First Pitch: How to Fix the Current Playoff System

PITTSBURGH — It’s now official. The team with the second best record in baseball will host the team with the third best record in baseball in a one game playoff to advance to the NLDS. That’s where the winner will play the team with the best record in baseball. And by the time the NLCS rolls around, only one of the three best records in baseball will remain. This is all made possible by the fact that all three teams reside in the NL Central.

“Thank goodness the Astros aren’t still in the division,” Neal Huntington joked before today’s game.

The Pirates won today, finishing the season with 98 wins. In franchise history, only two teams have won more games — the 1902 and 1909 Pirates. The Cubs finished with 97 games. But the two meet in the Wild Card game due to the Cardinals winning 100 games.

“This is a challenging division,” Huntington said. “Tip your cap to the Cardinals for what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. They’ve sustained significant injuries along the way, and they’ve had the best ‘next man up’ of anybody in baseball this year. You tip your cap to them, figure out a way to beat the Cubs, and then go figure out a way to beat the Cardinals.”

As I wrote earlier this week, this doesn’t appear to be a one-year problem. The Cardinals manage to stay on top each year, while the Cubs are a young team that’s just starting to compete. Huntington echoed some of those thoughts, while also saying that the Pirates were looking to continue their own growth.

“Hopefully there’s a little less taxing road for us in the future, but we’re going to have to continue to be really good on all fronts,” Huntington said.

This entire situation is leading to a lot of calls for a change to the current system. This is a system that punishes the three best teams in baseball. The second and third teams only get one game to decide whether they can advance. The first place team then gets the toughest first round opponent in baseball.

From the Wild Card aspect, there have been some suggestions involving a three game series, including some with a double-header to kick off the series. Huntington mentioned that he doesn’t like the double-header idea, and also is unsure of an extended layoff for non-Wild Card teams if the Wild Card series goes to three games.

“I honestly see the arguments for both points,” Huntington said. “And there’s a lot of really smart, really creative people out there right now figuring out how you do that. The idea behind the Wild Card was you give the division winner the advantage. And I’m not sure sitting through five days to play your first playoff round is really an advantage. I’m also not a fan of the double-header to decide a three game series.”

Huntington noted that there are a lot of considerations at play, including implications for travel and rain that would make a schedule difficult.

“There’s a lot to it,” Huntington said. “In a vacuum, absolutely we’d love to see the Wild Card series be a three game series.”

As for re-seeding after each round, Huntington said that this would be a no brainer with a balanced schedule, but that it’s not so simple with an unbalanced schedule. Overall, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are changes discussed this off-season, although nothing is guaranteed.

“Who knows if there could be changes coming? Is it a three game series where you re-seed? I know if I were the Cardinals, I wouldn’t be all that excited that the first round opponent is the second or third best record in baseball,” Huntington said.

I definitely believe that changes are needed. The problem is that changes aren’t going to be easy, and will need to wipe out several other aspects of the game. You would almost certainly have to realign the divisions, or get rid of divisions entirely. You’d have to figure out how to fit an extra series in the schedule, without pushing the World Series into mid-November, or the start of the regular season into mid-March.

If I’m going the “commissioner for a day” route, I’d capitalize on baseball’s re-growing popularity and revenues and expand to 32 teams. There would be an American League and a National League, with 16 teams in each league. The top six teams would make the post-season under the following format:

**The top two teams would get a first round bye, with the top team getting home field advantage.

**The number three seed would take on the number six seed, and the number four seed would take on the number five seed in a best of three series, with all games played at the higher seed’s stadium. This avoids the headaches of the extra travel, and the unpredictable weather this time of year. It also gives an advantage to those teams that finished higher in the standings.

**The lowest seed that advances would go on to play the top team, while the remaining team would take on the number two seed. This definitely makes things difficult for travel. But the reality is that this is already in effect under the current system. Tonight, just three days before the Wild Card game, we found out where the game will be played. Right after the NLDS is when we’ll find out where the NLCS will be played. The same goes with the World Series. Every year, media outlets — this one included — plan contingencies and create pandemonium on Southwest’s free cancellation system, not knowing where they’re going next. If we can do it, MLB will have no problem with this approach.

**As for the regular season schedule, I would either get rid of interleague play entirely, or expand it. I don’t have a preference, but the goal would be a system where each team has a similar regular season schedule. You could also take a page out of the NFL’s book and adjust the schedule each year based on how the team did the year before, meaning the best AL and NL teams would be matched up for interleague each year (and maybe a fun idea would be opening the new season with a rematch of the previous year’s World Series).

