Making The Divisions Count Again

When the Wild Card was introduced, one of the main critiques of the idea is that it would cheapen pennant races, which historically had been fought down to the last week, as teams battled for their division’s only trip to the playoffs. While the benefits have generally outweighed the costs and the four team playoff has become accepted, we saw the downside of the system in full force yesterday. On the final day of the season, the Yankees and Rays had identical records and shared the top spot in the American League East. And no one cared.

Sure, a few Tampa players gave a fist pump when the Yankees loss was shown on their big screen, but a raucous celebration it was not. Both teams knew that they were in the playoffs regardless of the outcome of yesterday’s affairs, and the resulting lack of drama reflected that fact. While I like the current playoff system more than the old one, its hard to watch the final month of baseball in the AL East and not feel like it could be improved. Those games should have meant something. They could have been fantastic theatre, but instead, they were glorified exhibitions. There has to be a better way.

One popular idea, floated by Jayson Stark a few weeks ago and discussed in a community post here recently, is to make the Wild Card a play-in spot. Pick the two best teams that didn’t win their division, and once the regular season ends, make them square off for one playoff spot, with the winner of that moving on to face the best of the division champs. The three division winners would get a legitimate advantage over the Wild Card, which would put some meaning back in those races once again.

It’s a pretty good idea, honestly. It fixes the biggest problem with the current system and would serve to keep more fans interested in the final weeks of the MLB season, even after the NFL returned and started competing for attention. However, it presents a problem best summed by up Matthew Carruth in response to the community post:

Say going into the final day the standings are:

New York 95-66
Tampa 95-66
Minnesota 93-68
Boston 90-71 (2nd Wild Card)
Texas 88-73

Under your proposal,
New York and Tampa: have large incentive to win their final game so as to avoid the one game Wild Card playoff with Boston.
Minnesota, Boston, Texas: no incentive on final day.

So NY and TB play their best available starters to try and win. Say NY wins. The playoff match ups are then:

If seeds are done strictly on reg season record or

NY vs (TB/BOS)
If done where Wild Card = 4th seed.

Here’s the problem. In the first scenario, NY and TB used their best starters in their final game to avoid the WC playoff. That gives an advantage to TEX, MIN and –most importantly– Boston, who had no such incentive and thus rested their best starters. You’ve punished Tampa to the favor of Boston, the worse Wild Card.

In the second scenario the advantage is limited to just BOS, but it’s still present. You’ve put the teams with the better record at a disadvantage by giving them incentives to win until the end of the season while not providing the same motivation to the lower teams.

Matthew’s right. We want the division races to be meaningful, but not at the expense of penalizing a team for trying to win a division. The one game play-in model could hurt a franchise that plays to win on the final Sunday. If MLB was going to add a second Wild Card, they would either have to go to a three game series or take more days off to expand the gap between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the division series, thus allowing division winners that played to the end to have a ready-to-go rotation for the division series.

That drawback makes the plan less appealing to me, and has me looking for alternatives. One idea that I haven’t seen get too much consideration is far simpler, and perhaps is even more of a potential reward for teams to finish with the best record – each division series could be played in just one city.

Home Field Advantage is smaller in baseball than in any other sport, with just a 54/46 split. Giving the team with an advantage just one extra game in their home city, where their odds of winning aren’t that much better than they are on the road, isn’t a huge motivator. But what if they got to host the entire series?

Now you’ve given them a tangible (even if small) advantage in each game, and in a full length series, that can add up. In addition, the home franchise gets a significant revenue boost, so ownership would almost certainly push their teams to try and make sure they were one of the teams hosting in the first round. You’d eliminate the need for travel days, so the first round could either be expanded to seven games or simply be condensed into a shorter time frame, shortening the overall playoff schedule and helping the season end before November.

The goal is to incentivize winning games in the last week of the regular season. By forcing the wild card and the worst division winner to play entirely on the road in the first round, you give teams a real reason to rack up as many wins as possible. Under this system, not only would Tampa Bay and New York have been fighting for a real home field advantage yesterday, the Reds would have had motivation to win out as well.

I think this system would give teams a legitimate reason to play for a division title and not settle for the Wild Card without creating the moral hazard of the play-in game. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one that I’d like to see get a little more notice, at least.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

91 Responses to “Making The Divisions Count Again”

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  1. AndrewM says:

    A three-game play-in series is perfect, as it adds more weight to winning the division. It also serves as a penalty to the wild cards for not actually winning anything at the end of the year.

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    • AndrewM says:

      …and let me add-on that I don’t believe that any team who cannot win its own should have a shot at the pennant. The schedules between teams in the same division are close enough that SOS is irrelevant.

      But if wild-cards are going to be here, I’d rather have two and penalize them by having them play extra games.

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      • AndrewM says:

        The first sentence should read: …and let me add-on that I don’t believe that any team who cannot win its own division should have a shot at the pennant.


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      • Anon21 says:

        Just curious: how does your stated principle apply to, say, 2005, when it would have eliminated the ‘Stros (89-73) but allowed the Pads (82-80) to play on? Or the AL East vs. the AL West this year? It just seems that if your goal is allowing the best or most deserving teams to advance to postseason play, eliminating the wild card is not really an answer.

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      • Jason B says:

        I agree with Anon21. Just because you restrict the playoffs to teams winning their own divisions does not necessarily mean that you get the “best” teams. I would posit that lately the wild-card team not being the weakest entry into the playoffs has been the rule, rather than the exception, over the last decade or so.

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      • MikeD says:

        That’s certainly the case this year. The Yankees are the Wild Card team, but they are probably the best team in the A.L. If they had to win the division to make the playoffs, the odds are good they would have won the division. They went into a defensive mode about three weeks back, having people like Chad Gaudin pitch at crtical points in games, or starting pitchers like Dustin Mosely start important games, including Sunday when they had a chance to win the division. I’m not saying they were wrong for their approch, but it was a pretty frustrating several weeks watching the A.L. East teams. It appeared Boston, Toronto and Baltimore were the only teams trying to win, but for very different reasons, while NY and Tampa were obviously resting, especially New York.

