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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.