If you were to design a playoff format from scratch for a 30-team baseball league, what would it look like? How many teams would you invite? How many rounds would precede the championship? How many games would each round feature? Could the Angels “loan” Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani to the highest bidder for a month?
MLB’s new 12-team, four-round experiment is one week old. The wild-card round, which consisted of three two-game sweeps, sashayed quickly into history. What remains on the baseball calendar will be mostly familiar to fans, minus a few travel days. Until then we should probably withhold judgment about whether MLB “got the assignment.”
As for me, I’ve seen enough. As a means to making the October version of the sport more entertaining, I’m a fan.
As a measure of teams’ aptitude – an attempt to crown the most legitimate champion of the American and National leagues – I remain skeptical.
In Southern California, we’re subject to annual lamentations over the Angels’ failure to showcase Trout and Ohtani in the postseason, enough to fill an Old Testament tome. Falling short of a wild-card berth yet again only heightened the pre-existing frustrations of those inside and outside the Angels’ organization.
Consider for a moment, however, who the expanded postseason shoehorned in. We were gifted a Philadelphia Phillies club featuring an actual household-name player – rare in baseball – and the stigma of the National League’s longest playoff drought.
In the AL, the third wild-card team (the Tampa Bay Rays) featured a Game 1 starter (Shane McClanahan) who was arguably the best pitcher in his league when healthy. Game 2 featured a former Cy Young Award winner (Corey Kluber) pitching against his former team, and it wasn’t over until a 15th-inning home run clinched a 1-0, series-ending walk-off win for the Cleveland Guardians.
At least in Year 1 of the 12-team experiment, we must concede that Trout and Ohtani are the exceptions to the rule of stars missing the postseason. Between Aaron Judge, Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Yordan Alvarez, Juan Soto, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Jose Ramirez, Bryce Harper, Albert Pujols, Julio Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole, Freddie Freeman – I’ll stop there, you get the picture – this postseason does not lack stars old or young.
If that was the primary purpose of inviting more teams into the postseason dance, mission accomplished. Yes, it’s a far cry from the days when the AL and NL champions advanced directly to the World Series with no intermediary rounds required. Maybe that’s a good thing.
The other major North American team sports – the NFL, NBA and NHL – have an easier time ushering their biggest stars onto their sport’s biggest stage. That’s because a larger percentage of the team is liable to put a point on the board at any given moment. More offensive players are on the playing surface at all times. You’re more likely to see a star player take over a game and lift his team to victory. It’s all in the rulebook.
Baseball does not have this luxury. Exactly 11% of your starting lineup – one of nine – has a chance to get a hit when your team is at-bat. That leaves an 89% chance your star hitter will not be in the batter’s box in the big moment.
The playoffs are less watchable when the best players are left out. NASCAR – a sport whose individualistic orientation more closely mimics baseball – seemed to grasp this when it practically cudgeled a playoff into its schedule, guaranteeing the best individual drivers would be elevated above the worst for the final months of the season.
That was 18 years ago. MLB only expanded its playoff field from eight to 10 teams in 2012. The pace of change has picked up in the last decade, but that perception is exacerbated by the glacial pace of change under Commissioner Bud Selig and his predecessors. But forget the pace. The main question is, as always: was this latest change for the better?
Not if you’re the St. Louis Cardinals, who just became MLB’s first division champion ever to be eliminated in a wild-card game or series. The reward for being the third-best division champion in each league is hardly a reward at all.
Then again, the same could be said for the teams with the two best records in each league. Five days off following the regular season can be more a curse than a gift. Three of the four teams that were granted a first-round bye took longer than usual to get their bats going in their first Division Series game – victims, perhaps, of a long layoff that disrupted their timing.
The best way to increase the integrity of the postseason while increasing the number of games played would have been to make the Division Series a best-of-seven affair. This would have come at the cost of including more teams, and potentially more star players.
The choice between integrity and star power really does present an either-or quandary. I’m not sure if MLB made the right choice, but I sure enjoyed the first week of games. That might be all that matters.