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      • AndrewM says:

        In 2005, the Astros didn’t win their own division, so why should they have a shot at the World Series? It sucks that the Pads made it in that year with an inferior record. But San Diego’s record does not change the fact that Houston didn’t win its own division. Los Padres, at least, proved that they were the best team in their division (at least the final record indicates that) and should have a chance to compete against other divisional champions.

        The system has flaws. Those flaws are not as bad, however, as the current system. The Marlins have won two World Series titles without a single divisional championship. That’s terrible.

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  2. David Martin says:

    What a shame it would be if the Red Sox made the actual playoffs because they were able to beat the Rays in a one game wild card vs. wild card matchup. That simply, is not baseball.

    No system is going to work to make every single race go down to the last day. It just won’t happen. All another wild card would do is allow a team who doesn’t deserve to be in the playoffs, like the Red Sox, to sneak in and water down the actual playoffs.

    The NL Central was a boring race down the stretch, should we do something to make that more interesting too? How about the AL West?

    Major League Baseball has the best playoff format because they don’t allow teams that don’t deserve to be in the playoffs in. God forbid this game turns into the NBA where teams with a record below .500 are wasting their time and their fans time by pretending to be contenders.

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    • xeifrank says:

      I agree 100% with this post. As long as we have three divisions and four teams qualifying the current setup is as good as any. If you want division championships to matter more then go to four divisions. AL 4-3-4-3, NL 4-4-4-4, possibly adding two new teams to the AL.

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      • Rich says:

        The more divisions you go to, the more you reward mediocre teams in bad divisions, and punish good teams in good divisions.

        I’d much rather see Tampa in the playoffs, then some 85 win team from a 4th division.

        Honestly? You want the best teams in the playoffs? Get rid of the divisions.

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      • Jason B says:

        What Rich said. You can totally guarantee you get the “best” teams, and ONLY the “best” teams, with one division of 30 teams with a perfectly balanced schedule. Short of that, the fewer divisions the better (for the purposes of making sure you get the cream-of-the-crop, and not any 82-win interlopers playing in weak divisions).

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    • Rich says:

      Why the heck would the Red Sox making the playoffs be a shame? At the expense of the Yankees or Rays, sure. At the expense of the Twins or the Rangers? Not at all.

      Once you adjust for competition, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Red Sox were a better team than either one of the other division winners.

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      • MikeD says:

        I agree. Is there much doubt that in 2010 the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox are the three best teams in the AL?

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      • Anon21 says:

        Well, I think there has to be SOME doubt at least, based on the fact that the Red Sox roster has been decimated by injuries (and no, we don’t hand out “best team” awards on the basis of what could have happened) and the fact that, in the end, Minnesota and Texas did finish with more wins and fewer losses than Boston.

        Now, there are some reasons to think that their won-loss records don’t tell the whole story. But you have to, you know, make the argument, and not just assume that everyone agrees to the counterintuitive proposition that the Red Sox are the third-best team in the AL.

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      • B N says:

        Actually, if you account for strength of schedule- you could note that the Red Sox, even with all the injuries, may still be the 4rth best team in the AL this year (if not the 3rd, which might be a race too close to call).

        With that said, even as a Red Sox fan, it WOULD be a shame to see the Red Sox get into the post-season under that kind of formula. Sure, we had injuries- but we were 6 games back. Under no logical formula should you be six games back and be able to have a “tie breaker” series to get into the postseason. That’s just silly. The Yankees had a better record, they got the wild card spot, that’s how it is.

        Making the wild card play some team that is X number of games behind them to get into the playoffs? Ridiculous concept.

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    • stratobill says:

      How can you say that baseball’s playoff format doesn’t allow teams that don’t deserve to be in the playoffs? In 2006 the Cardinals won only 83 games while the Mets won 97. Yet it was the Cardinals who became world champions. How is that fair?

      In 2005 the Padres got into the playoffs with 82 wins, which was 18 fewer than the Cardinals. The Padres had only the 7th best record in the National League that year, yet they made the playoffs and would only of needed to win a short series against the Cardinals to eliminate St Louis. How is that fair?

      The only truly fair system was the one used prior to 1969, in which there was no inter-league play and no playoffs prior to the World Series. But that’s never coming back (and it shouldn’t!).

      I don’t like the idea of watering down the playoffs by adding a fifth team, but I’m come to believe that it would the best way to fix the current system. I’d go with a best 2 of 3 wild card series. That would
      make division races such as this year’s Tampa/NY very meaningful, and it would also give all 3 of the division winners the ability to re-order their pitching rotations and use their aces to start the playoffs.

      But I’d only support the addition of a wild card series if baseball shortens the season by at least 8 games so that the World Series would be more likely to be completed before late October.

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      • Bhaakon says:

        You’ll never eliminate meaningless games, just move them around. Without the WC, the Braves would have been playing meaningless baseball for weeks. With a double WC, the last series between SF and SD would have been much less meaningful. There’s always going to be a trade off.

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  3. James says:

    I think this is a bad idea. In theory, it may work, but in practice, you are making the rich richer. Not this year, but most years, New York will stand a decidedly better chance of getting all the home games. Meanwhile, many other teams that may have just squeaked into the playoffs may have nothing to celebrate in the postseason, not even having a home game for the fans to come out and cheer them. As a Tigers fan, I can remember the huge boost in excitement that going to the playoffs in 2006 brought. If those games are played in New York, not only are their no home games to cheer on a team that went from dreadful to exciting, but they probably would have lost (what your system wants, and I grant it’s an advantage for fairness), and the city would have hosted no playoff games. I think your system is more fair, but I think it also has the regrettable effect of taking the excitement of postseason baseball away from a lot of cities.

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  4. todmod says:

    Really, you’re going to deny fans a chance to see any playoff games even when their teams make the playoffs? I see that as a much worse problem than the solution it’s trying to solve.

