Across all four major American professional sports leagues, it can’t be argued that baseball is the one sport that went through the biggest changes in terms of postseason structure. Every change has been made with the word expansion in mind, and that goes for all sports.
As more and more money is put into play, there’s an incentive to increase the number of postseason games, and thus make more money for the owners, the players, and the networks. After all, more postseason games mean more eyeballs on screens.
As the playoffs in baseball evolved and began including more teams, there’s always been the discussion from a competitive balance standpoint (and a merit standpoint) in terms of finding the proper balance of adding excitement without compromising the importance of the regular season. Baseball is a sport with 162 games in the regular season; you don’t want to devalue the dog days of summer by having any team with just a half-competent roster in the playoffs. This isn’t the NBA.
Back in the day, baseball had pennant chases. Only one team from each League made the World Series, and that was that. There was a certain aspect of brilliance to it, and while it wouldn’t be the ideal format for today’s world, it made sense because of the way the sport is set up. The team that prevailed in each league over 162 games getting the World Series berth? Well, it was fitting with baseball.
Who can forget the “shot heard around the world” when in 1951 the Giants beat the Dodgers in a tiebreaker for the NL pennant that was forced after the Giants won 37 out of their last 44 games to chase down the Dodgers? That moment was awesome, but a lot has changed since then, and many more unforgettable memories have come with it.
The Red Sox coming back from down 3-0 in the ALCS in ’04. The San Francisco Giants winning three games on the road against the Reds to turn the tables on a 2-0 deficit in the ’12 NLCS. The glorious thrills of the one Wild Card game, like when the Royals refused to quit against the Oakland A’s in 2014 or even the Dodgers and Cardinals last year. We were able to witness these feats because as the game evolved, new playoff systems allowed for new opportunities for history to be made.
Regardless of format, baseball’s postseason will always get plenty of excitement, and there is a new one in place for this year. We’ll discuss the new format, and also my ideal one, working under the right assumption that a playoff expansion was an inevitability following the new CBA. After all, no one had a problem with the old playoff system. In fact, it was great.
If the Season Ended Today
The Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, and Mets would get the two byes for each league, and the new three-game Wild Card round would present the following matchups.
In the American League, the Twins would host the Mariners with the winner going on to play the Astros, and the Blue Jays would host the Rays with the winner set to face the Yankees.
In the National League, the Brewers would host the Phillies with the winner playing the Mets, and Atlanta would take on the Padres, with the winner taking on the Dodgers.
There’d be no reseeding, and following the Wild Card Round, the system would remain the same: five-game Division Series, seven-game Championship Series, and the Fall Classic.
Not Reseeding Creates a Huge Problem
Baseball never had reseeding in the postseason and it’s not really a part of the sport, so some may argue against it based solely on that. But at some point, you have to adapt, and tradition goes out of the window when you have changed the playoff system as much as baseball had.
The priority right now should be to create the fairest settings for the system currently in place. That means giving in to reseeding following the Wild Card round, and the reason why is rather simple.
Take this year’s playoffs for instance
In the National League, it is virtually a given that the #1 seed, whether it ends up being the Los Angeles Dodgers or the NL East winner (Mets or Braves), will receive a tougher adversary than the #2 seed.
One of the Mets or Braves will finish the year in a Wild Card position, and that team will play the #5 seed, very likely the Padres, for a spot to play the #1 seed in the NLDS.
The winner of the NL Central (Brewers or Cardinals) will be a worse team than the second place team in the NL East, and so the #1 seed is stuck playing the stronger NL East team (#5 seed) instead of the NL Central winner. At best, the top seed gets the Padres as a fifth seed, which one could also argue is a tougher opponent than the NL Central winner, especially after the Juan Soto trade.
Right now and the changes are significant that it stays that way through the end of the regular season, the third and sixth seeds are the two worst playoff teams in the NL, and they’ll go on to play the second seed, while the two best teams in the Wild Card Round (fourth and fifth seed) will face the top seed in the league.
It all boils down to one simple principle
The worst divisional winner in a league will often have a significantly worse record than the best Wild Card team in that very same league.
I decided to look back all the way to 2012 and see the records of the third through sixth seed in each league, and how the postseason would have looked like under this format.
- The number three seed has averaged 91.8 wins in that period.
- The number four seed has averaged 93.2 wins during the same time frame.
- On four different occasions, the number #4 seed in the National League managed to win at least 94 games, while the #3 seed hasn’t cracked 94 wins since the 2012 season.
- The only outlier of a truly great season from a #3 seed over the last decade was in the AL on 2019, when the Minnesota Twins won 101 games, but still trailed the Astros and Yankees.
Zero downsides in reseeding
The argument that the top seed shouldn’t play a division winner in the LCS goes out the window when you’re telling the 107-win San Francisco Giants that after all of that regular season success, they have to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in their first postseason round. You can’t punish the number one seed by forcing them to play a tougher opponent just because you want to punish that tougher opponent for not winning their division.
The #3 seed already gets a bonus from winning their division, and that is playing a #6 seed at home, while #4 and #5 seeds often carry similar or even better records and must battle it out.
The #2 seed in the National League is going to have an easier path to the NLCS because of this rigid setup, and that simply doesn’t make sense from a competitive balance standpoint.
Do you want to favor all divisional winners? That’s already being done. The top two get a bye while the third one plays a mediocre sixth seed. The lack of reseeding only opens up the door to punish the top seed in each league by forcing them to play a tougher opponent in the first round.
Ideally after the Wild Card round, the top seed plays the team with the worst record, and the second seed plays the one with the best. If you’re worried about the unlikely chance that a fourth seed with a better record than the third seed advances, and we get a #1 vs #3 and #2 vs #4. Well, that would be no different than the sixth seed advancing in the current format and facing the second seed, while the top seed faces the winner of #4 and #5.
In the end, you’ll want to reward the top seed with a favorable matchup in the Divisional Series, and the current format opens up the possibility of all sorts of scenarios that do the exact opposite. And the quickest way to fix that is through reseeding.