**If this system was in effect this year (assuming the extra team didn’t factor in the playoff mix), then you’d have a short bye for the Cardinals and Pirates. The Cubs would take on the Giants in a best of three series at Wrigley, while the Dodgers would host the Mets in a best of three series in Los Angeles. The Cardinals would face the lowest seed that advances, while the Pirates would get the higher seed, and the playoffs would be normal from there.

**This approach wouldn’t require much extra time. Right now the Wild Card games are played on separate days. You could play each series on Tuesday-Thursday, take a break, and start the LDS on Saturday. By comparison, the ALDS starts on Thursday this year, and the NLDS starts on Friday. So you’re adding 1-2 days to the season, which is nothing.

These are a lot of big changes (expansion teams, getting rid of divisions, reworking schedules), which makes it unlikely that this plan would happen. But the reality of this situation is that you’re going to need big changes to get a fix, as there isn’t a great small fix for this issue that would prevent the best teams from having the most difficult playoff schedules. I’d say that would make it unlikely that this problem gets resolved over the off-season.

**Pirates Prepare For Another PNC Blackout After Today’s Victory. The Pirates won when they needed to, thanks to a great effort from J.A. Happ. Check the story, live from PNC Park, to get reactions on the upcoming Wild Card game, and tonight’s outing.

**Happ Has Been a Great Story, But How Long Will That Story Continue? Taking a look at whether Happ will pitch for the Pirates again, either in the playoffs or as a free agent signing.

**Pirates Announce Gerrit Cole as Starter For Wild Card Game. An announcement wasn’t really necessary, other than to make it official.

**Here’s Why You Don’t Run on Starling Marte or Gregory Polanco. I really liked how this article came out, looking at how Polanco and Marte prep for their strong throws from the outfield.

  • I had a similar idea, but I think having divisions still makes sense. It’s crazy to fly teams all over the country to play a “balanced” schedule and it would greatly disadvantage west coast teams. And if you have divisions and an unbalanced schedule, it makes sense to reward those division winners. Here’s my plan in a nutshell:

    Expand to 32 teams. Introducing: the Havana Sugar Kings and the San Juan Saints!
    Shorten regular season to 25 weeks/156 games.
    4 divisions in each league.
    Play division teams 16 times and the other 12 teams 9 times
    8 teams make the playoffs: 4 division winners and 4 WC.
    In the Wild Card Round, division winners host best-of-7 with 5 home games.
    Re-seed each round. #1 overall team again gets 5 of 7 home games in the Div Series.
    For Champ series, top seed gets 4 home games.

    Oh, and kill interleague play.

    The new NL divisions would be
    Caribbean: Marlins, Braves, Saints, and Sugar Kings
    East: Mets, Phillies, Pirates, Nationals
    Central: Reds, Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals
    West: Padres, Dodgers, Giants, Dbax

    Rockies move to the AL
    AL West: A’s, Mariners, Angels, Rockies
    AL South: Rangers, Royals, Astros, Rays
    AL Central: White Sox, Twins, Indians, Tigers
    AL East: Orioles, Yankees, Blue Jays, Red Sox

    The only team really out of place geographically is the Rays, but I couldn’t see a way to fix this without moving more teams between leagues.

  • I guess I’ll be the guy to say that the three-game wild card is an awful idea.

    Everything we know about baseball playoffs tells us that even seven game series aren’t long enough to judge true team superiority…backing that down to three does very, very little to improve “fairness”.

    What a three game series does do, however, is force both wild card teams to burn their top two starters leading up to a five game LDS. Can you imagine how far the odds would be stacked against if you had to face Kershaw-Grienke, Arrieta-Lester, Cole-Liriano, Wainwright-Martinez, Harvey-deGrom with your third and fourth playoff starters in a series where three games sends you home for the season?

    No thanks.

    • I’m not sure it would change anything.

      Right now you use your #1 starter in the WC game, which means he’s not available until game 3 of the NLDS. The #2 starter would be used in game 1, and the #3 starter in game 2.

      If the WC was a best of 3, and the games were Monday-Wednesday, your schedule would be as follows:

      Monday – #1
      Tuesday – #2
      Wednesday – #3 if necessary
      Thursday – Off
      Friday – #3 (if he wasn’t used) or #4 (or short rest for #1)
      Saturday – #1
      Sunday – Travel
      Monday – #2

      So you’d still get the #1-2 in the first three games of the LDS. The biggest impact is you might need to use your #4 instead of your #3, meaning your #3 would pitch game four, leaving no guarantee that he pitches.

