Tuesday, August 30, 2022

New MLB Playoff Format is Unfair

By Anthony Brancato

Many of the "predictions" made in these lines five months ago are coming true, as baseball's playoff picture comes into sharper focus.

That column identified the two fundamental inequities in MLB's newly expanded playoff format (which does have one commendable feature — and that is its making the wild-card series just that by extending them from a "play-in" game to best-of-three) as follows: first, the higher-seeded teams — the division champion with the worst record and the wild-card team with the best record in each league — will get to play all three (if necessary) of the wild card series games at home.

This is unfair for not only one, but two reasons:

For starters, all teams that make the playoffs are entitled to at least one game at home (now possible with the Wild Card Series best-of-three); and second, it is quite possible for the champion of a weak division to have finished with a poorer record than even the worst of the three wild-card teams.

Indeed, this would be the case in the American League at this writing — in that the Blue Jays, who would be the 6-seed, are a game and a half ahead of the Guardians, who would be the 3-seed because they are in first place in the decidedly underwhelming AL Central.

But wouldn't the Wild Card Series take "too long" to play if the higher seed gets two home games and the lower seed one?

Not if the lower seed plays Game 1 at home, followed by a scheduled doubleheader on the higher seed's home field (obviously, if the same team wins both Game 1 and the first game of said doubleheader, the second game therein would not be played).

And since, as noted, the 3 seed could have a poorer record than the 6-seed, this should not be controversial — and if a 4-seed loses to a 5-seed after losing Game 1 on the road? If they had won their division, they wouldn't have been in that situation.

The second inequity of the new MLB playoff format is its lack of "re-seeding" after the wild card series: In the division series, the 1-seed will always play the winner of the series between the 4-seed and the 5-seed, while the 2-seed will always play the winner of the series between the 3-seed and the 6-seed.

But what if the 6-seed upsets the 3-seed? Shouldn't the 6-seed then be made to play the 1-seed in the division series?

In the National League, the Dodgers are 89-38, the best record in the majors, and lead the second-seeded Mets by eight games. Say that, going into the final series of the regular season, two teams, both of whom have already clinched playoff spots, are battling for the fifth and sixth seeds. Might one of these teams be tempted to tank their final series to avoid playing the Dodgers, who would have a first-round bye, in the division series, provided, of course, that the team in question wins their wild card series? An added bonus derived from tanking is to get to play the Cardinals, currently 75-54, instead of the Braves, currently 79-50, in the wild card series.

And not for nothing, but where was the union when these changes were first proposed? They could have potentially saved the sport tons of grief by speaking up — just like they did to help abolish the ridiculous policy that gave the winner of the All-Star Game home-field advantage in the World Series.

Furthermore, giving both teams in every wild card series at least one home game would work even better if baseball adds one expansion team to each league, which could then realign into four 4-team divisions.

In that alignment, the four division winners in each league plus two wild-card teams would make the playoffs, with the two division winners with the worst records earning two home games in the wild Card Series, after which the surviving teams are re-seeded, with the team having the best record in each league assured of playing the wild card series winner that had the poorer regular-season record — and with four-team divisions, it is that much more likely that either or both of the two worst division winners would finish with poorer records than either or both of the wild-card teams, giving them even less of a reason to complain about having to play Game 1 of their wild card series on the road.

Even the regular-season schedule poses no problem at all: each team can play their three division rivals 22 times (in the fabled old eight-teams-in-each-league era, there were that number of meetings for all teams in the same league — plus the more same-division games there are, the less likely it is that a team will win a division with a sub-.500 record); all four teams from two of the other three divisions within the same league seven times, and all four teams from the remaining such division six times; and 16 interleague games, three each against all four teams from a division of the other league, plus four Mets/Yankees, Cubs/White Sox etc. games (in years when these pairings are matched up in the interleague divisional rotation, these teams would meet seven times instead of four).

As for expansion, as already pointed out here, the South is vastly underrepresented in Major League Baseball, so both of the two new teams should come from that region.

And what cities should get those two new teams? There is already a "virtual" MLB franchise, called the Charlotte Bats (the NBA has its Brooklyn Nets, so why not?). The other expansion team can come from Nashville, Memphis, New Orleans, or San Antonio (by far the most populous of the four).

Another major virtue of two new teams in the south is that it will bring the total number of southern cities with major-league teams to nine (the Royals counting because Missouri — where the Royals actually play, not Kansas — was a slaveholding state before the end of the Civil War, and Jackie Robinson dreaded playing road games in St. Louis because of the hostile treatment he received) — enough to stock a Southern Division in both leagues (the Cardinals and the Cubs tidally locked to one another in any divisional alignment).

The MLB owners stuck themselves with two lemons with the new playoff format they approved. Here's a chance for them to serve some big-time lemonade.

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