Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Why Are MLB’s Two Best Teams Meeting in the NLDS?

By Anthony Brancato

The San Francisco Baseball Giants, as Chris Berman would no doubt call them if he wasn't retired, finished 107-55, one game ahead of their arch-rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were 11 games clear of the team that finished with the National League's third-best record, the 95-67 Milwaukee Brewers.

After the Dodgers paid the penalty for being a wild card team by needing to play a win-or-go-home "play-in game" against the St. Louis Cardinals, who merely won 19 of their last 22 games, including 17 in a row, to claim the NL's other wild-card spot, and winning that game, the matchup between the teams with the two best records in the majors was on.

And if one cannot bring oneself to show empathy for a team that didn't win their division, baseball's playoff format does no favors for the Giants, whose reward for having finished with baseball's record is to have to play a dicey, best-of-five series against the majors' second-best team.

We've seen this movie before — albeit in a different sport.

In 2006, the teams that finished with the two best records in the NBA's Western Conference — the 63-19 San Antonio Spurs and the 60-22 Dallas Mavericks — were (and still are) in the same division, meaning that the Spurs earned the conference's top playoff seed while the Mavericks were seeded fourth, behind the champions of the conference's other two divisions, both of whom finished with poorer records than Dallas — the 54-28 Phoenix Suns had the West's third-best record, while the 44-38 Denver Nuggets had the West's eighth-best record! (The Sacramento Kings also finished 44-38, but the Kings won the season series between the two teams, three games to one).

After both the Spurs and Mavericks won their respective first-round series (the former over the eighth-seeded Kings, the latter over the fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies), the Spurs got burned when the Mavericks upset them in seven games in the conference semifinals.

Had the NBA observed re-seeding, the Spurs would have faced the lowest-seeded first-round winners, the Clippers (who had beaten the Nuggets), while the Mavericks would have played the Suns (first-round winners over the Lakers), with Phoenix getting home-court advantage because they won their division while the Mavericks did not.

In the Western Conference finals, the Mavericks downed the Suns in six games — but lost the NBA Finals ("Finals" with a capital "F" is a registered trademark of the National Basketball Association, by the way) to the Miami Heat, who had upset the Detroit Pistons — who at 64-18 had the NBA's best overall record — for the Eastern Conference championship.

Fans might not care about this, but the further an NBA team advances in the playoffs, the more money the players on that team receive from the league's multi-million-dollar players' pool — so the unfair format in existence in 2006 very likely cost the Spurs (or the Mavericks had the Spurs won that series) a six-figure dollar amount collectively.

To their credit, the NBA wasted no time in rectifying this inequity: the very next year, the format was changed in such a way that the three division champions in each conference would henceforth be guaranteed only a top four seed rather than the top three seeds, thus preventing a redux of what had happened the season before — and as if on cue, the change came into play in the 2006-07 season, this time in the Eastern Conference, in which the 53-29 Pistons and the 50-32 Cleveland Cavaliers had the conference's two best records; and thanks to the format change, they did not meet in the conference semifinals after both teams had won their respective first-round series — and sure enough, Detroit and Cleveland met in the conference finals, with the latter pulling off an upset, winning the series in six games (however, the Cavs got swept in four games by the Spurs in the Finals).

But back to baseball: if MLB is so concerned about making a wild card team's path to a World Series championship as difficult as possible, then why do they permit a wild card team to get home-field advantage in the World Series over a division champion from the other league, providing that the wild card team finished with the better regular-season record? (And not for nothing, but in no case can a wild card team have home-field advantage in either the Division Series or the League Championship Series — nor should they.)

If MLB wants to encumber the wild card teams, they must either go all the way with it, or not do it at all, as the NBA has been doing since 2016. Baseball should stop messing with Mr. In-Between.

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