Is the MLB Playoff System Fair? – BaseballSaturday, October 17, 2015 14:00
The MLB playoffs do not send the best teams forward–what is fair?
Is the MLB Playoff System Fair?
The Major League Baseball playoffs are well under way. In fact, we’re already set to begin the League Championship Series, the two seven-game series which will determine the winners of the American League and National League pennant. Fans are thrilled to see some of the best teams in baseball face off for the right to play in the World Series.
But whoever plays in the World Series, it won’t be the best two teams in MLB. That’s because both of those teams – the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates - have already been eliminated.
It’s hard not to feel bad for the Cardinals: they won 100 games, and yet they were forced to play a team that won nearly as many. Now the Chicago Cubs, not the Cardinals, are the ones who get to move on to the next round. Why didn’t the Cardinals get to play the Los Angeles Dodgers or the New York Mets, who won 92 and 90 games respectively?
If it’s hard not to feel bad for the Cardinals, it’s impossible not to feel bad for the Pirates, who were the most unfortunate of all. The Pirates won 98 games this year, the second-best in the league. All that got them was the right to host their own funeral: they had to play a winner-take-all Wild Card Game against the Chicago Cubs, whose ace Jake Arrieta is one of the best pitchers in baseball. Sure enough, Arrieta went 9 scoreless innings, and everything the Pirates had earned in 162 games was erased in one.
All of this happened because the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs all play in the same division: the National League Central. And this year, that division was baseball’s toughest neighborhood. When the dust settled, the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs (in that order) had the best three records in MLB. It’s not a coincidence that only one of the top three teams in MLB has made it to the League Championship Series: the way the playoffs were set up, it was the only possible outcome.
The Fault in our Structures
Under the rules of the MLB postseason, the top teams in each conference get automatic playoff berths. Then the two remaining teams with the best records get to go, too, though they’re forced to play a one-game playoff to see who moves on to the Divisional Round with the rest of the teams.
Then, the team with the best record gets the winner of the Wild Card Game, presumably because that’s supposed to be an advantage – baseball assumes that the team who won the Wild Card is worse than the division winners playing on the other side of the bracket.
It’s pretty obvious that, this year, that plan didn’t work out. The two teams in the Wild Card Game, the Pirates and the Cubs, were both better than the Mets and Dodgers. And that meant that the winner of the Wild Card Game was the toughest possible opponent to hand the Cardinals. None of this is right. This year, the most merit-based solution would have been to make the Dodgers host the Mets in a one-game playoff, and then have the winner pair with the Cardinals while the Cubs and Pirates played a full five-game series.
The Case for the Current System
The system we just described is more merit-based (though not entirely, since there are still different leagues which can also be unbalanced), but it’s also worse for regular season play. Just look at the teams we’re talking about: the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates. Those teams kept things interesting for all of the regular season. If they were not in direct competition, the great Cardinals-Cubs rivalry would fade and the three-way jockeying for the division crown would be meaningless.
For an idea of how this would look, check out the NBA, NHL, or even MLS. There are some good rivalries in those leagues, but they’re not as ubiquitous as they are in MLB and the NFL, where even bad teams have specific and recurring reasons to hate certain teams. And in each of those leagues, the “my division is too tough” complains are echoed in a new form: “my conference is too tough.” Now MLS has even started to move away from conferences. Where will the rivalries come from?
Smaller Changes, Significant Improvements
Okay, so let’s keep the divisions. Lets keep the two Wild Cards. Why don’t we just have more Wild Card games?
Several observers have already suggested a three-game format for the Wild Card. Some have suggested a day/night doubleheader followed by another game at a different park, which would allow the series to be played out quickly (probably just three days). That’s not much more time-consuming than the current format, and it’s a lot more fair.
That would have helped the Pirates, but what about the Cardinals? Well, that’s an even easier fix. All MLB has to do is re-seed the Divisional Round based on record. In other words, the top seed would get the team with the fewest wins, even if that team were not a Wild Card winner. In this case, that would mean that the Cardinals would have faced the Mets, while the Cubs would have faced the Dodgers. You could even give the best team home field, forcing the Dodgers to play more games at Wrigley even though the Cubs didn’t win the division.
There is no perfect solution to the MLB playoffs – playoffs are inherently unfair. But a few tweaks could preserve the fun of the divisions and the rivalries that come from them while still giving more advantages to the teams that earned them.
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