Fixing What Isn’t Really Broken: MLB’s New Playoff Format

Does Major League Baseball really have problem with their new playoff format, and if so, what can be done to make it better?

Orlando Arcia #11, Ozzie Albies #1, Austin Riley #27 and Matt Olson #28 of the Atlanta Braves talk against the Philadelphia Phillies during the eighth inning in Game Three of the Division Series at Citizens Bank Park.
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - OCTOBER 11: Orlando Arcia #11, Ozzie Albies #1, Austin Riley #27 and Matt Olson #28 of the Atlanta Braves talk against the Philadelphia Phillies during the eighth inning in Game Three of the Division Series at Citizens Bank Park on October 11, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

When the MLB playoffs began earlier this month, there weren’t many (if any) people who were out there predicting a Texas Rangers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks World Series.

Throughout the regular season, the Rangers looked like a team that could make run, but when the tournament began they had the toughest road of any team, having to go up against a 99-win team in the Wild Card round and a 101-win team in the ALDS.

Next was a matchup against their chief division rival and the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros. The Rangers met the occasion each time to punch their ticket to the Fall Classic. Meanwhile on the other side of the bracket, it was Arizona who was set to shock the world.

The Diamondbacks swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs, which included beating the much-favored Los Angeles Dodgers. They then battled back from a 2-0 deficit in the NLCS, going up against a Phillies team who had suddenly become the favorite to win it all thanks to their dominance during the early rounds of the playoffs.

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Baseball is wonderfully unpredictable, particularly this time of year. This is not like the NBA, where the team with the best star talent finds themselves in the championship every year. Instead this is the definition of a team sport, where anyone can got hot at the right time and put together a playoff run to be remembered.

While one would think this year’s playoffs would be a celebration of the innate uniqueness of baseball, it has instead turned into an outcry after each round of the postseason when the favored teams keep losing.

One must not blame the Dodgers and Braves for losing in the NLDS for the second year in a row, because instead it is all about rest days and the format, not the team itself that failed to show up.

The fact that the Diamondbacks made this run should be considered great for the game of baseball, but instead people are quick to point to their 84 wins during regular season as an indictment against the playoff format and how they shouldn’t be here.

There is a tradition that is tied to the marathon of the 162-game regular season in Major League Baseball that is romanticized by baseball purists. The idea that this sample is a greater representation of a ball club than the playoffs is a fair notion, but that should not take away from the teams that learn to thrive in the postseason setting.

With an expanded playoff field, there is more room for parity and that is what can lead to World Series matchup like this one. What is hard to understand though, is why that is a bad thing?

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When we see more and more teams compete during the regular season, it is because they know anyone who makes the dance has a shot to win it all. In some respects, the extra Wild Card spots have added intrigue to the regular season, they haven’t detracted from it.

Just because the results have been surprising under the new format in each of it’s first two years, doesn’t mean we have to throw it all away just to placate Braves and Dodgers fans. The format can be tweaked to accommodate them a bit further, but ultimately the onus is on these teams to show up on the biggest stage. If they don’t that is squarely on them.

Why the Diamondbacks Aren’t a Fluke

Rest! That is what everyone is complaining about.

It was too much rest that allowed the measly Arizona Diamondbacks to beat the powerful Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS. It is not that the Dodgers starting rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Bobby Miller and Lance Lynn flopped, or that Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman did absolutely nothing in those games.

Now the skeptics will point to Betts and Freeman going cold as exactly the issue that Major League Baseball has. These guys got rusty with the five-day layoff between the end of the season and Game One of the NLDS. While this could be the case, it can also be explained by a very simple principle…

Baseball is random.

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The Diamondbacks were a better playoff team than the first two teams they faced. Sure the Brewers won eight more games and the Dodgers won Arizona’s division, but the Diamondbacks featured a lineup of talented sparkplugs who ignited at the perfect time.

There lineup was simply better than the Brewers and their starting pitching was significantly better than the Dodgers when it was all said and done. What cannot be disputed is that the NLCS was played on an even platform, between two teams who were fully in a playoff rhythm.