    While it is nice that making the playoffs means more in baseball than other sports, making many franchises wait even longer for a home playoff game is a bit much.

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  5. Ryan S says:

    I mostly agree with you David M, but i don’t think it would be a stretch to say that the 3rd best team in the AL East the past couple years is better than the first place team in the Central and West.

    No system will be perfect, but i want the best teams in the playoffs. I think Cameron gets close to achieving that in this scenario.

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    • JShoe says:

      Um… I’m a Rangers fan, but I’m not sure that the Rays last year were better than the 100 win Angels… in fact, neither were the BoSox since they were swept in the first round. That kills me to say because I hate the Angels, but I don’t think the AL East is quite as dominant as you would like for it to be.

      Oh, and BTW, Texas has taken the season series against BOS the past couple of years, too.

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  6. Mike Ketchen says:


    Are any posts planned on breaking down the match ups now that they are set?

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  7. BD says:

    Any 1-game or even 3-game playoff is inherently unfair. You might as well have a coin toss instead of a 1-game playoff.

    The “fairest” system would involve having a completely balanced schedule and then taking the top 4 teams into the playoffs, regardless of division. (You can still have divisions if you want, but winning the division won’t guarantee a playoff spot). Seed the 4 playoff teams, with best record determining home field.

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    • Mitch says:

      I think MLB should go to two divisions, with the winner of each guaranteed a playoff spot and then the two wild card slots could be anyone. This year, the Phillies would have run away with the NL East, but the Braves, Reds, Giants and Padres (and to a lesser extent the Rockies and Cardinals) would have all been fighting for three playoff spots; incredibly, a Padres loss on the final day in 2010 would have set up a 4-way tie. In the AL, the Rays, Yankees and Twins would all be worthy of their playoff spots, but (assuming MIN is in the west), Texas, Boston, and the White Sox (and to a less extent the Blue Jays) would have been waging a 3-way race for the 4th spot.

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      • JJM says:

        This is easily the best option if the goal is getting the most-deserving teams in the playoffs (since I highly doubt MLB will scrap divisions altogether). This retains the division set-up (and should keep baseball purists happy also since it reverts to the structure used in the 80’s and early 90’s). Both division champions get home field in the LDS and host a wild card team.

        This lowers the chances of having a weak division where an undeserving champion makes it in (though it is still possible). If the “3rd division champion” deserves to be in the playoffs they will just grab one of the wild-card slots. Also this would soften the impact of strength of schedule from being a difficult division, as each division would have 7 or 8 teams. Even if the unbalanced schedule was kept, instead of playing division rivals 18 times, teams would likely play only 15 times a year. Though obviously not perfect (I’d rather they balance the schedule entirely), this is a far-more level playing field for teams trapped in difficult divisions, and would allow the more-deserving teams to make the playoffs more often.

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    • stratobill says:

      You’re absolutely right, using a completely balanced schedule and putting the top 4 teams into the playoffs would be the most fair.
      The only drawback I can see is that you’d have fewer exciting pennant races. You’d bascily have competition to be the first seed and you’d have competition to be the 4th seed. Nothing else would matter all that much.

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    • Chris_from_Bothell says:

      I’ve long been a fan of this. The unbalanced schedule causes more problems than it solves for parity, travel and general fan interest.

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    • cruz says:

      yeah, like the NBA..
      8 teams per conference, dont matter what division…

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  8. Andrew B says:

    The “fairest” system is what we had pre-1969. Everyone plays the same schedule, no divisions. Best team goes to the world series. That’s it. But that obviously would never work in today’s world, so what MLB has done is found a reasonable compromise that rewards the best teams. 4 teams in each league is the right amount. I think playing an entire series on the road is too harsh a punishment for both the team and its fans. If you want to give them game 3 at home only…make it a 2-1-2, I could see that, but no way I’d put all 5 games at one venue.

    Yesterday’s Rays/Yankees situation was unfortunate, but thats what happens sometimes. On the flip side, the Braves/Giants/Padres trifecta was terribly exciting. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

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  9. Dygg says:

    Maybe, it’s already been written and I haven’t been lucky enough to come across it, but I’d like to see a comparison of the number of playoff races decided on the last day of the season prior to the wild card era against the number after addition of the wild card. Every article like this seems to presume that before the wild card, every division was left unsettled until the final day of the season.

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  10. Mitch says:

    If the point of baseball is to entertain the fans, this is a terrible idea. Can you imagine if your team was finally good enough to make the playoffs after a long drought (perhaps you are a resident of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Kansas City, or Toronto) and you didn’t even get a single home game out of the deal?

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    • rickie weeks says:

      I know for Brewers fans in ’08 it would have been a kick in the shorts to get into the playoffs for the first time in 26 years and then not get to host a game.

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    • RickyB says:

      You nailed it, Mitch. While the teams would have more incentive to get the home games, the fans lose out big in this scenario.

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  11. Brock says:

    Maybe you should’ve been following the NL instead.

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  12. Bernard says:

    For starters I hate the idea of denying home fans the opportunity to see their team make the playoffs and I say that as a Yankee fan. Would I like for the Yankees to frequently host the entire 5 game first round? Of course. But if I were a fan of a smaller market team and didn’t even have the opportunity to attend a post-season game it would be devastating but as a fan and for the organization. Even if revenue sharing were worked out to account for 40% or so of gate receipts, it still doesn’t erase the damage to a fanbase that can’t watch its team live.

    Wouldn’t a simpler and more elegant solution be to have the two teams with the worst record – regardless of division or Wild Card – be in the play-in game? It would give most teams an incentive to play all out up all the very end. It also protects against a scenario where, like this year, the Yankees have the 2nd best record in the league (in a division with 3 90 win teams) and end up in a play-in game despite pretty clearly having a better regular season than Minnesota and Texas.

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  13. Donny says:

    I like the idea but I would change it just slightly. What if the division winners were the home team for every game in the series.

