A Better MLB Playoff System

Since 1994, when Major League Baseball converted to three divisions and expanded its playoff system to four teams per league, the format has been a mixed blessing.  Good teams that didn’t win their division would qualify for the playoffs as a wild card team, and the expansion of two more playoff teams per league meant that more fans could root for their teams to make the playoffs.  Gone were the days of a make-or-break pennant race, as the second-best team in the division didn’t make the playoffs. 

While I am not arguing that this system is better than what was done in the past, our current format is not the most optimal way MLB should have the playoffs structured, and I propose an alternative.  First, I would like to review what I feel is wrong with the current system:

Problem #1: Teams are not incentivized to get the top seed.

The reward of having the league’s best record means little if a team knows they’re making the playoffs.  For example, let’s say it is the last day of the regular season and a team is either tied for the division lead or for the best record, but if it loses the last game it will be the wild card team or the second seed.  What incentive is there to win that game?  At the risk of overusing them, a manager is unlikely to use an ace on two- or three-days rest, or his closer for two or three innings.  In other words, there is no urgency for teams as to where they’re seeded in the playoffs. Regardless of who wins the division, both teams should make the playoffs.

Problem #2:  Home field advantage is not much of an advantage.

Since 1995, home playoff teams have won two-thirds of NFL games, 65% of NBA games, but only 54.6% of MLB games.  (Incidentally, home teams won 54.1% of regular season MLB games during the same period.)

Problem #3:  Wild card teams have performed just as well – if not better than – the division winners in the playoffs.

Nine of the thirty pennant winners have been wild card teams.  Given that wild card teams do not have home field advantage in either the division series or the LCS, this shows that the current system does not put wild card teams at much of a disadvantage.

Simply put, the current “balanced” playoff system was easy to implement  and simple on the schedule makers – the higher seed gets home field advantage over the lower seed.  While there has been talk of different ways of unbalancing this, not much has changed, although there is talk of changing the Division Series to a best-of-seven series.

My proposal, which improves upon the issues mentioned above and makes for more exciting pennant races and playoff games, is as follows:

I propose that MLB adds a second wild card team to both leagues, and that both wild card teams in each league play a one-game play-in game the day after the regular season ends to determine the fourth seed.  The top-seeded team in each league – based on the regular season record – would then play the four seed in a best-of-five Division Series.

This change eliminates the problems listed above.  Teams would now have an incentive both to 1) try for the top seed and 2) avoid being a wild card.  Top seeds are given a big advantage in this scenario because they will face the winner of the playoff game that will most likely have used their ace in either that game or a pivotal last game of the season, and wouldn’t be able to use him again until possibly Game 3 of a five-game Division Series.  This comes at a great detriment to the wild card teams and more than makes up for the “advantage” of home field for the top seed.

Taking this year’s AL East race as an example, if both the Yankees and Rays are tied going into the last game of the season knowing they’re both making the playoffs, there is little incentive for either manager to push their players that last day.  But if either team knew that the second-place team would, say, face Boston in a one-game playoff, then this would greatly change managerial decisions that last day of the season.

Given that both proposed one-game playoffs would only last one day, scheduling the playoffs will not make it much of a burden on the other playoff games.  As we saw with the Chicago-Detroit game last year, one-game playoffs are exciting to watch and would be a great opening to the MLB playoff season.

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40 Responses to “A Better MLB Playoff System”

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  1. Kevin S. says:

    Why are we rewarding teams for winning a crappy division with an 85-77 record while punishing a 98-win team because they happen to play in the best division in baseball. Enough of this “let’s make things harder on the Wild Card” crap. How about winning your division only gets you in if you win 92 games. Anything less than that and you need to beat out the wild-card runners up.

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  2. It was Minny-Detroit last year, and Chicago-Minny the year before, but I like the idea. I had thought about first round byes before, but the lost revenue of missing a playoff round would be a punishment in some respects.

