Compared to recent years, this season’s playoff race has been pretty tame. Just a few weeks ago, we were talking about a potential five-team tie for the final American League Wild Card spot. Since then, Team Entropy has taken a Dodgers-esque tumble, and trying to drum up excitement while the sub-.500 Angels, Rangers, and Royals limp to the finish line is nearly impossible.
On the bright side, the National League is picking up some of the slack: three teams are vying for the final Wild Card spot, and believe it or not they all boast records comfortably over .500. That may not be exciting enough to inspire a Hollywood picture with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, but it’s something, especially compared to the dreary AL battle.
Now, I’m an eternal optimist, and if I’ve learned anything about making the best out of a mediocre situation, it’s that things could always be worse. Sure, Mariners fans may be kicking themselves for taking Dustin Ackley over Mike Trout in the 2009 draft, but at least they didn’t select Donovan Tate? Okay, that might not have helped much, but allow me to continue.
You might be a bit dissatisfied with the current playoff race, but be glad that baseball has nailed the playoff format. Although MLB’s adoption of the two-Wild Card system was met with some skepticism, the movement toward adding that second Wild Card has paid off in spades recently, sparing fans from some frustrating Septembers. There’s no better way to see that than to take a walk with me through a few alternate universes, where 2017’s hunt for October takes place under past playoff structures.
One-Wild Card System
The playoff format immediately preceding our current setup is the single-Wild Card layout, which was just replaced in 2012 and is the most realistic option to consider. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine reverting to those days, but for the sport’s sake, let’s hope the current system remains in place. Sure, this September hasn’t been quite as electrifying as hoped, but the alternate scenario is far worse.
By our playoff odds, there are currently 14 teams in the thick of it, vying for 10 playoff spots. That’s not great; realistically only one race—the NL's second Wild Card spot—has a good chance of changing hands in the final week. But let’s take a moment to imagine how things would shake out if there were no second Wild Card.
With four divisions already clinched and the remaining two practically settled as well, only each league’s single Wild Card is left to watch. Unfortunately, those spots were settled long ago: the NL Wild Card would already be clinched by the Diamondbacks and the AL Wild Card would be property of the Yankees. In short, the last seven days of baseball would be awfully uneventful, with all eight teams practically guaranteed of keeping their spots in the postseason.
Look a bit further back, and the results aren’t much more promising. The two bubble teams, the Yankees and Diamondbacks, were virtual guarantees to reach the postseason (either via the Wild Card spot or division) back in late August, so very little meaningful baseball would’ve been played in the final month of the season. Yeah, not great.
Let’s take another step back in time, to the days before the Wild Card was implemented, back when only the division winners played. Oddly enough, this system, which was replaced in 1994, might have brought some more late-season fun than the single Wild Card would have. Now, that’s not to say it’s at all superior to any subsequent formats, but it’s worth looking at how the races would shake out in this scenario.
While we don’t get any exciting, last-minute fights with the pre-Wild Card format, there are at least two races in the AL East and NL Central. With the Wild Card removed, teams are without a fallback plan and the competition for the division becomes a do-or-die scenario. Neither battle would come down to the final week(s), but it would at least present baseball fans with something to keep track of, rather than the month-long gridlock of the single-Wild Card case.
It’s worth mentioning that the major flaw of this format—stacked divisions leading to top teams missing October—would come back to bite baseball in 2017 as well. Given the Dodgers' incredible run for much of the season, the Diamondbacks would have realistically fallen out of the playoff race by midseason, despite currently holding the sixth-best record in baseball.
One Team Per League
You might initially balk at the possibility of a two-team playoff; having only the best team from each league play for the World Series was abandoned long ago, back in 1968 when there were only 20 total teams in the majors. Obviously, this format isn’t coming back anytime soon, but I wanted to take a moment to appreciate just how insane the playoff races would be under this system.
