Baseball’s New Playoff Structure
One League went according to chalk. The other, very much not.
While there was a ten-year period, from roughly my entry into grad school in the summer of 1992 to my moving to the DC area in the summer of 2002, when I was a rabid baseball fan, I have been at best a casual fan in recent years. (The same is true of pro basketball as well.) The reasons are myriad but mostly I just don’t feel I can allocate the time that actively following sports with 162- and 82-game regulars seasons requires.
Regardless, I maintain enough interests in both sports to keep up with them by reading the sports pages. And I find the results of baseball’s new playoff format, implemented this year, fascinating.
Historically, teams in the American and National Leagues played all season to win the “pennant.” The team with the best regular season record won the League and then the two league champions faced off in the World Series for the “world” championship. While there were predecessors to this format going all the way back to 1857, the “modern” era began in 1903 and the format remained essentially unchanged through 1968. While I was alive for the last three iterations of this format, I have no personal recollection of it.*
For the 1969 seasons, for a variety of reasons, both Leagues were divided into East and West divisions. The teams with the best regular season records in the NL East and West played each other in the League Championship Series. Ditto the AL East and West. The two Championship Series winners faced off in the World Series. This is the format that prevailed the first three years that I followed the sport closely.*
Indeed, as an Atlanta Braves fan, I had a direct stake in what turned out to be its demise. The Braves were, for weird reasons, part of the NL West. During the 1993 season, they battled all year to catch the San Francisco Giants. Ultimately, they did, winning 104 games to the Giants’ 103. Despite no other team in the sport having more than 97 wins, the Giants were eliminated from the playoff.
The system changed for the 1994 season. The two leagues realigned into East, Central, and West divisions. The non-division winner in each league with the best record was designated a wild card team and played the divisional champion outside its own division that had the better record in a Division Series and the remaining two teams played in a second Division Series. The winners of the Division Series games advanced to the League Championship Series and those winners advanced to the World Series. That format prevailed through the 2011 season.*
Starting with the 2012 season, the playoff expanded further and, in my mind, in the stupidest way imaginable. A second wild card team was added to both leagues and these teams played in a one-game playoff to reach the Division Series round. A single-game playoff is only slightly more determinative of which team is better at baseball than a coin flip. Even if one team had won ten or fifteen games more over the course of a 162-game season, they played as equals. With the exception of the COVID year, this system prevailed through 2021.
This year, yet another structure went into effect. It’s a substantial improvement, at least in theory, from its predecessor. A third wild card was added to each league. Now, the two division champions with the best records in each league get a first-round bye. The four remaining teams in each league are seeded by record, regardless of whether they are division champions or wild cards, with 1 playing 4 and 2 playing 3 in best-of-three series in the Wild Card round, with the top seed getting home field for all three games. The two Wild Card winners advance to play the two bye teams in a best-of-five Division Series, the winner of which advance to best-of-seven League Championship series and then, finally, a best-of-seven World Series.
The American League standings at the end of the regular season:
The Astros and Yankees, with far and away the best records, got byes while the 92-win Guardians faced the 86-win Rays and the 92-win Blue Jays played the 90-win Mariners in the Wild Card round. The Guardians and Mariners prevailed; neither could be called an upset.
The Astros went on to oust the Mariners and the Yankees the Guardians. The two bye teams, thus played in the ALCS with the Astros, the team with the best record, sweeping in four games to face the NL winner.
The National League, by contrast, did not go accordingly to chalk. At all. Here were the regular season standings:
The Dodgers, with the best record in all of baseball, got a bye as did the Braves.
In the WildCard round, the 93-win Cardinals hosted the 87-win Phillies and lost. The 101-win Mets, which led their division until the final weekend, hosted to 89-win Padres and lost.
In the Division Series, the 111-win Dodgers lost to the 89-win Padres in four games and the 101-win Braves, winner of the East, lost to the 87-win Phillies, who finished in third place, also in four games.
So, the NLCS pitted a team that finished 22 games down in their division against a team that finished 14 games down in theirs. The latter won in five games.
The World Series starts Friday in Houston. The Astros were heavily favored before the playoffs started and should be even more heavily favored now. Then again, the Phillies are on quite a hot streak.
My initial assessment is that this format is far superior to the one it replaced. One-game playoffs are required in football but stupid in games as erratic as baseball and basketball.
And I very much like rewarding the teams with the best record over a grueling 162-game season with byes into the Division Series. With byes, there has long been talk of “rust.” There’s a sense that hitters, especially, lose their rhythm from the layoff. It didn’t seem to effect the Astros or Yankees but the Dodgers and Braves certainly underperformed. But, again, I think the benefits outweigh the risks.
While I understand that logistics (most notably weather and competition with the NFL and college football) mitigate against it, I would prefer all series be seven games and at minimum five. Best-of-three beats a single-game contest but not by much.
*There were some occasional variations from these formats owing to world wars, labor disputes, and a pandemic.