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  3. gdc says:

    The first thought is that if the 2nd wild card team gets a chance and home field is not a great advantage then it is now the 1st wildcard team that rests its ace in game 162 knowing that if they lose and finish 1/2 game back of the other WC team they are now in the driver’s seat with their ace on the road.

    If there is a clear WC1 and tie for WC2 there is now another play-in game. I suppose if there is a 3-way tie for WC2 it should be “Happy Birthday WC1″ and skip it, but the loss of a scheduled TV date would probably mean some lower payment.

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  4. CJE says:

    Maybe the Wild Card teams that win are simply better baseball teams. If they are going to do anything, they should go back to two divisions and have two wild cards. It gets better teams into the playoffs and a team shouldn’t complain about being in a division with big money teams because if you can’t finish third in your division, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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  5. Your system introduces a problem however. 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:

    NY vs TEX
    MIN vs (TB/BOS)
    If seeds are done strictly on reg season record or

    NY vs (TB/BOS)
    MIN vs TEX
    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.

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  6. I’ve seen various versions of this proposal floated around this season. My opinion is that basing a playoff berth on one game is a poor way to incentivize a team to win a division.

    Want to take the best teams in each league to the playoffs? Want to eliminate the unnatural advantage the Yankees and Red Sox have against their AL East foes? Want to have a balanced schedule that puts all teams on an even playing field?

    It’s simple. Eliminate the antiquated divsion structure and go back to a single league format.

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  7. Sam N. says:

    Not sure if you saw but Jayson Stark wrote a column proposing this same idea on ESPN a few weeks ago. He said the big objection baseball teams had to a one game playoff was the idea of a season coming down to a single bad hop.

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  8. Scott K. says:

    If you want to make it easier for top seeds to advance, you add more teams so the top seeds start out playing bad teams. This is why the success rate in other sports is higher for home teams. It’s selection bias.

    Make 8 teams in each league make the playoffs, and you’ll have much more successful home field teams. But would this really make the playoffs better? I personally like the idea that the 4 teams in each league are somewhat evenly matched. I like the idea that any one of the 8 teams that enter the playoffs can win it all if their pitching staff gets hot. Why else have playoffs unless anyone can win them? If you want the team with the best record to be the champions, then don’t have playoffs at all. Just crown the team with the best record in the league the champs at the end of the regular season.

    You play the regular season for a chance to play in the post season. You want the higher seed so that you get home field advantage. Even if that advantage is only slight. I’ve never heard a compelling reason as to why the higher seed should have such a higher advantage over the lower seed.

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  9. William says:

    Matthew Carruth nails why the 2nd WC format is a bad idea. If the goal is to make teams play for the division, you can’t turnaround and punish them for doing so.

    In every sport, home field is the incentive to winning obtaining a higher seed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in baseball. As a result, the only reasonable incentive seems to be money.

    What I would propose is having the WC surrender every dollar of their take above expenses to the higher seed. This way, the WC fans can still see their team play at home, but the team itself does not benefit financially. I have a feeling that a large percentage of owners would push their managers to win the division under such a setup.

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  10. aweb says:

    Home field advantage is much less in baseball playoffs because there are no rounds in baseball playoffs near the equivalent af a 1 vs 8 in basketball. And there is a larger spread between football teams in the first round of the playoffs too. Baseball plays a massive season, and gets the best teams in the playoffs more reliably than football does.

    If the best NBA team plays the worst one in a best of seven playoff series, they win every time (barring massive injuries), usually in 4 games. But put the Yankees against the Pirates, and the Pirates have at least a shot at the series, and would usually take a game or two. The best MLB teams most years win 55-60% of the time, you can’t expect the playoffs to suddenly increase their chances of winning against another good team. The best basketball teams run 65% – 80%, football 75%-95% (12-15 wins).

    Football is a large sample game (130 plays/game with a lot of players involved in each in each one) with a small sample season.

