year’s AL, the Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners are in a virtual dead heat as the four-, five- and 6-seeds, with the Baltimore Orioles, Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox all angling for slots as well. Only one of those teams will get to host a first-round series. It’s not exactly the 1951 Giants and Dodgers slugging it out for the pennant, but it’s a good race that changes nightly.

Cons of the current format: Not enough incentives

The question remains, though, how much drama the addition of the third wild card is going to add from what we had in the previous format. You’re adding only a couple additional contenders per season, and those teams will tend to be, by definition, mediocre (or worse) because they are in the middle of the league standings.

Under the previous format, we’d have the Rays, Blue Jays and Mariners still virtually even, and only two of them would get into the wild-card game. The NL would see the Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres and Milwaukee Brewers in a tight race for the fifth playoff spot. And the race in the NL East between the Mets and Braves would take on added importance, because the loser in that battle would wind up in the winner-take-all wild-card game.

That format featured a solid hierarchy of incentives and a meaningful difference between winning a division and not winning a division. For me, rewarding the team that finishes first in a 162-game season is the most important aspect of a divisional and playoff structure.

This new setup fails on that front, as we will have two division winners each season that end up in the wild-card round, where they are thrust into the group of non-first-place finishers. That doesn’t seem like a big deal this season because of the clear divide between the divisions in each circuit, but it won’t be like that all the time.

Take the AL in 2019. All three division champs won over 100 games. In this format, the 101-win Twins, who won the AL Central by eight games but finished two games back of the AL East champion Yankees and six back of the AL West champion Astros, would have played in a wild-card series.

The other real problem with this format is the incentive structure when it comes to getting a No. 5 or a No. 6 seed. This year’s NL is a perfect example.

Here, you have the mighty Dodgers, currently on pace to win 113 games and getting stronger by the day as their injured pitchers return to action. No team is insurmountable in a baseball series, but the Dodgers will be heavily favored against any team they play in October. The Mets or the Braves will wind up as the No. 2 seed, and both teams are strong. And you still have the Cardinals, who are pulling away in the NL Central and are on pace to win 94 games. But let’s say they were an 88-win team, which was roughly the case until they caught fire recently.

In this scenario, not much different than the actual 2022 NL, the path of the 6-seed would be much more preferable to that of the 5-seed.

Either way, you are playing a wild-card series on the road. If you are the 6-seed, your path is the Cardinals, followed by the Mets or the Braves. But as the 5-seed, you have to beat the loser of the Mets-Braves race in the first round, on the road, and if you manage that, then you have a rested Dodgers team waiting for you in Los Angeles.

Thus, if it comes down to the last week, and you’re in position to land a wild-card slot but that No. 4 seed is out of reach, there is no good reason to push for the fifth seed. That’s a problem — you never want a structure in which it’s possible for the worse team to benefit from being worse.

So two issues with the new format: Not enough reward for the third-best first-place team in each league, and a possible incentive problem for the last two seeds. I have a modest proposal to fix both issues without cutting the number of playoff teams, because we know that’s not going to happen.

Perfecting the 12-team playoff format

Here, then, are the two changes I’d make to maximize the balance between the size of the playoff field, the competitive integrity of the bracket and the incentive structures underscoring the regular season.

1. Realign into four divisions (two in each league)

2. Reseed after the wild-card round

The first item — which seems easier than ever after Wednesday’s announcement of a new, more “balanced” schedule, with less focus on divisional games — eliminates the problem of having a barely rewarded first-place team … by eliminating one of the first-place teams. Instead, you’d have four division champions, each of which gets a coveted first-round bye. That gives you four meaningful pennant races.

Meanwhile, the other four playoff teams would be the four top non-winners, regardless of division. The race for those spots would be interesting, as they are now, as would the races for the top two wild-card slots and the home-field advantage they carry for the first round. And that race wouldn’t be watered down by a weak division champ, as could happen this year.

To see how this looks based on recent seasons, let’s extract a couple of lines from our first table to do a direct comparison between this proposed format and the current one:

Both are 12-team playoff formats, just like we now have. Going to four divisions costs you a handful of teams who will be in the race at the average trade deadline, but for the most part, those are teams that shouldn’t be part of the playoff race anyway. You get significantly fewer sub-.500 contenders and a higher-quality typical postseason entrant.

The reason behind it is that the root of a surge in sub-.500 contenders in a given season tends to be a weak division, not a weak wild-card race. With fewer, larger divisions, this won’t occur very often. (Though it can happen, as with the AL in 1987, when the Twins won the AL West with 85 wins.)

By reseeding, you all but erase the possibility of any shenanigans, as the higher seed will always be preferable. This also enhances the incentive to finish with your league’s best overall record — in addition to home-field advantage, you ensure that you will always play the worst remaining opponent.

(For the record: The reason there is no reseeding in the current format so that the No. 1 seed won’t have to face another division winner in the LDS round. That problem goes away if we move to four divisions.)

Times are changing in baseball and with it, the stories we will tell about the game will evolve. Ideally, most of those stories will be about the thrill of teams jockeying for playoff position and not about possible loopholes in the format, or about the quality of the matchups during what ought to be the most dramatic time of the regular season.

Best I can tell, we’re not quite there yet.

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