The Current Major League Playoff System Dilemma

In 2012, Major League Baseball added a second wild card team to each league. This means there would now be five teams in each league that make the playoffs. Under this format the team with the second-highest win total in each league among non-division winners would be the second wild card team. The two wild card teams in each league will play a one-game playoff after the end of the regular season, with the winner advancing to the Division Series. The divisional champions qualify for the Division Series just as in the previous format; however, under the expanded wild card format the winner of the one-game wild card playoff faces the top-seeded divisional champion in the Division Series, regardless of whether the two teams are in the same division, while the second- and third-seeded divisional champions play each other in the other Division Series. The format for placement in the League Championship Series and World Series remains the same.

Clearly, the goal of adding the second wild card team and having the two wild card teams play a one-game playoff is to increase the importance of winning the division. No team wants their playoff life depending on just one game. In the past whether you won the division or made the playoffs as a wild card you would play the same best-of-five playoff series. In that way it really didn’t matter how you reached the playoffs just reach the playoffs. Now it clearly matters.

With approximately 30 games left in the 162-game grueling marathon baseball season, it is time to look at which teams will likely be in the playoffs according to the current playoff rules and which teams would be in the dreaded one-game playoff.

Clearly, the goal of any playoff rules is to get the best teams into the playoffs and reward the teams with the best records. With this in mind you should expect the two playoff teams with the worst records to meet in the one-game wild card playoff. If the season ended today, by the current playoff rules the National League matchups would be the Mets vs the Dodgers in a best-of-five series, the Pirates vs the Cubs in the one-game wild-card match with the winner going on to meet the Cardinals in a best-of-five series. For the American League, the Blue Jays would play the Astros in a best-of-five series, the Yankees would play the Rangers or Twins or Orioles or Rays or Angels in the one-game wild-card match with the winner going on to play the Athletics in a best-of-five series.

If we went back in time to when there were no divisions and only two leagues there would be 15 teams in each league. As of August 30, the top five teams by record in the AL would be 1. Athletics 2. Blue Jays 3. Yankees 4. Astros 5. Rangers. Thus, by the current playoff rules the third and fifth best teams by record would be in the sudden death one-game playoff with the winner advancing to play the best team, the Athletics, in a best-of-five series. Because of the closeness in records this could easily change by the end of the season.

However, we get a different result for the NL. Currently the top five teams by record in the NL are 1. Cardinals 2. Pirates 3. Cubs 4. Dodgers 5. Mets. Thus, in the NL by the current playoff rules the second and third best teams by record would be in the sudden death one-game playoff with the winner advancing to play the best team, the Cardinals, in a best-of-five series while the fourth and fifth best teams would matchup in a best-of-five series. Clearly this would be unfair to both the Pirates and Cubs. It could even get worse for the NL in that the Giants, the second-place team in the NL West currently two games behind the NL East leading Mets, could overtake the Mets but miss the playoffs. We all understand no selection system is perfect.

However, should MLB change the current playoff selection process? What do you think?

Original Comments:

Ryan Williams said…

Great blog, glad I was recommended it by your son Matt. I think the more teams that land in the playoffs the better. It gives you hope and makes baseball relevant in more cities. Baseball has become a local sport, where we don’t care about teams outside of our local market. And the more playoffs the better.

September 6, 2015 02:32:54

stanley rothamn said…

Thank you Adam for correcting me. Of course, I meant the Kansas City Royals as having the best team. Also the rest of your comment does make good sense. I would not change the current playoff structure unless someone can provide a better solution. I agree no matter what system is used there will always be a team that is mistreated in the selection process. Kansas City was the Athletics from 1955 to 1967. I guess my age is showing.

September 1, 2015 05:39:06

Adam Berg said…

I do not want to nitpick, but for every time that you have the Athletics listed in this post, the correct team is supposed to be the Kansas City Royals. Because as of right now, Oakland actually has the worst record in the American League and is virtually out of Playoff contention and Kansas City has the best record in the AL. And to answer the question, The current playoff system is fine how it is. Like you said early in the post, it is important to win your division and it matters. Yeah it sucks that a team could miss the playoffs in favor of a team that has a worse record than they do, but it is just the way it is. I remember a few years ago in the NFL when the NFC West had the worst division in football and the Seahawks made the playoff with a losing record and actually got to host a playoff game against a wild card team that had a winning record. Some times it just happens like that. Having the two wild card teams really puts an emphasis on winning the division and the one game playoff can really make for some exciting baseball.

August 31, 2015 03:47:52

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