MLB’s new playoff format imperfect, but should be celebrated anyway

Yeah, so that new Major League Baseball playoff format? It could be better.   

It’s true: The elimination of three teams who won between 101 and 111 games before they could reach the National League Championship Series is not great for the viability and purpose of a 162-game season. The presence of an 89- and an 87-win team in the NLCS does not speak well for the concept that the best team will make off with a World Series championship.

Yet the most recent round of bellyaching over an expanded field that added one team and two extra series to each league only illustrates how wrong the general public has been about how we perceive greatness, especially in baseball. (And when well-paid pundits are mad, you know it’s a big deal.) 

The best team won’t win the World Series? Brother, that’s old news: Since divisional play began in 1969 through 2021, the team with the best record in baseball won the World Series just 14 times in 52 years – or 27% of the time. And since MLB split into a six-division format beginning with the 1995 playoffs, we’ve welcomed plenty of relatively middling champions. 

Just last year, the Atlanta Braves won 88 games and a World Series; nobody seemed to have a problem with it. The 2000 New York Yankees, the last club in a dynasty that captured four Series in six seasons, won just 87 games. And in the most egregious example, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won 83 games, yet knocked off the Padres, Mets and Tigers to win it all.

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What’s more, the majority of this year’s bracket would have played out exactly as the previous decade did.

Why’s that?

Well, what we now call the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds – people really do love their brackets – were what we once used to call the wild-card teams. From 2012-2021, they met in what we called the wild-card game – the top two non-division winners doing battle in one game, for the right to move on.

This year, MLB created the wild-card series, a best-of-three that pitted the four lowest seeds in a pair of duels. As it turned out, the Nos. 4-5 seeds that won Game 1 – the Padres and Mariners – also won the series.

So, no complaining about the Padres – they’re exactly where they would have been last year, and for a decade before that.

And no crying over the 101-win Mets getting treated unfairly – a year ago, they would have been one-and-done. This time, after blowing the division to the Braves, they had three shots to win two – and still blew it.

That brings us to the Phillies, and perhaps a bit of rightful indignation. They won just 87 games, yet the third wild card granted them a hall pass into the tournament. It wasn’t as big a deal when they pulled a wild-card round upset over the NL Central champion Cardinals, who captured what’s undoubtedly the third-best division in the NL.

Yet that extra wild card berth gave the Phillies another shot at the Braves, a club that trounced them by 14 games this year and won 11 of 19 head-to-head.

This time, Philly won three out of four – and Atlanta joined the Mets as a 101-win team on the scrap heap.

On one hand, sure, maybe the Phillies didn’t deserve an additional crack at the Braves. On the other, getting one of the game’s great markets – a team filled with recognizable stars like Bryce Harper and respected veterans like Kyle Schwarber – back into the postseason for the first time in a decade isn’t the worst thing. A Phillies-Padres NLCS might on paper be a ratings nightmare; Harper vs. Manny Machado, though, is the sort of oomph the game could use.

It’s also not bad, karmically, that the Padres and Phillies have been arguably the most aggressive franchises in upgrading their club, a nice message to the many teams who would rather pocket record revenues and loaf around waiting for a “win curve” to turn in their favor rather than bend it themselves.

Naturally, the Phillies’ and Padres’ success has to come at the expense of somebody, and it was the 111-win Dodgers who joined the Mets and Braves on the proverbial tee box. The Dodgers trucked the Padres by 22 games this year, so losing three of four and going home might seem – and here’s that word again – unfair.

Yet again, we’ll note that the Padres would have qualified fair and square under the format used in the past 27 years. And the Dodgers know they have themselves to blame more than their opponent or the format for their latest pratfall.

Consider this: Dodgers starters Julio Urias, Tyler Anderson and Clayton Kershaw faced the Padres seven times from July 1 until the end of the season. In all seven games, none of them threw fewer than six innings a start and they completed seven innings in three of them, winning five of the seven games.

In the NLDS, all three pitchers were yanked after five innings, and the Dodger bullpen was not up to the task of preserving victory in two of those three games, blowing Anderson’s 3-0 lead in Game 4. That’s a front office problem, not a format problem.

Yet the Dodgers’ postseason failings – it’s now 10 playoff runs and one championship since 2013 – also illustrate how fan expectations, particularly casual fans, are now at significant odds with baseball’s postseason randomness.

Modern North American sports is awash in ring culture – win it all or go home. LeBron vs. Michael. Binary outcomes. Line items on a “competitive banter” TV show.

Well, baseball doesn’t work that way, and if Ernie Banks and Carl Yastrzemski and Ken Griffey Jr. were before your time, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani and many others are here to remind you: Great players have little control over winning it all.

Great teams, too. The Dodgers are practically neck and neck with the 1990s-2000s Braves, who had just one World Series title to show for 14 straight division crowns. Atlanta’s October struggles earned it ridicule and pejoratives like “the Buffalo Bills of baseball.” (Kids, hard to believe, but this was once an insult.)

Well, it’s long past time we recalibrated.

It’s not 1956 anymore, eight teams to a league, winner straight to the World Series, Yankees-Brooklyn for the umpteenth time. Hasn’t been anything close to that for a half-century.

What we do have is probably more entertaining, certainly more inclusive, occasionally intoxicating.

And yes, it might even be a little bit fair.

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