Does the Wild Card Format Favor Division Winners Too Much?

The Rays were swept in the Wild Card series, while the Astros cruised past with a first-round bye. Doesn't that seem just a little unfair?

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - OCTOBER 04: Jose Leclerc #25 and Jonah Heim #28 of the Texas Rangers celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 7-1in Game Two of the Wild Card Series at Tropicana Field on October 04, 2023 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

The MLB playoffs – or the playoffs in any sport, for that matter – are never “fair.” That’s a big part of what makes them exciting.

Anything can happen in a three-, five-, or seven-game series. A 98-win team can fall to an 89-win club. Just like that, everything the “better” team worked toward throughout the regular season disappears in the blink of an eye.

It’s shocking. It’s bittersweet. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Otherwise, they’d just give the Commissioner’s Trophy to the team with the best regular season record and call it a day. Congratulations to your World Series champion Atlanta Braves!

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I have no issue with powerhouse teams getting the boot in the first round. Sorry, Tampa Bay. I love it when an underdog makes a run for the World Series – I’m looking at you, Diamondbacks. What I don’t like, however, is when certain teams are put at an advantage (or a disadvantage) for arbitrary reasons.

Make it exciting. Make it unpredictable. But make it make sense.

The Rays finished with the second-best record in the American League, only two games behind the first-place Orioles and nine games ahead of anyone else. Yet they had to fight for their lives in the three-game Wild Card round, while the Houston Astros enjoyed a free pass to the ALDS.

Following a 99-win season, they’re heading home after just two games. Anticlimactic doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The Rangers, meanwhile, finished with the same number of wins as the Astros. They had the second-best record among the four teams competing in the AL Wild Card round, yet they didn’t have home-field advantage.

In the end, it didn’t matter for Texas, but it certainly could’ve, and Rangers fans would have had every right to be upset. Watching the Twins-Astros ALDS would have been pure torture.

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And speaking of the Twins… Minnesota entered the Wild Card round as the no. 3 seed in the league, despite their 87-75 record – the worst among the AL playoff field.

The Twins claimed home-field advantage and faced the Blue Jays instead of a more formidable opponent in Tampa Bay. However, one could argue they shouldn’t have been in the postseason at all; they finished a game behind the Mariners, who missed the playoffs altogether.

So why were the Rays at such a disadvantage? Why are the Astros and Twins the higher seeds? Divisions. Divisions, divisions, divisions. It all comes back to divisions.

The division winners are automatically the top three seeds in each league. That means the top two get a first-round bye, while the third-ranked division winner gets home-field advantage against the final Wild Card team.

The Rays may have been the second-best team in the AL, but unless they could top the Orioles, they were never going to be more than the no. 4 seed.

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – SEPTEMBER 28: Members of the Baltimore Orioles pose for a team photo on the field after defeating the Boston Red Sox to win the American League East at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 28, 2023 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that division winners get an unfair advantage in the playoffs. However, this marks the first instance under the new 12-team postseason structure where we’ve seen such mismatched seeding.

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Last year, the top two teams in each league earned a first-round bye. The top two teams in the Wild Card round had home-field advantage. The six best teams in each league made the playoffs.

The same was true in the National League this season. But over on the Junior Circuit? Not so much.

It’s not a new argument, but it’s one that bears repeating: The current postseason format is heavily biased in favor of division winners.

Winning your division should mean something. I don’t disagree with that. But so too should putting together a great team and winning as many games as possible during the regular season. Indeed, I think MLB should prioritize winning ballgames over anything else.

That’s how you put the most competitive product on the field.

Divisions are great for all sorts of reasons. They’re a nice tradition, dating back more than 50 years. They create an added level of competition, too. What’s more, division titles are fun to celebrate, and division rivalries are fun to watch.

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Still, at the end of the day, the postseason should be a reward for the best teams in baseball. Especially in this day and age, when there is less intradivision play than ever, there is little reason why division winners should get such preferential treatment.

It’s too late for the Rays this year. If either the Twins or the Rangers continue their magical run, I’ll be delighted for them and their fanbase. Both clubs have waited a long time for some postseason success.

Going forward, however, these results should serve as the perfect example of why the current postseason format favors division winners too much. The playoffs are always a bit of a crapshoot, but that shouldn’t be a free pass for an unfair and arbitrary postseason structure.

Make it fun. Make it fresh. But for the love of god, just make it make sense.

Make it make sense.