    Basketball is a large sample game (100+ scoring plays a game counting free throws, ~200 possessions between the teams) and a medium sample season.

    Baseball is a medium sample game (100 plate appearances with a small chance of scoring on each one) with a huge sample season.

    The only change that turns baseball playoffs into a big advantage for the best record is to limit the teams involved. Yankees/Rays/Twins would be a great pennant race.

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  11. Michael DeCavalcante says:

    Very good points, Matthew. I’d say that the aces for both teams may or may not have been used, its going to depend on how their rotations pan out toward the end of the season as well as their records – Boston hasn’t been guaranteed that spot yet (meaning as of 9/21), so you don’t know if they will move their rotation around until they’re guaranteed that one-game playoff.

    Tampa or New York have, in essence, two chances to win one game to make the playoffs, whereas Boston has only one chance. Would you prefer to be Boston or TB/NY?

    Sam N. – no I didn’t see the article, but discussions of this sort have been around a while – there have been arguments for and against. I was at the NYC event back in July, mentioned the idea, and waited til now to post this since it is more relevant.

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  12. WAMCO says:

    The current divisional system is systematically unfair as it is. There should be no divisions, and the schedule should be balanced. The top four teams should qualify for the playoffs. Adding teams waters down the quality. Having divisions waters down the quality.It should be top four, and everyone plays everyone an equal number of times.

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  13. Ryan Hoffman says:

    The more realistic possibility, as in the one the owner’s would be most interested in, is going to a NFL structure.
    Owners like divisions because it gives smaller teams a chance to make the playoffs (and to make added money in a division-pennent race). If you made it where the best 4 or 6 teams go thru, then you can essentially just write in the Yankees and Red Sox almost every year.

    No, instead I believe the solution is one that MLB would love to do and that is to first, add 2 more teams. Now I know that is nearly impossible in this economy, but any kind of playoff shakeup wouldn’t be made for 3-5 years anyway. If they were to add a team in 2 of Oklahoma City, Nashville, Portland, Charlotte, or I think the correct move, Upper New Jersey, they would then have 32 teams.

    With 32 teams, you make 4 divisions of 4 teams. Playoffs consist of 4 division winners and 2 wild cards. 1st and 2nd seeds get byes.

    Now I heard a lost revenue complaint, which I think is at least somewhat valid. The NFL does it and I’ve never heard complaints, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t complaints. I would propose that the first round of the playoffs, all 6 teams share the profit (they do seem to LOVE to do that…) made. (Also, the NFL may do something like this anyway, I haven’t been able to find anything, but it wouldn’t surprise me.)


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  14. Dave S. says:

    I’ve long advocated for an additional wild card with a one-game play-in. It works for the business side as well, as more teams with a shot increases fan interest.

    To further equalize the field, like other posters here, I would advocate for the elimination of divisions (and the unbalanced schedule), with three seeded teams and two wild cards selected from each league. You could also return an NL team to the AL.

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  15. Xeifrank says:

    I am not advocating this, but if you want to make home field advantage and a higher seeding more desirable, you could easily give the higher seed five home games in a seven game series or four home games in a five game series.

    7 Games: XX00XXX or 00XXXXX
    5 Games: 0XXXX

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  16. MV says:

    I thought I read almost an exact idea about a playoff change a week ago on ESPN.

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  17. Gilly says:

    With the current system true pennant races are rare, but if you eliminate divisions and just take the top 4 you’ll probably never have one again.

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  18. Michael DeCavalcante says:

    MV – Yes see Sam N’s link above. I had mostly written the article in July but waited until it is a little more timely to post it, which turns out to be a little too late.

    Stark’s article is basically the same point I’ve made.

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  19. Judy says:

    It just shifts the same problem to another spot. If the 1st WC team happens to get to the last week of the season trailing the division winner by too many games to catch up but close to the 2nd WC team, there’s no incentive for either WC to finish better than the other. The only problem here is that there aren’t enough good teams in the AL this year to give any of the 4 best teams any trouble. Blame the Red Sox and White Sox and Indians and Angels and Mariners, etc., the lack of races for any of the divisions and the WC is their fault.

