MLB Playoff Format Not Making The Grade

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As the playoffs draw closer, there are some intriguing races in the race to the World Series. Fans of many teams are watching this week as their teams make their last sometimes desperate push for the playoffs. It should be one of the high points of the entire season. Yet, after reading some social media posts this week, one can’t help but think that the MLB playoff format is in need of some re-evaluation and adjustment. This season, perhaps more than any in recent memory, has raised this question loudly and clearly.

So why would we say that 2021 has especially highlighted the need for change in the MLB playoff format? Well, the impetus for this article was actually a social media post in which a Dodgers fan complained about the one-game wildcard matchup. The poster made a great point when he questioned the fairness of his beloved Dodgers possibly winning over 100 games and being one and done in the playoffs. While his post could be seen as sour grapes, it does beg the question of whether the MLB playoff format could be better. We will do our best to address his concerns here.

MLB Playoffs – An Inherent Flaw

We find ourselves generally agreeing with the poster on the whole wildcard setup. Given the disparity between the three divisions in each league in any given year, there is always the possibility that wildcard teams will get the short end of the schedule. In 2021, we see that disparity on an unprecedented level. The aforementioned Dodgers entered play Monday with a record of 100-56, a winning percentage of .641. Yet they find themselves two games behind the Giants with six games to go. Conversely, the Atlanta Braves have a record of 83-72, a winning percentage of .535. Yet the Braves lead the NL East by two and a half games over this Phillies.

What this all means is that, if the season were to end today, the 100 win Dodgers would be an NL wildcard team, while the 83 win Braves would be division champions. The Dodgers would have to play a one-game game just to qualify for the playoffs. In other words, the Dodgers could take their 100 wins home for the season as the Braves head into the playoffs. We find ourselves agreeing that there is something not quite fair going on here.

In the American League, the possibility exists, albeit remote, that a non-division-winning team could finish with a better record than a division winner, and not even make the playoffs. The Blue Jays opened play on Monday with a record of 87-69, while the White Sox, who have clinched the AL Central, began Monday with a record of 88-68. So, the Jays’ record is just one game worse than the White Sox. Yet, the Jays could finish in fourth place in the AL East, and miss the playoffs, while the Sox coast into the playoffs. Again, because of divisional disparities, playoff seeding will not necessarily reflect the overall records of the respective teams.

The biggest flaw, though, may well be the whole idea of a one-game wildcard to determine the fourth team in the playoffs in each league. Many fans have howled about this over the years, mainly fans of those teams who have had to play in the wildcard game. When you think about it, after playing 162 grinding games, to lose a single game and go home seems unfair, to say the least. Consider the fate of the 2018 Cubs: After 162 games, they were tied for first place in the NL Central with the Brewers at 95-67 each. The Cubs hosted a one-game playoff for the division title and lost.

The very next night, the Cubs had to host the Rockies in the wildcard game, and lost. So, after the 162-game grind, in two nights, the Cubs went from a tie for a division title to going home for the winter. That is pretty rough for a team that won 95 games. It is just another example of just how cruel the MLB playoff system can be, and why divisions matter.

So, Does The System Need To Be Fixed?

This is the baseline question, one that underlies the whole discussion here. Is the MLB playoff format unfair, or is this just sour grapes from fans of teams who make an early exit from the postseason? Additionally, is there a better, or more equitable way of conducting the MLB playoffs? Should MLB consider modifications that would appease teams that have felt that they were cheated by a broken system? The argument for change is pretty strong, as evidenced by the concerns addressed above. It is also an argument that deserves to be heard by MLB.

The Counter Argument

There are valid arguments for the status quo when it comes to assessing the MLB playoff format. The first argument is simple: Everybody knew the rules before the season started. Every team has 162 games to go on Opening Day, and. therefore, you control your own destiny. The Dodgers knew the format, and they are where they are. Too bad, too sad, go tell your dad. In other words, follow the rules that were set out for you.

Another point would be that, if the 2021 World Series goes seven games, Game 7 would be played on November 3rd. That assumes no cancellations or postponements. If we added more wildcard games, the World Series would be pushed even further. We can just see it now: Thanksgiving Day with football and the World Series. How can you beat that? Seriously, though, adding wildcard games would definitely prolong the season.

Extending the season beyond the current schedule does not seem to make a lot of sense. Unless, of course, the regular season could somehow be shortened. Maybe to the old standard of 154 games? However, that would require every owner to give up four games, or almost 5% of their annual revenue. Would they agree to do this unilaterally, or would the players be expected to give back 5% of their annual salaries? Is this even a question as we head into negotiations on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement? This would seem difficult at best, given the current relationship between the owners and the players.