The Phillies won the first two games, extending a home playoff winning streak of six games over the first three rounds. They looked to be the better team on paper and where showing it in the games. Then the series went back to Arizona and the Diamondbacks were able to turn things around.

There was nothing flukey about how the Diamondbacks fought tooth and nail to grab two games to even the series. Eventually those Phillie bats that were so hot in Philadelphia began to cool down. Still, the D-backs returned to Philly in a 3-2 hole, needing to win two road games to advance to the playoffs.

In those two pivotal games, the Phillies top hitters all went quiet at once, with Bryce Harper, Trea Turner and Nick Castellanos all struggling at the same time. There cold streak, not dissimilar to the one that affected the Dodgers in the previous round, can be explained by the same thing.

Baseball is random.

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The Phillies had the same amount of rest as the D-backs. They had the better lineup on paper and advantages in the pitching matchups. And still things didn’t work out for them because the Diamondbacks executed better when it mattered most. That’s what makes baseball awesome.

Arizona deserves everything they are getting right now, because they were able to earn it with countless guys stepping up in the biggest moments. It is that simple.

Now with that said, a few adjustments could still be put in place that would bring more excitement to October baseball and less excuses to be made by top-seeded playoff losers in the future.

How Can They Make This Format Even Better?

What does Major League Baseball need more of? The good old fashioned double-header!

Nothing is better than watching two games in one day, how about two playoff games?!

It might sound crazy, but making the Wild Card round include a doubleheader to start would bring the perfect balance to the system that is place.

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Before we discuss the baseball elements of this, let’s acknowledge the most important variable. How is this going to change MLB’s bottom line on television revenue.

Anyone who is advocating for the elimination of playoff teams, or Wild Card rounds is fooling themselves. There is no world where MLB decides to cut back on playoff games, because those are the events the get the most attention on national television.

With the current format, the MLB playoffs add a minimum of eight games prior to the traditional Division League Series, rather than just the two Wild Card Games of the previous format. Even if all four teams sweep, like they did this year, that is six more playoff games to sell to television partners.

Getting creative is the best way to both maximize the television revenue and improve the product.

If we take the exact same format that is in place and just tweak it so Games 1 and 2 are played on the same day in a doubleheader, we would see an incredible amount of intrigue added to these Wild Card series.

In my new playoff format, MLB would stagger the American League and National League’s schedules, similar to how we see them do that in the later rounds. This would have the AL playing their Wild Card series one day after the regular season and the NL teams starting the following day.

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Such a schedule would ensure at least four playoff games per day in the Wild Card round, just as they have now. The difference, is that MLB gets a guaranteed elimination game during prime time each day, with whoever lost Game 1 having their back against the wall in Game 2.

Doubleheader sweeps are hard to come by when played during the regular season, which could make it much tougher for teams to end these series early. Some teams may be dominant enough to pull it off, but there is a better chance we see these series go to three games.

Give the AL the first day of the playoffs, the NL the second day, then any leftover Game 3 contests that need to be decided happen on the third day. All three days of the Wild Card round would be thrilling under these circumstances and the round is still complete in the same amount of days.

This leads us back to the initial issue though, of having too much time in between the end of the season and the LDS round for the playoff teams who earned a bye. The solution is simple, no rest day after Game 3.

If the idea is to make the Wild Card road as tough as possible to incentivize the teams that dominated the regular season, eliminating that off-day between rounds is the best thing they can do. Any team that completes a doubleheader sweep would get at least one, if not two days of rest before the division round of the playoffs began. But for the teams pushed to three games, the pitching will enter the next round a bit gassed.

This would make it harder for Wild Card teams to set their rotations, putting the rested team squarely ahead when it comes to advantages. The Wild Card team might have a starting lineup that is more in rhythm, but any manager would tell you that they’d prefer having rested arms.

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Major League Baseball has the best playoffs in sports because you never know what is going to happen. On-paper favorites lose as much, if not more, in baseball than they do anywhere else.

This is not speaking to a flaw in the game however. Instead it is in line with everything that makes this game so special. The fact that nine guys can play together in harmony where they can beat any team in the world, regardless of their talent. This is what makes baseball special, regardless of the rules of some playoff format.