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MLB Playoffs: Why there is nothing wrong with the current format

Last week I set out to discover which team in the MLB Playoffs had the easiest route to the World Series with the intention of coming to an actual conclusion and anointing one team with the clearest path to a title.

As I looked at the statistics, injuries and how teams had fared against one another throughout the season, it became clear that there was no “easy path.” October baseball is tough. Just because a team was good in the regular season doesn’t mean they’ll waltz right up to the World Series.

On Monday morning there was a lot of discourse about the MLB playoff format on social media–and not just by disgruntled fans that were shocked to have seen Ranger Suarez and the Philadelphia Phillies beat Spencer Strider and the mighty Atlanta Braves. National columnists were joining the discourse, too.

Atlanta won the World Series in 2021, lost to the Phillies in the 2022 NLDS, and at the time of “the discourse” had dropped the first game of a five game series to the Phillies in 2023. That seems to be what’s making everyone question the playoff format, since the Braves won the World Series before the permanent addition of more playoff teams, which leads to a longer layoff for the top two teams in each league that won their divisions. The layoff in question: One day.

The 2021 season ended on October 3 with the NL Wild Card Game on October 6. The first game of the NLDS was October 8. That’s four off days in between the end of the season and the time that the Giants and Dodgers faced off, with the Dodgers having played in the Wild Card Game. This season ended on October 1 with Wild Card games beginning on October 3, and the first game of the DS being October 7. That’s a five day layoff for the division winners.

As we can all remember (or look up), the Braves were not the best team in 2021. They were actually the worst team to make it into the playoffs that year at 88-73, which was fewer wins than two teams in the American League that missed the postseason altogether. The team with the best record in baseball that year, the 107-win San Francisco Giants, lost in the NLDS to the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers. Meanwhile, in the other NLDS matchup, the Braves took on the 95-win Brewers.

Every team in the postseason has big question marks surrounding them. Last week in previewing the MLB playoffs, I wrote, “…that’s the beauty of the MLB Playoffs–the best team doesn’t always win. It’s also why the playoffs can be so frustrating. The only certainty this season is that there is uncertainty with every single team. Expect upsets.”

Any team can beat any other team in a short series. Atlanta lost series to both the Oakland A’s (50-112) and Chicago White Sox (61-101) this season. The loss to Chicago was in Atlanta, too. That’s just baseball. The A’s were also the only team to sweep the Houston Astros in 2022, and Houston went on to win the World Series.

Crowning a World Series winner at the end of the season is less about finding out which team was the best that season and more about entertainment and TV dollars for the league. If we wanted to find out which team was best, we’d go back to the way it was originally, where the top team in each league goes straight to the World Series. With each new postseason round more variables are introduced, and that is part of the fun of October.

Related: MLB Playoffs schedule and game-by-game results

Different eras of baseball in the MLB Playoffs

MLB: NLDS-Philadelphia Phillies at Atlanta Braves
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

From 1903-1968, the top two teams went straight to the World Series. Picking a random year, the 1955 Cleveland team finished three games behind the New York Yankees, but they also went 13-8 against the Bombers during the regular season. Feels like there should have been a playoff series to determine which team deserved to go to the World Series, no? This problem would be fixed with the next iteration.

In 1969 baseball introduced the League Championship Series (LCS) in the MLB Playoffs where the top team in the East and West in each league would face off against each other. This lasted as the playoff format until 1993 after the 103-win Giants missed the postseason because they finished one game behind the Atlanta Braves in the West, even though San Francisco had the second-best record in baseball. The CS started as a five-game series and increased to a best-of-seven games in 1995.

Starting in 1995, we got the expanded playoff system, which included the Division Series and a wild card team. This exploded the playoff field from four teams to eight and saw the Yankees most recent dynasty. Fun fact: Of the four World Series titles New York won in five years, they only had the best record in baseball once (114 wins in 1998).