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  20. Max says:

    This proposal also gives more teams a chance later into September. I like it.

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  21. Rick says:

    Here’s a really simple solution: Home field advantage means the series is played in your park — every game of it. Days off come after Game 3 and Game 5. Teams split the gate. Problems solved.

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  22. Scott K says:

    People need to stop reading ESPN. These are the people who gave us home field advantage being determined by the All Star game.

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  23. tbad says:

    Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read it. A lot of smart people write for ESPN. Even if some of their more recognizable voices are morons

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  24. vivalapiazza says:

    Tampa will probably win the wild-card by roughly 7 games this year, and they may wind up with the second best record in baseball. There have been other seasons where the wild-card winner had a double-digit lead over the next best team. In my opinion, it’s pretty silly that they would need to play a 163rd game of the season to make the playoffs, while an inferior team has virtually the same shot at making the playoffs (and as mentioned earlier, maybe a better shot if Tampa uses their ace during game 162). This seems to be a classic example of fixing one problem while creating another one.

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  25. noseeum says:

    @vivalapiazza, isn’t that unavoidable? No system is perfect and will have its set of problems. The question is, “which problems would you like to live with?”

    The current system provides essentially zero advantage to being a number one seed. That’s a problem. You can say, “sure, it’s a problem, but it’s one worth living with.” Do you think it makes sense that the Yankees get no reward whatsoever in the playoffs for the work they did in the regular season?

    Sure, the Ray are great, but they are in second place. Maybe it’s “not fair” that they are in such a competitive division and Texas can skate through to the playoffs, but that’s the system in place.

    When discussing “solutions” I think it’s best to stick with what’s possible. Divisions are here to stay for the foreseeable future, and if I owned the Rays, I’d be happy to be in the East.

    So, if we’re stuck with divisions, what’s the best solution?

    I think the easiest solution would be to make the first series 7 games. Although still random, it’s much more difficult for an inferior team to win a 7 game series than a 5 game series and the home field advantage becomes slightly larger, not to mention the additional revenue for the home team. You could do 3 home, 3 away, 1 home for the top seed as well to guarantee they get 3 home games. Again, nice for revenue.

    I like Michael’s solution as well. Yes, perhaps it would be “unfair” that the Rays would have a 9 game lead on the next best team and be forced to play one game, but 20 years ago, they’d be playing golf. They still have a chance by being in that game, and they’re still the better team. I see very little wrong with “punishing” the current wild card team. They’re the wild card team. They’re lucky we brought them to the table in the first place!

    Good post, Michael.

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  26. Michael DeCavalcante says:

    You really have two fair options. You either have balanced schedules, no divisions and the top four teams make it; or you have the unbalanced schedules and divison winners/wild-card teams make it. With the former you have no pennant races whatsoever (unless you consider the fourth through sixth best teams gunning for that last spot a pennant race). Its obvious the latter works better and is more exciting for all teams involved, especially if you have close races in every division.

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  27. ari says:

    All you need to know to think that this is a bad idea is that John Kruk was in favor of this system on Baseball Tonight earlier this week.

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  28. Everett says:

    I think we aren’t thinking right here – we shouldn’t be trying to necessarily punish the WC team, but reward the top seed. Give the top seed 4 of 5 games at home against the 4 seed, and then change it so that the teams are seeded in order of record, and not based on the WC as automatically number 4. The worst of the 4 teams gets 1 home game, the 2nd worst gets 2 home games, the 2nd best gets 3 home games, the best gets 4 home games.

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  29. vivalapiazza says:

    @noseeum, I think the Rays missing the playoffs in this situation would be a much bigger problem than the yankees not having a huge reward for winning their division by a game. If the yankees win the division by 1 game, then they should get a huge reward….but if tampa wins the wild card by 8 games, they need to go to a one-game playoff? That just doesn’t seem fair to me.