    So for instance this year, the Rays would play the Rangers: Game 1&2 in Tampa, Rays home team, Games 3&4 in Texas, again Rays home team, Game 5 in Tampa, Rays home team.

    This way each city gets to see their team play, however their is a penalty as the division winner will always get last AB no matter where the game is played.

    In the championship series the format goes back to normal.

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  14. Carson says:

    I think the idea is decent, but I can’t imagine the owners ever signing off on this.

    Would it require CBA approval, or can Bud change the playoffs to how he sees fit?

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  15. Scott K. says:

    The object of the exercise is to win the World Series. Players should not be overly excited about winning their division. Stop trying to add importance to something that should not be that important.

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    • stratobill says:

      Since you don’t feel that winning the division should not be all that important does that mean you’d be in favor of eliminating divisions and just having the top 4 teams make the playoffs?

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  16. Klatz says:

    The counterpoint to the argument that the wild card (as it exists) makes the Division races boring happened this season as well. The NL West was a nail-biter until the very end AND Atlanta’s destiny undecided because of the wild-card. If there was no wild card, Atlanta’s season would have been over a while ago.

    The existence of the wild card meant that three teams were hanging on the results of the last day. Even better two of those teams were going head to head.

    An one city series seems like a serious one-fingered salute to the away team’s fans. What better experience is there but than to go to a playoff game.

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    • johng says:

      Unless, of course, the only point of this particular whine is to make the YANKEES season meaningful until the last game, then REWARD them for their greatness by making them all young and rested on the last day of the season so they can use all of their acquired greatness through the playoffs and world series.

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    • roadrider says:

      Hey Einstein – the NL West division race would have been exciting and down to the wire with or without the wild card – how do you balance that against the non-race between the Yankees and Rays who had essentially no incentive to try to win the division title? The same would have been true for the Giants and Padres had their won-lost records meant that the second place team would have won the wild card.

      I think the wild card sucks.

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  17. CK says:

    I think they should have a three game playoff at the higher wild card seed no home games for the 5th seed. But since a three game baseball series is about equivilent to a one game play-off in other sports, they should then expand the rest of the play-offs to a best of nine

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  18. MHD says:

    Carruth’s scenario can occur in many playoff systems. Under the current structure, two very good 2nd-place teams can fight it out for the wild card and then be at a disadvantage to an inferior division champ opponent.

    Having full home-field advantage seems anti-fun for several of the reasons described above.

    How about just giving the division winner one win in hand, thus making it a best of 4 with the div winner winning all ties?

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  19. Luke in MN says:

    Yeah, this seems to create more problems than it solves. In addition to all those mentioned above, consider that this year, since the Twins essentially clinched at least the 2nd-best division record a week or two ago, the Twins would have been able to sit back and rest everybody while they watched the Yankees and Rays fight to the death to avoid the wild card AND THEN get to host the exhausted wild card team – who would have a better record than them – for five straight games. Texas would likewise have been resting their players, knowing their fate was sealed, and would get to face a poorly rested AL East winner (albeit on the road).

    As is, the Yankees are “punished” for not winning their division, but the punishment is small. And when the Yankees actually have a better record than the other division winners, it makes sense that the punishment is small, no?

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  20. Wally says:

    I think its a little much to not give any home games to a team in the playoffs,especially to a division winner that might be coming out of a tough division. Maybe you could schedule them so that the top division winners will generally see more games at home than they currently do, like a 3-2 system instead of 2-2-1. That would also reduce travel days.

    And honestly, we could just as well do both. Through the double-WC we’re basically acknowledging that the 2nd place WC team might be better, so lets give them a shot, and at the same time we’re giving an extra advantage to division winners.

    In any system there are going to special cases where a inferer team appears to be given a chance, or a team that might diserve a shot is excluded. So I don’t think arguing from specific cases is going to get us anywere. We should think large scale for this. Not what would have happened to the 2010 AL east race.

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  21. grandbranyan says:

    Eliminate the divisions. Unbalance the schedule. Move Houston (or Milwaukee) to the AL. Have one interleague series at all times. Top four teams from each league get in. Disco.

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    • Douglas Heeren says:

      How about folding two of the teams that continue to stink like Kanas City and Pittsburgh?

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      • MikeG says:

        When contraction by 2 teams was very seriously considered and strongly pushed for by Bud Selig in 2001/2002, the 4 teams most likely to be folded were the Twins, Expos, (Devil) Rays, and Marlins. You may have noticed those teams are looking a bit better these days (attendance possibly notwithstanding). The Twins have been a playoff team 6 of the 9 years since. The Rays were in a World Series and the Marlins won one. The Expos have a new home (and are still not a whole lot better off).

        I agree it’s pathetic how consistently bad the Pirates and (to a slightly lesser extent) Royals have been in recent years, but they’re both franchises with good history and fans. The paths of these other teams over the past 9 short years ought to give some hope that even the lowly Pirates can turn things around eventually. Now, if they can only bring themselves to take that first step of the thousand mile journey…

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      • hans says:

        Can we fold the Yankees and Red Sox instead. It might be better for baseball.

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      • cruz says:

        fold the royals and the pirates, but not KC and PIT;
        make them PIT marlins and the KC rays,
        you can change the names later, or not (like the jazz and the lakers)

        florida dont deserve baseball (only spring training)

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  22. MikeS says:

    I was thinking about this just yetsterday as it was all unfolding. Making New York play a play-in game gives them a disadvantage vs. Texas or Minnesota even though they are a superior team. That doesn’t seem fair.

    Also, if you look back, the wild card team in either league (especially the AL) is probably NOT the team with the fourth best record – they usually have a better record than one of the other two division winners.

