The MLB Playoff Format Discourse is (Mostly) Dumb

Do the MLB Playoffs need a reworked format, or are we just making excuses for the top teams who have struggled to win when it matters most?

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)

They say baseball is America’s national pastime, which is kind of true. But in reality, the whole truth is that baseball rules discussions are America’s true pastime.

The human race could go full Star Trek — achieving warp drive capabilities and foster relationships with species across the galaxy — and we’d still be arguing about if someone’s xSLG was inflated by some behind-the-scenes chicanery. That’s just where we’re at these days. 

The latest to fall on this umbrella has to do with MLB’s playoff format. Mainly, the best regular season teams are getting their tushies spanked, in part due to seeding and in part due to the week off being perceived as a negative.

One of the main catalysts for this was an Athletic article by Ken Rosenthal that touched on these concerns, and thus sending us rocketing off into the boiling sun of miserable discourses. 

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In an effort to continue the voyage of this doomed Starship Enterprise, below are a few observations about why the discussion has felt so misguided. But also, as a treat, why there may be some legitimacy to it all. 

Isn’t This the Point of the Playoffs?

We used to be a proper country. We used to love rooting for the underdog. We would collectively lose our minds as the notification came into our phones about some No. 3 seed losing in March Madness. But now, apparently, upsets are actually bad

There may be a discussion to be had about sports regular seasons feeling increasingly like filler material before a dramatic HBO-quality (refusing to call it MAX, sorry!) finale. But it is not this day. 

Complaining about the best teams losing is antithetical to the whole premise of sports.

Unpredictability is good. It could be that baseball fans are inclined to think like computers because of the proliferation of analytics over the last decade-plus, but it’s weird nonetheless.

Do we just want chalk? Go watch the third act of a Marvel movie/TV series or a Dallas Cowboys playoff game if you want predictability.

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Regular Season Length

Resentment from fans towards the postseason format feels, possibly unconsciously, like an ostensible shot at the length of the regular season. After watching a 162-game season, with games played nearly every day, it’s hard to not feel cheated by a series not going your way because the bats, or pitching, stunk it up over just two or three games. 

Maybe that’s just the nature of the sport, or possibly (a word that in baseball often means “likely impossible”) a reason the sport will need to adapt. What if every series, aside from the Wild Card, were seven games and you could cut off a slice of the regular season to even it out?

Would that feel more satisfying? 

While that’s not a totally serious proposal — and one I only thought of in the middle of writing this — the sentiment remains the same. It’s like if you watched every episode of One Piece (currently at a mark of 1078 and ongoing) and the series finale was done through YouTube shorts. 

Sample Size

Apologies for the temporary cosplay of a scientist, but don’t we need a larger data set before determining whether something should be added, changed, or eliminated altogether?

With all this complaining about the postseason, there’s hardly anyone mentioning that the rules are only two years old. 

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We got this same sort of argument, on a somewhat smaller scale, last year when columnist Bill Plaschke penned an argument for the 2022 Dodgers deserving to be the world champions.

It’s incredibly hard not to view that as simply another excuse for the Dodgers’ James Harden-esque playoff reputation. Or the fact that their rotation was so depleted they started Lance Lynn in a pivotal Game 3 with their backs against the wall.

Why are we making this an ultimatum in year two?

And that’s not even mentioning that the Brewers have refused to spend whatever it takes to go over the top for (what feels like) eons. The Orioles, who were a young and inexperienced team, and the Braves have been, shall we say, in this situation before.

If more seasons develop the same as this year, maybe there’s an argument to be made. But for now? It just looks like the sports ecosystem and media apparatus ran out of things to talk about but need to generate some good old-fashioned engagement. 

Braves Fans Are Annoying?

Make no mistake: the Philadelphia sports fan base often feels like nails scratching the chalkboard and the teacher getting mad at you for covering your ears. They’re repugnant in almost every discernible way, but that doesn’t mean the folks from Braves country are winning the Nobel. 

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They have been, holy dear lord, very very very annoying. And that’s not even mentioning the bizarre, probably unsavory, and, frankly, stupid crowd celebration of theirs. And this was all mostly after game one (1!). How do you pump up your team all year, cry whenever your player who stands right on top of the plate gets hit by a pitch, and then freak out and start calling the feds (MLB) for help? 

Sure, this is a bit anecdotal, and Twitter (which I refuse to call X, sorry!) is a cesspool, but at least the Philadelphia lunatics can be devastatingly funny sometimes

It’s Hard to Sympathize With Extra Rest Being Bad

This is the simplest point of all. On top of the small sample size, the larger sample size of choke jobs, this possibly being about regular season length, and the annoying fan squabbling…bro, just play better! It looks incredibly weak to complain — and again, most of which was done after one game — that having an extra week off filled with rest (huge for pitchers, I imagine) is actually a bad thing. 

That’s loser energy. In no other sport do we hear complaints like this. Professional ballplayers are, indeed, professionals — if you’re truly that great, you’ll find a way. The time off didn’t seem to hurt the Houston Astros.

And in terms of the reseeding argument…again, welcome to sports. Teams that make the playoffs, as it turns out, want to win it all. And sometimes those teams are very good and you’re not the center of the universe. 

…But There is a Point to Be Made About Routine

This is the only observation that may be in favor of cries for help. Baseball, unlike the other major sports, is one that’s significantly more predicated on routine. Players can be insufferable about this stuff. Just looking at how long Spring Training is lends credence to the fact that baseball is a different animal when it comes to preparedness. 

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We can harp on the mental side of the game being completely different, where making up for mistakes is something that sits with you infinitely longer (e.g. if you strikeout, you can’t try to make a play to make up for it immediately, you’ve gotta wait for 8 more batters to cycle through). 

Again, this is just a devil’s advocate perspective. Because in totality, the notion of changing the playoff format because of some butthurt fans is ridiculous. Complaining about the refs — or umpires, in this case — instead is almost always the foolproof course of action.

Only time will tell if this year’s postseason, as well as last year, was the beginning of a genuinely concerning trend or just an anomalous pocket in time of tear-jerking.