What If Baseball Playoffs Were Determined By Division Record?

All major league sports division winners gain entry into the playoffs–the difference is HOW those division victors are determined. For example, the NFL places a greater weight on division record, so much so that a 8-8 division winner (like the 2010 Seahawks) is seeded higher than a wild card with a better record (like the 2010 New Orleans Saints). The NBA gives the top three seeds in each conference to the division winners, with winning the division based on overall instead of division record.

I was curious how baseball playoffs would be affected if a team’s division record determined the division winner, and I expected to see a handful of changes. I was VERY surprised with what I saw. I need to state categorically that in NO WAY DO I ADVOCATE THIS–I was just curious. All my research came from baseball-reference.com, and any mistakes are mine and not theirs.

First, the facts–since the playoffs were established in 1969, there have been 224 playoff teams (2 teams per league from 1969-1993, expanding to 4 teams per league from 1995 on). I specifically left out the 1981 season because of the extreme effects the strike and different playoff format had on who the participants were. As is well-known, the Reds had the best record in the majors that year–and didn’t make the playoffs.

Of those 224 playoff teams, if the playoffs were determined by a team’s division record, 55 (24.6%) would have been different teams. Some interesting occasions:

2010–the Rangers wouldn’t make the playoffs, let alone the World Series, since their 32-25 division record was 3 games behind the Angel’s 35-22, who finished with a losing record of 80-82. In addition, the Giants lost out to the Dodgers by 2 games and would also miss the playoffs.

2009–an average Chicago Cubs team had a 47-32 division record and would have squeaked by the Cardinals by 1 game.

2006–the Cardinals were average that year as it was, with an 83-79 record, but in division play, would have finished behind the Astros by 6 games (45-32 for the Astros vs. 39-42 for the Cards).

2003–the Astros eke out the Cubs for the NL Central crown, which in retrospect, probably wouldn’t bother Steve Bartman that much.

2000–the Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets could have been a Subway Series between…Toronto and Florida. Now THAT would have been a ratings blockbuster.

1987–every single playoff team would have been different (Brewers instead of Tigers, Royals instead of Twins, Mets instead of Cardinals, Reds instead of Giants)

1979–the Montreal Expos would have bested the “We Are Family” Pirates by 1 game and made Gary from Evanston very happy (a very inside joke that anyone who listens to WSCR in Chicago would understand. This will also guarantee on-air mention by them if published. Thanks in advance for your help, FanGraph editors).

The following chart shows every World Series team that would not have made the playoffs under this scenario. Teams in red were in the World Series, and teams in yellow were World Series champs.  Remember, I’m not advocating a change in the baseball playoff process, merely illustrating what would happen were such a system in place. I’ll do much the same with my next post, which will explore the true value of stolen bases in a novel way (I hope).

From FanGraph Graphs
From FanGraph Graphs

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8 Responses to “What If Baseball Playoffs Were Determined By Division Record?”

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  1. Kevin S. says:

    You’ve got both the NFL and NBA playoff set-ups wrong. In the NFL, winning your division isn’t determined by division record, but by overall record. The Seahawks got in at 7-9 because the rest of their division blew even worse. As for them hosting the Saints, that’s no different than when an 83-win division winner gets HFA over a 93-win Wild Card if they face in the LCS. As for the NBA, winning your division only locks you into the top four (the best wild card can actually be the two-seed if they’re better than the other two division winners, and HFA is determined by overall record, regardless of whether it’s a wild card or a division winner who has it.

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  2. Greg says:

    Yeah, the NBA used to give their top three seeds to division winners but that changed starting last season. For instance, the Atlanta Hawks finished second in their division to the Orlando Magic but still took the No. 3 seed. However, the Boston Celtics won their division but had a record worse than the Hawks and took the No. 4 seed.

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  3. Yirmiyahu says:

    Yeah, I don’t know any pro sports league that looks at intra-division record ahead of overall record.

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  4. Sox2727 says:

    You probably should have included a Bonanza reference in honor of Gary from Evanston.

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  5. Adam W says:

    I think instead of pro basketball and football, you may have been thinking of college basketball and football. Those are the only sports I can think of that determine conference champions/seed conference tournaments exclusively by conference record.

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  6. Danny says:

    If playoff teams were determined solely by division record then why play the teams in the other divisions?

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  7. West says:

    Only thing better than a Gary from Evanston reference would be a Larry Horse reference or a simple BY CRACKY!!

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  8. mmason says:

    Decent idea. The one major problem I see with this is the fact that teams playing out-of-divison games could easily decide to rest players. Red Sox-Mariners in April could easily turn into Astros-Dimondbacks in September.

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