    If we assume that the wild card exists to get the best teams into the playoffs (I know it doesn’t, but bear with me) then it doesn’t make sense to disadvantage a stronger team just because they were in a tough division. It also opens up the possibility that you don’t even get the four best teams in the playoffs since New York was several games better than Boston this year, yet could be knocked out in a single game. Also, if as you sort of point out, what if Boston had clinched the 5th seed a few days ahead of time? They could set up their rotation so their best pitcher starts that game but the Yankees have been fighting every day so they get whoever is next in line. Not fair to a team that finished 5 games better in the standings.

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    • Douglas Heeren says:

      You are right for sure. Look how bad the A.L. central was this year. Why penalize the Yankees or Rays? I’m a Cub fan and really don’t follow the A.L. much but have to believe that it isn’t in the interest of baseball to screw with the current format. If the teams that get the luxury tax money won’t spend it, they shouldn’t get the money.

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  23. Michael DeCavalcante says:

    If you read the replies to my original post you’ll see that in response to Matt’s argument you have the following scenarios to qualify for the playoffs before you play Game 162:

    NYY/TB: Must win one of the next two games (Game 162 or play-in game)
    BOS: Must win the play-in game.

    I’d rather be NYY/TB than BOS.

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  24. john says:

    When faced with the last game clincher scenario in 2006, Tony La Russa opted to rest Carpenter on the theory that if the cardinals won (or the other contender lost), he’d have him for the first game of the divisional series. If they lost, he’d just use them there in the one game play off.

    Of course, no playoff was needed anyway so it was the right call. Thus I’m not so sure that the problem you raise is that big a deal…

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  25. johng says:

    I have an inherant problem with Matthew Carruth’s recognition of NYY’s victimage: If the Yankees want the ability to rest their starters, then they need to win their division by 3 games or more, or put it away a week early.

    Seriously, we keep giving voice to the “wah-wah, team x had a better record than team y, and yet, had to play real hard through to the last game of the season.” I suppose you could make the Twins’ and Rangers’ players run on treadmills as somebody whips baseballs at them, while AAA players play the actual games, but then, maybe the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays could have played harder against the Twins to keep them in a pennant race with the White Sox longer.

    The season is the season. Somebody’s always going to have a gripe because the seeding isn’t the “most perfect” possible seeding that could happen. If the Yankees want to win the world series, then maybe they have to have 2 pitchers that can serve as staff aces. If everything is predicated on one super-human ace arm, then maybe they should go cry to somebody else.

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    • johng says:

      And the Yankees’ problem is one of their own making. Because the Yankees are blessed with being in the best market for baseball, they get the most money to basically pick their best All-Star lineup each year. Because of that, the RedSox and Rays have had to become uber-competitive, just to compete.

      If the Yankees want to rest their starters for a week before the playoffs, take 2 decades off, and make it easier for the Orioles and Blue Jays to be eliminated when the first place team finishes with an 83-79 record, and clinched a week early.

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  26. Rich says:

    ” Pick the two best teams that didn’t win their division, and once the regular season ends, make them square off for one playoff spot, with the winner of that moving on to face the best of the division champs. ”

    So, rather than taking the team that plays better in 162 games, we’ll take the one that plays better in 3.


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    • stratobill says:

      I agree that the idea of teams getting eliminated in a short series is unappealing, but we already have that now. In 2005 the 100 win Cardinals could of been eliminated by the 82 win Padres (fortunately they weren’t).

      At least the proposed system would eliminate the chance that the best team in the league (ie: most wins) could get eliminated by a mediocre team in a short series. Want to avoid having to play a short series? Fine, just win your division! Want to make the playoffs without winning your division? Fine, but you’ll have to play a short series against the other WC in order to advance.

      That seems pretty reasonable to me.

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  27. Douglas Heeren says:

    First off, get rid of the DH and interleague play. Then institute NFL type revenue sharing to level the playing field. Penalize the teams that make a profit and that won’t spend. The playoff system isn’t broken, it’s the lack of parity from top to bottom in the leagues.

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    • johng says:

      …and then let Fangraphs rank the teams, and decide which 2 teams DESERVE to play in a single 7 game world series.

      And then Fangraphs will oversee computer simulations, because it would be unfair to actually make teams play in a world series where their regular season stats meant nothing.

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      • Lame Joke Machine says:

        #6org is in for sure!!! Hawhawhawhawhawhawhawhawhaw…*chokes on aerosol cheese* gasp sputter hawhawhawhawhawhawhaw *wipes fingers on shirt*

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    • mike wants wins says:

      Why get rid of interleague play? Is it so the fans can see less players/teams in person, and thereby reduce the entertainment value of the sport?

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  28. Judy says:

    I don’t understand why it bothers people so much more when there’s no competition for a WC spot than it does when there’s no competition for a division. It’s up to the other teams in the league to provide WC competition the same way it’s up to teams in all the divisions to provide competition in the divisions and, when they don’t, too bad. Nobody’s complaining that the Braves settled for the WC, because the competition didn’t give them any choice. The other potential AL WC teams failed, the same way the other NL Central teams failed to provide the competition to make the Reds keep trying to win their last game.

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  29. WilsonC says:

    The question is do you want there to be a meaningful advantage to winning the division, or do you want the better teams rewarded, regardless of whether they win the division. If it’s the latter, I don’t think the current system’s bad at all, and would be in favor of the status quo over most options I’ve seen.

    If we’re not concerned with pennant races and want to ensure the best teams advance, the obvious answer is a balanced schedule and stripping away the divisions, with the top two or four teams from each league advancing.

    If you want to add incentive for the division winner, though, I really like the idea of a three-game play-in at the home park of the better wild card team. The home-field advantage helps offset the problem in this specific case, and the extra short series gives the division winners a chance to set their rotation. You’d also have a built-in advantage for the team that ended with the best record, since they’d be taking on a team that had to push through an extra series rather than a rested one.