    • 3 game series not the best idea but better than 1…but you don’t want to knee jerk and go to 3 and then be changing that in three years. The next plan should be fairly permanent. At least with a three game it is a real playoff…and not a play in. I refuse to call what they have now a playoff. At least a 3 game mirrors a series which is played all season so it at least feels like real baseball.

  • I think there IS a possible “minimal change” improvement. I’d settle for everything the same as it is now, but make the WC 3 game series. Start Tuesday instead of Wednesday, and DS starts Friday or Saturday depending on WC duration. The only possible repercussion is that the division winner waits at most one extra day, but only if the WC goes 3 games. That seems doable to me. You may have TV conflicts across leagues, but there would be more overall games to be aired to compensate for that.

  • On another note, I don’t think you finished this sentence:

    “’Thank goodness the Astros aren’t still in the division,’ Neal Huntington joked before today’s game.”

    I believe it should read:

    “’Thank goodness the Astros aren’t still in the division,’ Neal Huntington joked before today’s game, then cried himself to sleep.”

  • Expand to 32
    AL East AL West NL East NL West
    Montreal SEA Brooklyn SD

    12 games against each team in your division = 84

    6 against each in the opposite division = 48
    3 against an opposite league division rotating each year = 24
    156 games total

    One postseason day off for required make-up games

    No tiebreaker games needed for post season seeding due to balanced schedule within divisions- use best intradivision win %, then best head to head, then best league winning %
    3 teams per division make the playoffs.
    2nd place plays 3rd place in the opposite division – best of 3 at the 2nd place team’s home park
    Best league record team plays lowest winning WC team – best of 9
    LCS best of 9
    WS best of 9

    Longer playoff series are more likely to result in better team winning and works on the calendar by the shorter regular season
    More variety of teams seen at your home park due to larger divisions with less games played against each
    More total playoff teams but division winners appropriately rewarded while WC teams not stuck depending as much on luck.
    Only one extra off day between end of season and beginning of playoffs for division winners which some may see as a negative.
    A 4th place team has a better record than the 3rd team from the other division – then don’t finish in 4th place!

  • Just think, if this was 2011, the third best team in baseball doesn’t even make the playoffs. Think about what the outrage over that would be.

  • Just switch us and Atlanta. They’re further west than us anyway.

    Problem solved!


  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    October 5, 2015 10:38 am

    (1) Expand wild card playoff to best of 3 games – each team gets at least one home game – team with the better record gets two home games
    (2) You could seed the playoffs by overall record, so that the wild cards are the two worst records – even if they win their divisions. In most seasons, this will not have a major impact, but it would address the issue we find ourselves in this year.

  • It might take the Cardinals losing the NLDS to push this forward. We’ve focused on the lack of fairness to the Pirates, which is accurate. But as you suggest, it’s almost as unfair to the Cardinals who despite having such a great season will need to beat the 2nd or 3rd best team in baseball just to advance past the NLDS.

  • As you can see from the picture, Lord God Bubblegum Andrew McCutchen is displeased with the current arrangement.

    I suppose I would be open to a number of options, but the reality is that the playoffs are an inherently unfair way of crowning a champion no matter how they’re carried out, when a 162-game schedule is far more telling of who the best team is in the first place. No matter what is done, the champion will be decided by variance as much as skill.

    That said, I don’t think expansion and a huge reworking of the playoffs is necessary. We don’t even necessarily need to reseed before the playoffs. And the one-game playoff isn’t going away, since it’s such a huge marketing benefit to the league.

    However, I do think reseeding after the Wild Card game is necessary. The team with the best record in the league deserves to play the weakest opponent in the DS (that’s Divisional Series, not the Darkstone), be that a Wild Card team or a division winner. Just that change would go a long way in the interest of fairness while rewarding division winners and not creating a logistical nightmare.

    Whatever happens, though, I’m ultimately fine with it.

  • One change that needs to be made is that if you have the second best record in the majors but all you get is a one game wildcard – you should be moved ahead of the teams who get a full series in the next years MLB draft. You get screwed twice currently for being in a tough division, three times if you count the division. At least move the team up in the draft.

    • I think you reshuffle the entire draft based on postseason results. You win the WS, you pick last, regardless of record. That would take care of the WC teams as well.

    • Lol, I didnt even think of that Brian. That is a double whammy.

  • Tim,

    You’re making it much too complicated! No 16 team leagues needed. Just realign the playoffs to make the wildcard game between the two League teams with the poorest record, for example, this year, wild card would be between the Dodgers and the Mets.

    Oh I know, the howlers will say not fair because most games are played within a division, etc. But MLB has bastardized the game to such an extent with ridiculous inter league games and more that it won’t matter.