In 2000, they had the worst record among the eight teams that qualified with 87 wins, and actually had a worse record than the Cleveland team again, even though Cleveland didn’t make the postseason. But the Yankees won their division and got the automatic berth. Is that title discounted a little because they didn’t have the best regular season, or did their track record at that point speak for itself?

Starting in 2012 MLB added a second wild card team and created the Wild Card game, a single elimination series between the final two teams to qualify for the postseason. You can see why this one wouldn’t be very well liked. If a team didn’t win their division but still had a very good record, they’d be forced into the single elimination game and have to use their best starter, who would then be unavailable in the following series–if they survived. That’s why it’s important to win the division. This lasted until 2022.

The current format involves three division winners in each league, along with three wild card winners. The top two division winners in each league get a bye while the other eight teams have to play in the Wild Card round. This system was tested out during the pandemic season in 2020, and was implemented full time ahead of the 2022 campaign.

What about the Baltimore Orioles?

MLB: ALDS-Texas Rangers at Baltimore Orioles
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles are down 0-2 in their ALDS series with the Texas Rangers and fans could be questioning how the best team in the American League could be facing elimination so early. The answer isn’t the extra days of rest. It’s that Baltimore is inexperienced in the postseason and that inexperience was always going to be a bit of a wild card for the O’s chances in the MLB Playoffs.

The Texas Rangers led the AL West for most of the regular season and have at times looked like World Series contenders. They haven’t snuck up on anyone, even though they were relegated to a Wild Card series against Tampa Bay. The Rays won 99 games and finished second behind the Orioles in the AL East. Texas outscored them 11-1 in two games in Tampa. They’re good.

The weak spot for the Rangers all year has been their bullpen, but they also have one of the best postseason bullpen managers in recent years with Bruce Bochy at the helm, and a great offense that can hit with anyone in baseball. The question for the Rangers coming into the postseason was about that bullpen, and so far it’s held. That could also change in a heartbeat and swing an entire series.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have a fairly young team, like Baltimore, but they’re also facing a familiar divisional opponent in the Dodgers this round. Sometimes an 11-2 game happens. Back in 2004, the New York Yankees won Game 3 of the ALCS 19-8 against their own divisional rival, the Boston Red Sox to take a 3-0 series lead. The Sox came back to win the next four games in the series, making it to the World Series, and sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals for their first title since 1918.

2023 MLB Playoffs: Wait and see

mlb playoffs
Rob Schumacher/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

The wild declarations about the playoff format have come after one game in the Division Series in the National League with the Braves and Dodgers going down 0-1 in their series against divisional opponents. The Phillies beat the Braves in the NLDS last season, so this is also nothing new. It’s not the format’s fault. It has also been one game.

Even if Atlanta and Los Angeles were to lose their series, it’s still too small of a sample size to determine anything conclusive other than the Phillies own the Braves in the postseason. There wasn’t a huge uproar when the Minnesota Twins went 0-18 in the postseason, with a lot of those losses coming at the hands of the New York Yankees. They spent time figuring out how to have postseason success, and that included a lot of failure, too. Now they have won a series against the Toronto Blue Jays and are tied with the almighty Houston Astros 1-1 headed back to Minnesota.

The postseason and the regular season are completely different beasts. Bullpens are relied upon earlier in games in October. Home runs seemingly hold more value since it’s difficult to string hits together to score runs against some of the best arms in baseball. There are more off-days than usual.

The reason there was a two day layoff between the Wild Card series and the Division Series is because every team swept their first round matchups 2-0. They took care of their business, just like the division winners took care of theirs in the regular season, earning an extra day off.

A one-game playoff isn’t the fairest way to go about things. Neither are the earlier postseason formats, which all had flaws. The current iteration isn’t perfect either, but it works just fine. There is no perfect playoff format because baseball is an imperfect game. Failing seven of ten times earns you a spot in the Hall of Fame. It’s a game about dealing with adversity. Taking on challenges and finding a way to win.

That’s still true in the postseason.

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