    The other thing to ask is which is the more common scenario: for the two best teams in the league to be battling it out in one division AND for the number five seed to have a comfortable lead on the sixth, or for there to be a battle for the second wild card spot. Sometimes you’ll have the two top teams battling it out, particularly in the AL East, and sometimes you’ll have a wild card team pull ahead early, but in most years, the wild card runner up has enough competition that it’s uncommon we’d see a team coast in. Let’s take a look at recent years, how it would have played out with a second WC:

    E – TB
    C – Min
    W – Tex
    WC – NY, Bos
    The Yankees and Rays would have had to battle for the division, but Boston finished only a game ahead of the White Sox, so they wouldn’t have been able to coast.

    E – Phi
    C – Cin
    W – SFG
    WC – Atl, SD
    The second WC would have allowed all three of Atl, SD, and SF into the postseason. The divisional race in the West would have still been important. Atl would have had a bit less incentive to push themselves, though, since they’d be assured a WC spot against the loser in the West.

    E – Ny
    C – Min
    W – LA
    WC – Bos, Tex
    The division winners would have been unchanged, with only a race in the Central. The second WC would have been an intense race between the loser in the Central, Texas, Seattle, and TB. The best WC, Boston, could have set their rotation early.

    E – Phi
    C – Stl
    W – LAD
    WC – Col, SF
    Colorado would have been faced with a choice: to push for the top seed in the division, or to make sure to preserve the advantage in the WC playoff. Meanwhile, SF, Atl, and Fla would be battling it out for the last spot.

    E – TB
    C – Chi
    W – LA
    WC – Bos, NY
    Boston would have had more incentive to push for the division this year, but it wouldn’t have put them at a disadvantage because the Yankees were pressed hard by the Twins, with the Jays pushing them as well.

    E – Phi
    C – Chi
    W – LA
    WC – Mil, NY
    The only thing that really changes this year is that the all-out battle for the WC would end up with two teams advancing instead of one.

    2005 is probably the most recent year with a scenario like the one above:
    E – NY/Bos
    C – Chi
    W – LA
    WC – NY/Bos, Cle
    In this case, Bos, NY, and Ana were all tied for the second best record in the league, and Cle was both far enough behind the top team Chi to fall out of the divisional race, and far enough ahead of the next team, Oak, that they could have set their rotation in the WC playoff. This season is also interesting in that it emphasizes the point that the pennant isn’t important in the current system, since there’s no playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox. In this year, we would need first a playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox, and then the fifth seeded team would have an edge over the fourth seeded team.

    Note as well, though, that the 2005 season would also create some strangeness in Dave’s system. Obviously the White Sox would get HFA against someone, but with 3 teams tied at 95-67, how would you work that out? A playoff game between the Yankees and Red Sox would have put one team above and one below the Angels, but would it be fair to Angels fans to deny them any home games because equal teams in another division happened to need an extra play-in game?

    Any system will have its quirks. I’d be more comfortable putting a team that didn’t win its division at a bit of a disadvantage against a slightly lesser team than I would taking away all home games from either the Angels or the winners of the AL East in a year like that.

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  30. vivalajeter says:

    All of these articles have one main assumption: Winning your division is extremely important, and you need to give everything you have to win the division rather than settle for the Wild Card. I don’t agree with that assumption though, so I don’t see why we need all of this nonsense to fix a problem that isn’t there. No system is perfect, but I haven’t seen any new system that solves more problems than it creates.

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  31. Jake says:

    I think the NFL does it best. Add two more wild cards and add a round to the playlets. Take about 10 games out of the regular season to make up for it. Then you’d have a much higher incentive to win your division (a bye) and for division winners to play hard all year. This year Tampa and Minnesota would get a bye (have to be a division champ) while Texas would host either the white sox or red sox(if you wanna keep the no division matchups in the first round. And New York would host the other wild card. This would make the playoffs and the regular season a lot more exciting in my opinion.

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  32. Kevin says:

    If we must expand, add one wildcard team, play best 2 of 3 BUT make Game 3, if needed, the back end of a doubleheader. Big incentive for the winner of Game 1 to go all out for the sweep and a sizeable penalty for the eventual WC. Now, let’s get rid of all of those BS off days during the playoffs…………

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  33. John Autin says:

    I disagree with Carruth’s conclusion that the scenario he posits would penalize NYY and TB, for 2 reasons:

    1. The assumption that both teams would even have a realistic option of using their best SP in the final game is faulty. It so happens that this year, both Sabathia and Price *could* have started the final game on regular rest. But if such scenarios were looked at over many seasons, there would often be times that the #1 SP was not available for the final game.

    2. Carruth assumes that the possibility of avoiding the wild-card game would be a compelling motivation to use the best SP in the final game. From this assumption, he concludes that the losing team in that scenario essentially would have been penalized by the new format, because they would face a must-win game without their #1 SP, against a wild-card team with a worse record and (presumably) their #1 SP available. An alternative outlook is that both NYY and TB (in his scenario) would be *rewarded* for their high finish by having a strategic *choice* in how to approach the final game. Either team could avoid the worst possible outcome by just playing it safe and going with a different pitcher, given that THEY MIGHT WIN THE DIVISION ANYWAY. It would not surprise me at all if both teams in such a scenario chose the safe route.

    Taking this viewpoint, the only “penalty” to the team that loses the division is that they play a must-win game against a team they’ve already bested over the course of the regular season. But that would usually be the case in a 2-wild-card format, whether or not there was a showdown for the division.

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  34. mike wants wins says:

    Awful, horrible idea to not allow the fans to see any playoff games in person. This is about the fans, right? Fairness is highly over rated in sports. Divsions create an arbitray line. Bad calls by umps. Lucky bounces on balls in play. Lots of things inhibit the “best” team from winning it all. Heck, the whole concept of the playoffs is unfair compared to just crowning the champion based on regular season records.

    Please don’t keep the fans out of your equations.

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  35. mike says:

    Same number of teams per league each playing the same number of games against teams within their own league and the top 4 make the playoffs and are seeded by record. If you insist, let 4 and 5 play off to see who makes it.

    You could (my preference) get rid of interleague play this way but if you insist on that, then play 11 against each of the other 14 teams and 8 against the other league – 2 opponents home and away in 2 game series for a total of 8 games.