    Just change the system to make the Dodgers and Mets play the wild card instead of two of the best teams in all of baseball, Cubs and PIRATES!

    • I agree completely. Simply reseed at the end of the year
      Any argument that it wouldn’t be fair because of an unbalanced schedule is bogus. The Cubs and Pirates or whatever team or teams that don’t win their division in the future but have better records than other division winners, can easily make the argument that they play a more difficult schedule because they are in a tougher division.
      It may not be perfect, but it would sure be better than the way it is now.

    • I agree completely. The usual argument AGAINST seeding based on records is that a team that wins a really tough division might have a worse record than a 2nd place team in another division due to having to play so many games against those tough division foes. But the Cards, Bucs and Cubs just proved how silly that argument is. Each of these 3 teams had 38 games against 2 of the 3 best teams in MLB and DESERVE to be in the NLCS.

      One aspects of the playoff system worked – every team that had at least 86 wins is in the playoffs – no one can claim that they deserved to be in the playoffs instead of another team that made it. But the seeding system didn’t work at all this year (3rd of 4 years that at least 1 wild card team had a better record than a division winner). That’s what needs to get fixed.

  • To me the best system would have eight teams make the playoffs in each league. Seeded by records. Best of 5 for first two rounds and best of 7 for league championship and World Series rounds. Reduce schedule back to 154 games.

    Any idea that does not give a playoff team at least the guarantee of 1 playoff game is a bad one.

    • Scott: Good point about the reduction of the regular season schedule – we are now getting too far into competition with the NFL, college football, and to lesser degrees, the NBA and NHL.

      The picture of ‘Cutch is priceless and portrays a superstar who looks completely worn out. It may or may not be a current pic, but a quick look at his numbers in Sep and Oct would indicate that it speaks volumes.

    • Have you actually looked at how bad the 8th place team in each league is? Please let’s not go there and have as horrible a playoff system as the NFL, NBA or NHL That only a third of teams qualify is about right. Even 12 of 32 is worse, but if that’s required to get a fairer playoff system, it’s tolerable. But not 16… that would be awful. You’d have either Baltimore or Cleveland making it in the AL and the sub .500 DBacks from the NL. No, please, no. That would be a joke.

    • More teams in the playoffs doesnt really help anything, other than making the playoffs far less fun to watch. Sorry Cleveland and Arizona, no one wants to see you and your .500 or below records playing in the playoffs. It’d also make the trade deadline just stupid, since nearly all of baseball would be going “we are still very much in the race” and thus holding onto their decent players.

      • Also valid point about how an expansion of playoff teams would negatively impact trade deadline.

        The primary benefit for an expansion of playoffs would be to give fan bases a reason for optimism in the latter part of the season. As long time Pirates fans can attest, nothing more disheartening than knowing your team is irrelevant after the All-Star break.

        This is the primary reason I suggested an expansion of playoff teams to a size consistent w NBA/NHL. However, I have don’t for a second believe it will ever happen.

        • Id also note that, while its neat for fans to not know there team kinda sucks, some teams do kinda suck and being .500 and making the playoffs just makes me as a fan feel patronized.

          • I see your point. There’s certainly something to be said for MLB making teams earn their way into playoffs more so than other professional leagues.

            But if you were an Owner, would you rather see crowds like Pirates had this Aug/Sept, or the empty seats seen for first 10 years at PNC late in season?

    • Reducing the schedule is basically the key to making any of these plans feasible, but the owners are never going to go for that. 154 games would be great, and honestly I’d be fine in the 140’s. But it’s just not going to happen. They will not give up those gates and they will not risk impacting their TV deals.

      PS…Omg that picture had me rolling haha. Too good.

  • 2 divisions, east and west, with 4 wild cards. Division winners get a bye regardless of record. The Pirates would have won the East, the Cards would win the West, and the rest would proceed as Tim laid out.

    • Yes. We should either have fewer divisions or at least a more balanced schedule in a wildcard system (fewer divisions would accomplish this). In the NFL they have teams competing for wildcards with different schedules but only 6/16 = 37.5% of games are played against division rivals whereas in MLB about 74/162 = 45.7% of games are played against division rivals. Makes great sense for determining division champs but not for determining wildcards.

      • This is relevant for re-seeding too–seeding by record makes more sense the more balanced the schedules are.

        What’s weird this year in the NL is that the wildcards came out of the toughest division. What will be typical is the wildcards coming out of weak divisions like the NL East this year–nothing emphasizes the failure of the Nats more than their failing to earn even a wildcard despite having about 1/3 of their games against the Phillies, Braves, and Marlins.