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A Modest Proposal for Killing the MLB Playoffs, or Not

The MLB playoffs would be fairer with a less level playing field. Also, stop caring so much.
October 21, 2014, 1:55pm
Photo by Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Among the many historic firsts of this year's World Series—first Royals appearance in 29 years!—one that stands out is that these are the first teams that have had to win eight postseason games apiece just to get to this point. That's because this is only the second World Series matchup of two wild-card winners, and the last time it happened, with the Angels and Giants in 2002, the one-game wild-card playoff hadn't yet been summoned into existence by Bud Selig.


There are pretty much two responses that right-thinking baseball fans can have to this turn of events:

1. Wow, isn't it great that no-name underdogs like the Royals can fight their way past teams that won more games in the regular season to earn a shot at a championship

2. Wow, the Fall Classic now features the teams with the seventh and eighth best regular season records facing off. Baseball sucks.

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Both sentiments are undeniably correct, more or less, for reasons we'll get to in a minute. The expanded baseball postseason, first with the move to three divisions and the addition of the wild card in 1995 (really 1994, but there was a little problem with the postseason that year), then with the second wild card last year, has absolutely kept fans of more teams interested in the pennant races now that there are more postseason slots to chase.

On the other hand, those extra teams with the excited fans really weren't very good. Even the Royals and Giants, fun though they may be with their stealing and defense and risible Hunter Pence signage, are a pair of teams that are no better than plenty of others that went home at the end of September, and arguably only made it this far by virtue of soft regular-season schedules.

Foisting a pair of good-not-great regular season teams on the viewing public as baseball's best would be more defensible if we could at least believe that the postseason is a crucible that divides the weak from the strong, that teams like the Giants and Royals were hiding their greatness under a bushel but proved themselves worthy once push came to shove. But we can't believe that. Anyone who's tried to find the "secret sauce" that makes a winning postseason team has come up empty. Do teams with great starting pitchers win most of the time? Nope. Teams that play better defense? Not so much. For that matter, even teams that won more regular-season games haven't won more often: After this season's champion is crowned, six of the 20 World Series winners in the wild-card era will have been wild cards—more than you'd expect if the playoffs were mere coin flips.


The only observable correlation is no correlation at all: Underdog teams that win in the postseason are mostly doing so because of luck—or, to put it marginally more kindly, "getting hot at the right time," which could be seen as a sign of clutch gritty determination, except that all evidence says clutchness doesn't really exist either.

So, fine. Major League Baseball has chosen a system for crowning champions that puts 30 teams through a grueling 162-game marathon to see which is the best, then takes the top ten, throws them together, and plucks one out like a lottery ping-pong ball to get to jump on each other and spray champagne and ride in ticker-tape parades and get remembered with commemorative dirt plaques. It's all in good fun, the games are exciting, and you'd have to be a Seattle Mariners fan to think otherwise. Right?

It all depends, really, on what the postseason is for.

Think about it for a minute. October baseball was originally instituted to solve a problem that no longer exists: how to pick an overall champion between teams in two leagues that never played each other. Way back in the 1880s, the first-place finishers in the National League and the then-rival American Association (which included the forerunners of the current Reds, Pirates, Cardinals, and Dodgers) played a "World's Series" for postseason bragging rights. When the American Association folded, the newly solo National League tried to replicate the magic by having its first- and second-place finishers face off in the Temple Cup, only to scrap it after just four years in the face of overwhelming apathy and dwindling crowds.It was only with the arrival of the American League in 1901 that the idea of a World Series pitting the two league champions made any sense, because how else were you going to settle arguments about whether the Pirates could beat the Beaneaters other than by having them duke it out head-to-head?


And that's how things stood until 1969, when baseball expanded to 12 teams per league (ushering in, among others, the Royals), splitting each league into two divisions, and instituting "league championship series" to determine the pennant winners. The first team to win the World Series without having their league's best record was the 1973 Oakland A's, who won three less games than the Baltimore team they bumped off in the ALCS, and by then everyone was so busy wondering how the Mets snuck into the World Series despite finishing only three games over .500 that everyone forgot to cry for the Orioles.

Whether this bothers you depends on what era you were born in—I grew up with division winners but not wild cards, so naturally enough one seems to me the natural order of things, the other an abomination. But really, it should depend on what you want from a championship.

If you want the best teams to win, baseball really should go to the model used by European soccer leagues: You play the season, and whoever finishes on top is the champion, end of story. When Manchester City edged out Manchester United with a goal in the last minute of added time on the last day of the 2012 season, Man U didn't get to avenge its regular season defeat in the playoffs, because there aren't any. (There is the FA Cup, but it happens in the middle of the season and allows teams from lower-level leagues to participate as well, which in baseball would be totally awesome; if you think the Royals are lovable plucky underdogs, just imagine what it would be like if the St. Paul Saints lucked their way into the final round.)


If you want maximum excitement, on the other hand, you have postseason series. Lots of postseason series, because that minimizes the risk that some team that wins all the time breezes through and everyone goes home bored. This has been a thrilling postseason by any measure—it feels like there have been more extra-inning games than nine inning games—and if the price of all that excitement is that who actually wins is increasingly meaningless, well, walk-off homers fly forever.

Photo by Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The winner has been excitement, largely because it's easier to sell the TV rights to a three-week crapshoot for big bucks than it is for a 162-games slog with no payout. Going back to fewer divisions—say, by adding a pair of expansion franchises and returning to eight-team divisions like in olden times—would make it more likely that the best team would win, but would cost MLB (and TBS and Fox) untold amounts of TV riches, so it's simply not going to happen.

There are other ways to tip the balance in favor of the better teams, though, so that teams like the Royals would still have the chance to come out of nowhere, but would at least have to really earn it. Right now, all that the top seed gets is home-field advantage in one extra game, which makes sense in sports like basketball, where home teams win 60% of the time; in baseball, where the home team only wins 54% of games, it's a pretty silly perk, even before adding in the fact that home field advantage in the World Series goes not to the better team, but is is determined by a single exhibition game three months earlier.

A more audacious—or depending on your perspective, crazier—system for unleveling the postseason playing field is the one used in recent years in the Japanese leagues. There, the Climax Series—the Japanese version of the League Championship Series—is a best-of-six format: The second-place team has to spot the first-place finisher a game before play even begins. This makes for an uphill climb, though not an insurmountable one; just this week, the second-place Hanshin Tigers swept the first-place Yomiuri Giants to advance to the final round, an occurrence rare enough to create plenty of excitement, plus some celebratory jumping in the river.

And if a whole game is too much to hand to the top seed, there are plenty of other ways MLB could put its thumb on the scales. Force the lower seed to intentionally walk the first batter of every game! Allow the higher seed an extra player on their roster, or to choose whether to be subject to that pesky new rule about foul balls counting as strikes! Thanks to the sabermetric revolution, we know how all of these factors affect win odds, and could easily enough calibrate the first-place advantage to our heart's content.

Or, if you like, just sit back and enjoy another four to seven nights of baseball, and don't worry too much about what it all means. After all, fans of 29 out of 30 teams are go home unhappy every winter no matter what, so maybe this is less about fairness than about letting somebody feel that they've grabbed the brass ring for once, regardless of who most deserves it. Because really, isn't that what America is all about?