    Have the top 2 teams from the past year in each league play on down. With 15 teams, that leaves the bottom dwellers to play each other in home and home 4 game sets but when it gets to 16 teams each league, there won’t be a problem

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  36. Dann M says:

    I want two leagues; two divisions per league; and four playoff teams per league drawn from the two division winners and the two non-winners with the best regular season records. Say like this:


    This year, Minnesota and Tampa Bay would win the divisions and first-round home field. New York would take the first wild card and play Minnesota. Texas would take the second, one game ahead of the Red Sox, two ahead of the White Sox, and four ahead of a suddenly viable Blue Jays club. They’d travel to St. Pete for round one.

    The National League would see the Giants win the West and the Phillies the East. Cincinnati and Atlanta would both take wild card spots, but at a 91-71 tie would have to play a one-game playoff to determine who earns the higher seed and the right to play the Giants rather than Phillies. The Padres would finish a game back, the Cardinals five.

    A two-division system minimizes the chances of an 83-win team making the playoffs. And even though St. Louis did win the 2006 World Series in such a fashion, coming from a bad NL Central, it’s no radical argument to say that there were better teams who simply did not peak in October. Under this system, 2006 would have looked like this:

    The NL East would have been won by the Mets, with the West being decided by a one-game playoff between LA and the Padres, the loser taking the top wild card. The fourth playoff spot would have gone not to St. Louis, but to the 85-win Phillies. St. Louis, Cincinnati and Houston all would have been in the race until the final week. The one-game playoff for the Western crown would, in effect, have been a battle for home field in the official playoffs, as they would play each other. The AL would have seen New York and Minnesota win the two divisions, with Detroit and Oakland still winning playoff spots as wild cards.

    It’s not like the three-division alignment has been around so long as to be a cornerstone of MLB. Divisions matter somewhat, as they have 40 years behind them now. But it’s always good to revamp the system for the better.

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    • Wally says:

      I would agree this is probably the best system in terms of fairness, but I do not think its realistic to think MLB will contract the divisions at this point. Its probably more realistic to argue for expansion as a solution to avoiding the 83 win team in the playoffs. Obviously it won’t cure the problem, but creating more 5 and 6 team divisions and getting rid of the 4 team division will help the problem.

      I also think that 8 team divisions will leave fans (and GMs for that matter) somewhat dumb founded when its July and you still have 3 teams competing for the top spot and maybe another 2 in it for the WC. In some sense, I think the 5-6 team divisions offer a bit of simplicity, that allows people to stay interested. Its just easier to keep track of races between 2 or maybe 3 teams, but in this formate it could be 4 or even 5 teams.

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  37. Michael says:

    “It’s a pretty good idea, honestly.”

    Could you be more condescending? Wasn’t your new years resolution to stop being snarky/mean?

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  38. Jake says:

    Owners would never agree to the “each division series could be played in just one city.” thing. Isn’t it about 1M per playoff game?

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  39. Mike Trathen says:

    I haven’t got time right now to read all the posts so this may have been mentioned already, but why not scrap the divisions and just have the teams with the four best records make the play-offs (based on a completely balanced schedule)? Until you have a balanced schedule, there will always be biases in the team records and whether or not the “best” teams in the league make the play-offs.

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  40. Chris_from_Bothell says:

    Let’s get stranger for a moment:

    No midseason trades, no rent-a-players. Expand the rosters to 30 players. The roster is set by 12:01am Opening Day, and is the roster you have all the way through the World Series. Anyone who gets put on the 30-man roster has to have been in your organization (and solely in your organization) as of when rosters were set for that season. No more roster moves, even for injury replacement within your own team, can be made after the final out of your team’s final regular-season game.

    That, plus a return to a balanced schedule, will really make the most deserving teams make it into the playoffs.

    Or, have the semi-finals adopt the round-robin style of the World Baseball Classic, and have the top 2 teams from that format play the World Series.

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  41. roadrider says:

    This is a completely useless discussion. MLB needs to get rid of the wild card, not add more of them or more playoff rounds. They should just go back to two divisions per league with only the division winners advancing to the playoffs. As I recall, that idea worked out quite well. The only reason the wild card was added was to milk more TV $$$ out of another (superfluous) playoff round.

    Yes, some very deserving teams (1993 Giants for example) will not make the playoffs. So what? It was the winner-take-all pennant races that made baseball unique from sports with tournament style playoffs. And it’s the best way – playoff series are short and the best team doesn’t always win. That’s why it’s important to strictly regulate who gets in and that’s why the 3-division/wild card scheme is a mistake because winners of weak divisions or also-ran wild cards can get hot for a playoff series or two and knock out more legitimate contenders or even win the World Series. Adding more wild cards just magnifies the problem.

    I hate the wild card and don’t think there is any way to make the idea work. Just get rid of it and go back to the old (post-1968) system.

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  42. Evan_S says:

    Someone needs explain to me why the division winners get precedent over a better team. For the last decade, the two best teams in baseball have pretty much been the Yankees and either Boston or more recently Tampa. Why should the second best team be punished just because they are in the same division as the best team in baseball?

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    • baty says:


      The objective should be to get the 4 best teams within each league to compete for a spot in the World Series with the best team having the highest seed and the 4th best team having the lowest seed.

      With an unbalanced schedule we are only taking “the best second place finisher” within a division. That team could possibly be anywhere between the 2nd to 6th best team in that particular league. Why does this make sense?


      You can’t fairly assess the strength of a division and how it effects the playoff structure and outcome. Either:

      A. Create a very unbalanced divisional schedule and somehow even out each league to have two divisions, with the first playoff being each divisional 1st place and second place team matched up. The only divisional solution I see as being not quite fair, but close.

      (my favorite) Create a balanced schedule, eliminate divisions all together, and take the top 4 records within each league.

      I don’t think a decent solution is anywhere near in the future. If baseball still can’t figure out how to get 15 teams in each league, why should we expect anything logical.

