MLB: How the NL Central Exposed the Flawed Playoff Format

Wild Card Game - Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates

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When Major League Baseball decided to expand the playoff formatting in 2012, bringing in a second wild-card team to each league, the reactions were mixed. Some felt rewarding teams that finished second in their division by allowing them to go straight to the Divisional Series wasn’t fair to division winners, and that the new system “punished” wild card winners by forcing them to win a play-in game.

Others were not so sure the new system had it exactly right, and were worried about many different scenarios that could further complicate things.

The drama hit hard that first year, when the 94–68 Atlanta Braves finished four games behind the Washington Nationals in the National League East, but six games up on the second-wild-card-winning St. Louis Cardinals, who squeaked past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the final days of the regular season.

The Cardinals dispatched the Braves in the single-game elimination in Atlanta, moving on to play the Nationals in the NLDS and the Giants in the NLCS, before eventually being sent home. But despite the controversy, the experiment with adding a second wild card had created plenty of excitement, and looked like it was here to stay.

We have no issue with a team that ducks into the playoffs with 88 wins getting hot and knocking out a few of the better teams  —  it’s a big part of what makes October baseball fun. That said, a few aspects of the current playoff format need to be addressed.

Fortunately, new commissioner Rob Manfred seems to be open to change, according to some comments he made to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports on the topic. He said:

“If I’ve accomplished anything in the first months that I’ve been here, I hope it is that we have projected a willingness to evaluate and reevaluate where we are on important topics. On this one, if in fact there is sentiment among the clubs that we have an issue here, we will take a hard look at it. Personally, I think it is a mistake to get caught up in results. I understand what you’re saying about Pittsburgh and what has happened to them. I get it. But I think it’s a mistake to focus on an individual team as opposed to the system. Where we need to stay focused  —  but may need to revisit  —  is on the incentives we’re trying to create. Let’s talk about those.

Yes, Mr. Manfred, let’s talk about the incentives you’re trying to create. One of them is that winning your division would mean more than simply finishing second (or even third) in a strong division. I understand that completely  — but winning 97 games in the best division in baseball shouldn’t warrant a punishment, either.

League Championship Series - New York Mets v Chicago Cubs - Game Four

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Now, as we head toward the World Series, we need to discuss how the fifth-best record in the National League advanced.

The three best records in Major League Baseball all came from the NL Central, with the Cardinals (100-62), Pirates (98-64), and Cubs (97-65) making the playoffs. But just making the playoffs for the three best teams in the league wasn’t enough. Only two of the three could continue beyond the wild card round, and because of the NLDS format, only one could represent in the NLCS.

The Cubs beat the Pirates in the wild card and then dispatched the Cardinals in the NLDS before being swept by the 90-win Mets in the NLCS. Obviously, the Mets earned their spot fair and square. But as the the team with the worst record of NL contenders, shouldn’t they have been forced to play the Cardinals? How unfair is this for the Pirates, who get one playoff game and then go home?

Last season showcased a different problem with the wild card format. With two games left in the regular season, the Pirates trailed the Cardinals by only one game in the NL Central. With the division championship in sight and home field in a potential wild card game locked up, Pittsburgh scheduled their two best pitchers, Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, for the final two games.

The Giants, on the other hand, finished six games out in their division, yet six games up on the nearest competitor for the second wild card. They were able to spend the final few days of the regular season aligning their rotation to allow Madison Bumgarner to pitch the wild card game.

The Pirates lost those final two regular season games and were forced to match Edinson Volquez against Bumgarner. The Giants ace threw a complete game shutout en route to a third World Series victory in five seasons. So, how does baseball go about fixing these problems? A single change can’t solve all the problems, so it’s likely to be a combination of a few things.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Gregory Polanco

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You can’t just dissolve all the divisions and take the best records  — some might like it, but say adios to divisional play and natural rivalries, like the Cubs and Cardinals or Red Sox and Yankees  — and you can’t continue to allow good teams to be punished for being in a division with other good teams.

As for the wild card tiebreakers, my proposal is simply to use the complicated set of tiebreaker scenarios, which would normally be used to determine home field advantage in a tiebreaker game, to simply determine the winner. All the other professional sports use head-to-head records, inter-divisional records, and other means to determine playoff tiebreakers without any “play-in” games required, and Major League Baseball should be no different. The elimination of tiebreaker games makes postseason scheduling a bit easier as well.

The next step would be to make the wild card round a best-of-three. The season ended on October 4 this year; four days before the NLDS and three prior to the ALDS. Nothing needs to be adjusted in the way of scheduling, which keeps things basically the same as they are now outside of the wild card games.

Teams get the same amount of time between rounds, and fans get what they want: a real, honest-to-goodness series. It’s not perfect, and the travel might be rough, but that’s the problem with being a wild card team, isn’t it?

The final change would be to reseed after the wild card round. Again, look at the National League: After the Cubs and Pirates finish their hypothetical best-of-three series, the NLDS format would be based on regular season record. Assuming the Cubs still may have beaten the Pirates in a best-of-three, they would’ve hosted the Dodgers in the NLDS with the Cardinals hosting the Mets.

This system allows for the best of both worlds. You reward division winners by allowing them to skip the wild card round, and also gaining the extra rest. The wild card winners are assured of at least two playoff games, and wouldn’t be forced to start out with two games on the road in the NLCS against a team that finished seven games behind them in the standings.

No matter how Major League Baseball and Manfred decide to move forward with playoff scheduling, the 2015 season did a good job at exposing the problems in the current format — the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates barely had a chance, and they should be upset about that. A best-of-three wild card round is fair to wild card winners, while still providing a real incentive to win your division. It may not be perfect, but in the end, every team would get a fair shake.