    I like Everett’s solution. Give the #1 seed 4 home games, the #2 seed 3 home games, etc. To me, that’s a solution that does give the #1 seed more of an advantage but it doesn’t cause a huge problem in the meantime.

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  30. noseeum says:

    @vivalapiazza, I think Everett’s solution suffers from the same problem. It ain’t happenin’. What division would want that other than the AL East?

    If you win your division, you are ranked higher than the wildcard, regardless of record. That’s just how the playoffs works in every sport.

    I can’t see any owners having much motivation to do a 4-1 setup either, but it’s interesting.

    I’d push for 7 games over that. It could be done if they forced the networks to eliminate all the off days.

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  31. Bryan says:

    This is exactly what was proposed on ESPN (Jayson Stark I think) about a week or two ago. And it used all the exact same stats that you used.

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  32. AMusingFool says:

    A couple of things: this idea is pretty much a non-starter, insofar as it adds an additional day between the end of the season and the playoffs (think about what happens currently with a 3-team pigpile at the end of the season).

    But ignoring that issue, making it a bit more fair would be to say that the “second” wild-card would need to be within 3-5 games of the first one. I agree that penalizing TB in a season like this year is a bigger problem than not sufficiently incentivizing NYY. That should lead to some teams really trying to push it to the end of the season. If you really want to make it crazy, then make the threshold variable on how many games the higher-ranked team has won (ie: if TB wins 100, RS need to be within one; if TB wins 95, RS within two; if TB has 90, RS need 87, etc). That would put pressure on both teams to keep the pedal to the metal, even if there is a little bit of separation.

    If you start playing with number of games home team gets, I think you need to balance it out a little bit by splitting the gate evenly (well, actually, I think baseball should make this be the case regardless of any other issues).

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  33. Matthew says:

    Sorry, but I don’t like it.

    First, playoff teams should be guarenteed to play at least 3 playoff games. Making it so two playoff teams each year only get to play 1 playoff game before going home great dilutes the excitement of playoff baseball.

    Second, most people don’t really care that the wild card teams don’t get much of a disadvantage or that two tied teams can save their aces on the last day of the regular season. The wild card teams do so well, because first, they often have a better record than at least one division winner, and second, they’re usually a hot team who had to win many late meaningful games just to make the playoffs.

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  34. Matthew says:

    By the way, why can’t we have divisional play with a balanced schedule? It used to work that way, and I much prefer it that way.

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  35. Michael DeCavalcante says:

    Because if you have divisional play with a balanced schedule you increase the likelihood that all the teams in one divison could have bad record. Before the ’94 strike, the Rangers led the AL West with a 52-62 record.

    This could still happen today, but an unbalanced schedule reduces this likelihood.

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  36. Hutch says:

    First, as Sam N. noted, this articles appears to just re-hash a Jayson Stark article (at least problems #1 and #2). At least quote your sources if you’re going to restate their ideas.

    Second, give me a balanced schedule, no divisions, 6 playoff teams from each league with the two best records in each league getting a bye for the first round and the other four playing a 3-games-in-3-days series, followed by a 5-games-in-6-days series and then a normal LCS (7-games-in-9-days). I hate all the extra days of rest teams get in the playoffs. Set the schedule similar to the regular season and force teams to win with their fourth and possibly fifth starters.

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  37. Michael DeCavalcante says:

    The “idea” isn’t exclusive to Jason Stark, as this has been mentioned in the past in other articles and blogs, one of which I sourced. If you read my replies I acknowledge the article – which I began writing in July – is basically the same as my point. I can’t quote a source if I didn’t know it existed.

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  38. Michael DeCavalcante says:

    I need a correction button on here….

    If you read my replies I acknowledge the article is bascially the same as my point, which I began writing in July.

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  39. Matt says:

    Two divisions, two teams from each division. Or one division, top 4 make it in..

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