Let’s start in the American League. As of August 24, the Astros held the best record in the league with a 77-50 mark, followed by the Red Sox at 73-54 and the Indians at 70-56. It was tight with a little over a month to play, but the Astros had been excellent and were easily the favorites to play the MLB-best Dodgers (90-36) in the World Series.
But the Indians, winners of the AL pennant the year before, had different plans. They won their game that day, then the next, and the next. They couldn't stop winning, and after 18 straight had somehow climbed the 6.5-game deficit to pass the Astros. Cleveland continued winning, reaching a historic 22-game streak and eventually winning 27 of 28 to put them up by 2.5 games on September 21. By the final week of the season in this alternate reality, the Indians have the two-game edge with just a handful of games left to play.
With an 88 percent chance of finishing with a better record than the Astros and making the World Series, the final stretch may not have come down to the wire, but that 22-game winning streak would’ve contained some of the most thrilling and epic baseball the sport has ever seen, enough to spin a lost season into a place in the World Series.
Oh, and then there’s the National League. Nothing can compare to the insanity of the Indians’ winning streak, but just imagine what would happen when the Diamondbacks erupted into their own 13-game winning streak, subsequently followed by an 11-game skid from the Dodgers. While Arizona would never come closer than nine games away from LA’s league-leading record (the Nationals were much closer), the outrage and panic in Los Angeles would far surpass the mayhem a thousand Yasiel Puigs could induce.
Long story short, returning to this format is a relatively horrible and unrealistic idea, but wow it would’ve been fun for a bit.
All in all, though, we should be thankful for the current format. Keeping as many teams in the race as possible is a critical step forward for growing the sport, with fan bases staying captivated deep into September and through October. Given the inherent randomness of the sport, parity can seemingly be increased by tweaking playoff rules and opening the race for more teams, an adjustment that also increases activity on the market both during the trade deadline and in the offseason.
Still, a balance needs to be struck between allowing enough teams into October, and allowing deserving teams into October. It’s not an easy equilibrium at which to arrive, and you can see baseball struggling to reach it through their steady playoff evolution. Given the multiple sub-.500 teams still (sort of) fighting in the American League, it looks like we’ve finally reached a limit on playoff inclusiveness. And, given the lack of late-season competitiveness in the older playoff layouts, going back to a stricter postseason isn’t the right move.
With that in mind, the two-Wild Card format should be here to stay, and we should be glad for that. Baseball needs to stay interesting as October dawns, and the current setup is the best way to accomplish that.
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The current format is an improvement from the one WC system, since winning a division actually means something, but it still feels like we usually just end up with a race for 5th place between so-so teams.
I know I'm a luddite, but in my ideal world we'd have 4 divisions on 8 teams each, and only the winners would advance to playoffs. It will never happen, but I can dream.
I do think, though, that the *best* way to judge a playoff format at this point in the season is by how tight thing are, given how drastically a new format can affect that, and, in turn, fan enjoyment and fairness.
If the Red Sox worried more about their ability to make playoffs in some other setup, would they have gone out and gotten more than Eduardo Nunez and Addison Reed at the deadline?
If the goal is to identify and reward the best team over the course of a full slate of games, then the old pre-1969 no-divisions format is probably best. Let six months of games determine who the best AL team and NL team are, and pit them against each other in a World Series. Or employ divisions but eliminate inter-divisional play, and then allow each division winner to advance.
If the goal is to maximize television revenues, then an even more expanded playoff format would likely produce even closer annual "races" between the 6th- & 7th-best teams, enhancing late-season drama. More rounds of playoffs would mean more winner-advances-but-loser-goes-home games to spur fan interest.
The "sweet spot," I'd expect, is at the point where decreasing revenues for those games which aren't a part of the playoffs (as the regular season becomes less relevant) begin to outweigh the boost in post-season profits.
I prefer Door #1, where only champions are granted the opportunity to compete for an overall championship. But that's easy for me to say -- it's not my money being left on the table as unrealized profit potential.