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  43. B N says:

    I have to add that personally I really like the current format. I’m fine with some races being decided a week or so before the season’s end. In fact, no matter how you do things- some races will just plain be decided in advance. See: NL Central, AL West, AND AL Central this year. Given that is the case, why do we care that the competition for a division crown is slightly less cutthroat sometimes? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

    Plus, in this format I often get to watch races that otherwise might not be as important to me. I got to sit through some nailbiters with SF vs SD this year. If there was something more important going on in the AL East, I might not have caught those games. Personally, I think the current format works well. There always seems to be some race going down to the wire.

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  44. CircleChange11 says:

    If u really want to make division winning count AND still have playoffs, then reverting back to the two division format is where it’s at.

    Baseball is unique in that it has a long season to sort the wheat from the chaff. So, there’s no need for the expanded playoff systems of shorter-season leagues.

    162 games including 14-18 games against divisional opponents is enough to decide a playoff bound team.

    Furtermore teams would be forced to improve rather than settle for being the 3rd best team in a lesser division and hoping the breaks go their way.

    Even though they got healthy at the right time, my 06 Redbirds did not deserve to make the playoffs since injuries turned a 100 win team (100+ wins in 04 and 05) into an 86 win team.

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  45. baty says:

    Also, to Stark…

    I find it insane to have teams competing for 162 games with a 5 man rotation, only to have…

    1. a 3 game series where you might only see the opponents top 2 starting pitchers…
    2. then a 5 game series where you might actually see the team’s 4 man rotation…
    3. followed by a 7 game playoff where you finally get to see the depth of a 25 man roster compete, THE WAY TEAMS HAD BEEN COMPETING ALL SEASON. The way it should be.

    Stark’s way represents baseball’s strongest teams of the regular season in a playoff that uses a completely different formula for evaluating (lacking baseball integrity). You’re already only playing every other day as it is. The series format should reflect the regular season way of competing.

    The 7 game format is the only series format worth using. Do we really need to keep making the system more ridiculous and more complicated?

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  46. MorneauVP says:

    All this talk about how it’s “unfair” that a certain team doesn’t get in because of the division format overlooks that if it were truly structured so that the four best teams went to the postseason every year, baseball would die.

    A perfectly balanced schedule would just favors the dynasties too much. Baseball thrives on the hope that your team doesn’t need to be good enough to beat the Yankees (unless you’re in the AL East), they need to be good enough to beat the team at the top of your division.

    Most cities simply don’t have the payroll to compete with a New York, LA, Boston, etc. type payroll over the course of a 162-game season. Over the course of five-to-seven games, though, yes — anything can happen.

    Does anyone think the Tigers were hands down the best team in the AL in 2006? Were the Rockies the best team in the NL in 2007? The fact that a team who may not be the best can slide in and have a chance to play the part of the underdog is what gives the $50MM payroll teams hope. If you reduce it to a 162-game marathon in which you have to play the perennial league powerhouses 18 times, what’s the point? Do the Royals have a better chance at overtaking the Central or overtaking the whole league sooner? Sure their farm system is deep, but those prospects are no more of a sure thing than Alex Gordon and the hundreds of other “can’t miss” prospects around the league who inevitably defied the odds and expectations by missing.

    You’ve got teams who have been buried for years just trying to overcome three, four, or five other teams. If you tell the fans of those teams that they now must overcome 11-12 other teams, what hope do they have? Maybe the Orioles are an outlier and they benefit from escaping the rigors of the AL East, but the vast majority of teams go from facing adversity to facing near-impossibility. Struggling fanbases become non-existent fanbases, and overall the sport suffers.

    As sports fans, and baseball fans in particular, we live to see the ninth-inning rally and the come-from-behind win to beat the odds. Is it a shame that in a series where that feeling should have defined all four games (Tampa/New York), instead no one cared? Yes, it’s a shame. But it would be more of a shame to take that ever-present hope from a bottom-dwelling team like the Pirates and say “No, now you have to beat the Phillies, Dodgers, Giants, etc.” as well? Not a chance. That “bottom of the ninth” hope is something that everyone loves to see from their team once in awhile, but for some fans, that hope describes their entire season. The current system gives fans reasons to hope, and that, ultimately, is good for the game.

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    • MorneauVP says:

      Blah, I butchered that last portion… but you get the idea. Yes, it would be more of a shame to take that hope away from smaller franchises.

      Hopefully my inability to proofread doesn’t take away from the point I’m trying to make.

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    • baty says:

      Divisions or no divisions, i still think your “not so good teams” are trying to jump over 6-12 other teams anyway. No matter what the alignment is, your non-first place teams are all fighting over the 4th playoff spot.

      It’s just more pleasant to say that you finished in 4th place rather than saying you finished in 12th place.

      In reality there’s no way to say how good the 2006 Tigers were because each team’s schedule is so drastically different. I think you need to balance the playing field to find out. I don’t think baseball would die, but it would certainly be a reality check.

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  47. Lionofthesenate says:

    somebody mentioned schedules are the same… year the brewers play @boston, @nyy, @minny, host tampa and host minny.

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  48. CircleChange11 says:

    I find it contradictory to state “make divisions mean something” and having wild card teams exist simultaneously. The presence of one invalidates the other.

    Other leagues have been ripped for having non-division or conference winners playing for the National championship, whether it be Nebraska, a wild card team, etc. Yet it’s somehow good for baseball? What’s good for baseball is having the strongest team in one division/league playing the strongest in another. Having or adding wc teams just dilutes the chance.

    Why would we invest 162 games to settle an issue in a 5 game series? Isn’t that backwards? Why would TB and NYY settle the issue in a 7 game series when they’ve already played 18 games head2 head?

    Only college basketball thrives on the tourney aspect, and it renders the reg season insignificant.

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  49. CircleChange11 says:

    Not to mention that any additional playoff game push the ws to a later date. November baseball in Bos, NY, Det, Min, and Chi is just fantastic … Or not

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