The playoffs are broken. They exist to crown a champion of Major League Baseball in a way we find satisfying and enjoyable, but they’re not living up to that relatively simple calling. One needs only to look at the last few years to see that it’s true: the wrong teams have been making the playoffs, and the wrong teams have been winning. And while we don’t yet know how 2016 will turn out, the playoff picture has almost totally resolved itself for all but a half-dozen or so teams, and it’s safe to say we can expect more of the same this October.
The playoffs are broken, but not irredeemably so. Baseball is a game that, to its benefit, is comfortable with rule changes and tweaks in the pursuit of improvement. It’s time for another, to fix the playoffs.
The playoffs need to be more fair. There’s already tons of randomness inherent in every game of baseball, and there’s no need to exacerbate that by adding randomness to the meta-game of playoff design. Teams that were successful in the regular season have earned a meaningful advantage in the postseason, but they don’t currently get one, and that should be changed.
The second Wild Card slot is the easiest target, a juicy piece of low-hanging, arbitrary fruit since it debuted in the 2012 postseason. A team that uses it to scrape into the playoffs can win a single game—one game! Literally every team can win one game—and be on effectively equal footing with the best team in baseball. It is absurd, but it’s not the real problem. The real problem is the existence of divisions and unbalanced schedule, and they should go along with the Wild Card.
The divisions are what proponents of the Wild Card cite most often, and in a way, they’re not wrong! The 2015 Cubs went 97–65, good for a .599 winning percentage, despite sharing a division with (and playing 19 games against) the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates and the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals. In 2011, they would’ve missed the playoffs, despite having a better record than every team in baseball other than the Pirates and Cardinals. That’s bad, but the second Wild Card, which not only let the 89-win Kansas City Royals into the playoffs but the seventh game of the World Series, is the wrong way to go about it. This is like treating a serious wound by cauterizing it with a blowtorch, without first asking if bandages or stitches might do the trick instead.
Instead, the divisions should be gutted altogether, and each team should play the other teams in its league an equal number of times. Once that happens, a lot of the work of making the playoffs both responsive to true-talent level and fun has already been done, but my preferred new playoff structure is as follows. At the end of the season, rank the league by wins, and as a tiebreaker, by head to head record. The no. 4 plays no. 1, and no. 2 plays no. 3, in a “best of four” series, where the lower seeded team needs to win three games to advance, while the higher seeded team only needs to win two games. Then, the winners play in a similar “best of six” League Championship Series, where the higher seed needs to win three and the lower seed needs to win four. Finally, the two league champions play each other in a normal, seven-game World Series, with home field advantage going to whichever league has the better record in interleague play.
The great thing about those playoffs is that they’d be much more fair, while still being fun and allowing for compelling storylines. Teams like the ’14 Royals should make the playoffs, every once in a while, but once there, they should face a long, uphill battle. The standard deviation for wins in a season is a whopping six games, so it’s very plausible that a team with the record of those Royals is actually nothing more than a .500 team at their core. Under this system, they can still win, but they are going to have to overcome an advantage earned by the better teams in the regular season.
Like I said, this isn’t the only possible system, and we shouldn’t shy away from further tweaking if this turns out to still be too sensitive to luck. The playoffs are supposed to be fun, and I’m the first to admit that the least luck-sensitive system—not having playoffs at all, and just giving the title to the team with the best regular season record—would be boring. But the regular season should be fun, too, and it’s not fun for it not to matter whether you finish with 97 wins or with 87. This system would maintain or increase fun levels, and it would make sure better teams won more often. That’s all upside, and that’s why this change should be made for 2017.
The playoffs need to be more fun. Baseball’s critics often accuse it of being slow, and plodding, and boring, and the postseason’s current structure does nothing to disabuse them of that notion. The best, most exciting, and most memorable moments of the playoffs have nothing to do with “fairness” and everything to do with the thrill of applied randomness. There should be more of those moments.
The Wild Card slots are a huge step in the right direction, and an injection of excitement into a sport that desperately needs it. They’re great first because they give teams a meaningful opportunity to break the hegemony that would otherwise threaten to dominate the playoffs. The 2014 Royals and the 2013 Pirates broke massive playoff droughts via the Wild Card, bringing great joy and excitement to their respective fanbases, and more teams should get that opportunity. The 2015 Twins had a surprisingly good season, but while it took them to within three games of a Wild Card slot, they ended up with nothing after game 162, which strikes me as neither fair nor fun. The harsh Minnesota winter would probably have felt a little less cold if fans had some fond memories of playoff games to reflect upon. Instead, they had to keep waiting, and with this year’s edition of the Twins mired in what is shaping up to be a 100-loss season, the prognosis is bleak.
Sure, teams like the Twins might not “deserve” to win a World Series, or even to make the playoffs, but that’s not what matters. What matters is fun, and what’s fun are underdogs, droughts being broken, miracle runs, improbable comebacks, and all kinds of other moments of undeserved success. Here are the games from the last three playoffs that truly stick out in my mind: the Johnny Cueto game between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati in 2013, the Jon Lester game between Oakland and Kansas City in 2014, the game between Texas and Toronto that featured Bautista’s flip in 2015, and Game 7 of the 2014 World Series. Those moments didn’t come about thanks to a playoff system precisely calibrated for fairness, but thanks to a system that has space for variance, the kind of swings that can break your heart and make your neighbor’s decade. These moments of unfairness save baseball from boring itself to death. Underdogs are great—the playoff run of the ’14 Royals was the best baseball moment of the decade—but they are, by definition, less talented than the teams that surround them. Things like that don’t happen unless the system is set up to encourage them.
Here’s one way a system like that could look. The winners of each division, plus the five other teams with the best records, make the playoffs, then are seeded based on record. The no. 8 and no. 5 play a one-game playoff, as do no. 6 and no. 7, with the winners advancing to another one-game playoff against no. 4 and no. 3, respectively. The winners of those playoffs are paired against no. 1 and no. 2, and the playoffs look basically like they currently do from this point forward: two five-game series, followed by a seven-game series for the league championship, followed by a seven-game World Series. This opens up the playoffs to an additional three teams each year, but without putting them on equal footing with teams that did better in the regular season. Doing well in the regular season is still highly, highly incentivized, but this system maximizes the capacity of the playoffs for Cinderella runs, out-of-nowhere upsets, and fun.
Are there possible alternatives? Of course! But I get a tingle just thinking about the possibility of the 2015 Minnesota Twins capping off a totally improbable, unpredictable, projection-confounding run through the AL bracket with a David-and-Goliath battle against the Mets for the World Series. That tingle is the whole point of the playoffs, so let’s bring it back, and make this change for 2017.