Alternatives To Current Playoff Format

Here are a few potential ways to fix the MLB playoff system. None of them is perfect, but here we go:

  1. Leave everything as is. This may be the easiest, yet least popular among all parties involved, including fans. It would not address the disparity between divisions, nor would it deal with the idea of one and done games. Yet, it will be a consideration as MLB heads into the offseason. Commisioner Robert Manfred and his staff are pretty good at doing nothing, so don’t count this option out.

2. Turn the wildcard game into a best of three, with the team with the best record hosting all three games. This would eliminate the one-and-done situation, and, in theory, give the team with the better record a fairer chance at winning the wildcard. In this scenario, the 2021 Dodgers (or Giants) could not get knocked out of the playoffs with one bad game. They could bounce back and win the last two games and advance to the next round.

3. Eliminate the second wildcard altogether, and go back to the previous format. The division winner with the best record would host the wildcard team while the other two division winners play head-to-head in a best of five series. The problem with this approach is that it would essentially eliminate the wildcard round, and allow fewer teams into the playoffs. This seems rather unlikely at this point.

4. Cut the regular season back to 154 games, add two more playoff teams, and give the top two teams in each league byes while the other teams slug it out in a best of three series. Then start the divisional series on the Friday after the season ends, so the top teams don’t have to sit too long. This would add more teams and more games, and more postseason money. This extra postseason money would soften the blow of losing eight regular-season games.

5. Finally, here is an option that will never see the light of day. However, we see a lot of possibilities in it, and thinking outside the box can actually increase interest in the game. Eliminate the divisions altogether, play a 154 game schedule that is as balanced as can be, then take the top five teams in each league. The fourth and fifth teams would play a best of five wildcard series, then meet the team with the best record in a best of seven series. Meanwhile, the second and third seeds would play a best of seven as well. Then, it is on to the LCS and, ultimately, the World Series. Of course, this would eliminate more teams earlier in the season and reduce the overall interest. It will never happen.

Do any of these appeal to you as a fan? If not, what would you suggest? We know that Manfred reads each and every post because he is so interested in what the fans have to say. Yes, some of these ideas may seem silly, but we challenge you to come up with a better idea. There must be a better way than what they are doing now. Is it really fair to send a team with 100+ wins home after one game, while lesser teams move forward? What do you say?

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Mike Fisk is a lifelong baseball fan. For him, there is nothing like being at a baseball game, with the sights, the sounds, the smells. Writing about baseball is a bonus!


  • Kevin says:

    The wildcard is only half the problem. The bigger problem is that – best case – the two best teams with the best NL record will meet in the divisional round. That is insane to everyone outside of baseball. Teams should be re-seeded after each round, starting with the wildcard.

    • Mike Fisk says:

      I agree Kevin, and that is unfair to both, especially the Giants in this case. The division title should be worth something, and in this case, all the Giants get is home-field advantage against a team with 106 wins. I am not sure if there is an easy fix that is fair to all.

  • Mike Fisk says:

    I agree Kevin, and that is unfair to both, especially the Giants in this case. The division title should be worth something, and in this case, all the Giants get is home-field advantage against a team with 106 wins. I am not sure if there is an easy fix that is fair to all.

  • Justin says:

    I think you could just eliminated divisions without reducing the schedule and keep the same format. AL and NL each have 15 teams. 3 teams advance to what is now the division series, 4-5 still have the single game play in. It makes every race 1-5 meaningful until the end.

    Assuming the same standings for the sake of illustration
    #1 SF (107-55) would have played the WC winner between #4 STL (90-72) and #5 ATL (88-73) and #2 LA (106-56) would have played #3 MIL (95-67)

    The race for #1 means rest awaiting the Wild card game, #2 means home field advantage, #3 means avoiding the wild card game, #4 means hosting the wild card game ,#5 means at least getting a chance in a wild card game.

    Also I like what the NBA did last year in doing a play-in tournament for the bubble which is basically a Page playoff. Applied to MLB, #1 and #2 make the Division Series (or League Semi final) directly. #3 and #4 play a win-and-in game. #5 and #6 play a loser out game. The winner of the 5/6 game travels to the loser of the 3/4 game for one last spot. So #3/#4 have two chances to win one game to make the Division series. #5/#6 have to win two games to get in.

    But division play always seems to do more harm than good when most people just want to see the best teams avoid confrontation too early in the playoffs.

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