MLB Stumbles Onto the Right Tournament Structure
by Lincoln Mitchell
Baseball is one of the few areas where I find myself occasionally taking conservative positions. If it were up to me, there would be no interleague play or designated hitter, but it is not up to me and those things are here to stay. Those same inclinations have made it tough for me to embrace MLB’s evolution towards a postseason tournament and away from the drama of a long pennant race where only one team advances.
The World Series always had a special magic, and it still does, but for most of the twentieth century, the pennant race was the real drama. The 1908 race between the Cubs and Giants, the 1934 contest between the Cardinals and the Giants the three-way race between the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees in 1948 that resulted in a one game playoff in which Cleveland beat Boston, the Giants and Dodgers battling until the last at bat of the bottom of the ninth inning of a special three game playoff to determine the NL pennant winner in 1951 and several close NL races in the early 1960s were all pennant races that captivated the fan bases of two or more teams for months.
In the four division era, this continued with many races coming down to the last weekend of the season. The most memorable division race of that era was in 1978 when the Yankees beat the Red Sox in a one game playoff to win the AL East in 1978.
Due to the wild card system, those kinds of pennant races no longer happen. Instead we have an extended tournament with twelve teams.
Today, fully 40% of all teams make the postseason. For much of the 20th century that number fluctuated between 10-17%. This means that much of the regular season is about seeding, staying healthy and crafting a tournament strategy rather than fighting to make it to the playoffs.
I am not sure how I feel about this development, but it was all but inevitable and is clearly not going away. This leads me to wonder whether, given that baseball now has a tournament structure, MLB has finally gotten the format of the tournament right.
If you are not familiar with the details of the current twelve team postseason tournament, you can read the details here, but there are several components of the system that make it appealing. First, because the top two division winners in each league get a first round bye, even very strong teams generally have an incentive to keep trying to win games late into the season. This year in the NL the Dodgers and Braves have all but clinched first round byes with just under a month left in the regular season. However, in the AL there are five teams, the Rays and Orioles in the East and the Mariners, Rangers and Astros in the West that have a chance at winning their division. Because the Central division is so weak this year, whoever wins the West and East will get a first round bye.
The teams that do not get a bye play a best of three series in the home parks of the teams with the better record. The sixth seed plays the third seed and the fourth seed plays the fifth. I was initially a little wary of the three game series, but it worked last year. For a fan like me who may not know each playoff team well, a three game series is long enough to get a feel for each team and the series itself without going on too long for the early rounds. The three game series also removes the capriciousness of a one game play-in as MLB had for several years. From there, the postseason takes on a familiar format-the LDS is best of five, the LCS and World Series best of seven.
There are two things this new system does well. It ensures that seeding matters for every playoff team, creating a de facto three tiers for the playoff-the two teams who get a bye, the two teams who play the first round at home and the two teams who play the first round on the road.
The new playoff system also makes it less tempting for teams to tank, ensuring that more teams will at least try a little bit. One perhaps unforeseen consequence of this is that fewer teams are outright sellers at the trade deadline. This may lead to a reinvigoration of the offseason hot stove league as teams have fewer opportunities to improve during the season.
That third wild card spot keeps a lot of mediocre teams imagining there is a path forward for them. This year, when play ended on July 31st, the day before the trade deadline, fully 18 teams had a realistic chance of making the post-season. Naturally some of those teams, like the Los Angeles Angels have since fallen out of contention.
I didn’t like the wildcard back when it was first used in 1995, but it is now part of the game and after almost thirty years of tinkering, MLB may have stumbled onto the right formula. The question this raises for me is why am I still only vaguely interested in this postseason tournament. I don’t have broadcast television and am unlikely to buy it for the month of the postseason as I have in some previous years.
My lack of interest is partially because neither of the teams for which I root, the Giants or the Yankees are likely to be in the postseason. I suppose the Giants could sneak into the tournament, but they are unlikely to go far, although if they won the first round, I would probably become very interested very quickly. Similarly, I am also completely uninterested in all of the potential story lines, but recognize that if I invested the time and watched all the postseason, something I am unlikely to do given my teaching load this semester, some compelling stories would emerge.
My feelings year are also in substantial part because, like many baseball fans, I am old and grumpy, but there is more to it than that. MLB may have refined the tournament structure in a good way, but it still does not feel right. A month of sometimes two to four games a night is just too much for any fan to follow. It is a totally different rhythm than the long pennant races that were part of the fabric of baseball, and the lives of many cities, for so many years.
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