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Is the Expanded Postseason Format Actually Better for Baseball?

If the Major League Baseball regular season is a marathon, the Postseason is a sprint. It’s all about what team gets hot at the right time, and that team isn’t always the team that performed the best in the regular season. Countless times, the team that looks better on paper, whether because of a better regular season record or a better lineup or any number of things, gets knocked out in the Division Series or the Championship Series, falling short of their goal of reaching and winning the World Series. 

Over time, the postseason format has changed, allowing for more and more teams to have the chance to walk away with a ring and the Commissioner's Trophy. Gone are the days where the best team from each league played in the World Series, or the two best teams in each league played in a single series to decide who would play in the World Series. Now, the postseason consists of more rounds with, seemingly, less importance placed on regular season records. Some may go so far as to say that winning the division (or having an exceptional regular season record) could actually be harmful to teams. 

In 2022, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced a new expanded postseason format, widening the field from 10 teams to 12, in an effort to better the game and make the postseason more interesting. With the exception of 2020, when the Covid pandemic forced a 60-game season and a 16-team playoff field, the previous nine full seasons featured a 10-team postseason field. Under this format, the best teams in each division made it to the Divisional Series, with the next two best teams playing in a single elimination Wild Card game. Prior to the 10-team format, from 1995 to 2011, MLB utilized an 8 team format, which saw the 3 division winners and 1 wild card team in a simple 3-round bracket. The new postseason format includes 12 teams and offers incentives to the teams that finish with the best regular season records. Out of the three division winners for each league, the top two receive first-round byes, while the third division winner and the three top remaining teams play in a best-of-three Wild Card series. The winners move on to the play the #1 and #2 seeds. 

The main flaw in the new format is that rather than rewarding the top teams for their performance during the regular season (which is the intention behind the first-round-bye), it forces the best teams to sit for nearly a week from the end of the season to the start of the Division Series, and then be expected to play their best baseball. 

In the first year of the new format, it became clear that the first-round-bye may be more of a detriment than an asset. Although the top two American League teams, the Astros and the Yankees, made it through the Division Series, the two top National League teams fell in the first round. Both the Dodgers (#1) and the Braves (#2) fell in four games, to the Padres and Phillies, respectively. Philadelphia went on to beat San Diego 4-1 in the Championship Series before losing to the Astros in 6 games in the World Series. 

In the second year of the new format, the flaws were again highlighted, with three of the top four teams falling in the first round. Again the Astros (#2) made it through the Division Series, this time holding off the Minnesota Twins in four games. However, the remaining top ranked teams all fell in their opening rounds. The Orioles (AL #1), the Braves (NL #1), and the Dodgers (NL #2) were knocked out by the Rangers, Phillies, and Diamondbacks respectively, and collectively only won just one game (Braves game 2 vs. the Phillies). 

So why is it that the 3 best teams in MLB (Braves, Orioles, and Dodgers) will be watching the Championship Series and World Series from their homes rather than getting the chance to play in them? Additionally, why is it that five of the best teams in baseball (Braves, Orioles, Dodgers, Rays, and Brewers) were all eliminated early on, with the only teams remaining having won 90 or less games in the regular season? 

Well, as mentioned at the beginning, the regular season is a marathon. Spread out over the course of 6 months, each team plays 162 games, and the standings for the postseason are not finalized until the last few weeks of the season. The postseason, on the other hand, is a sprint in every sense of the word. After the Wild Card series, which sees the entire series played at the higher seeded teams home ballpark, it’s a level playing field. Despite the home-field advantage element, the eight teams remaining in the Division Series are either the best in their league or coming off a Wild Card series win. 

Here’s where the format has run into trouble the past two years, but specifically this year. Coming into the Wild Card Series, the Rangers, Phillies, and Diamondbacks were riding high, having easily dispatched their opponents in two games. Additionally, the Rangers and Diamondbacks did so at their opponents home fields, so the energy and excitement was already higher coming into the Division Series. Those teams were met by teams that had been sitting for a whole week, holding team workouts and simulated games, rather than playing high-energy October baseball. 

And that’s where it all came to a head. The lower ranked team that was riding high swiftly took down the higher ranked team, moving on to the Championship Series with ease. The three top-ranked teams that were sent home early claimed that the first-round bye did not contribute to their early exit, but one is forced to wonder if maybe that is the true reason. Otherwise, how would the Phillies, who trailed the Braves by 14 games in the NL East, or the Diamondbacks, who trailed the Dodgers by 16 games in the NL West, be able to send home two powerhouse teams? That’s not to take anything away from those two teams, who played well and showed that they deserved to make it through to the next round, but on paper, they should not have won, yet they did. 

Whether or not the first-round bye is the reason these teams were eliminated, the simple fact of the matter is that the elimination of the three best teams in baseball will undoubtedly lead to a decrease in viewership for the remaining rounds of the postseason. Casual baseball fans (fans that don’t root for a specific team) and fans whose teams were eliminated want to watch high-energy baseball between exciting teams. Additionally, teams like the Dodgers and Braves have such large fan bases, and now those fans won’t be watching the games, contributing to less people watching. 

Commissioner Manfred has made it clear that the format of the postseason won’t be changing anytime soon, as it is only the second year and they are still working out the kinks and figuring out the best ways to format the postseason so the maximum teams can make it in. However, the hope is that Major League Baseball recognizes the pattern of better teams losing in early rounds and addresses the problem sooner rather than later.

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