The good news: The Giants are playing the Los Angeles Dodgers tonight in San Francisco. The even better news: They’re in a pennant race that, thanks to baseball's new playoff system, actually matters. Of course, for me, the best news is that the Giants enter this series in first place.
Major League Baseball's new playoff system is better than the old one, but it still stinks. And there’s a better solution available. All it requires is getting used to one slightly unfamiliar twist.
Here are the major constraints for a playoff system:
- Baseball's long regular season has to be important.
- The postseason is a moneymaker, and it would be unreasonable to reduce the league's three-round system (although giving up the current play-in wild-card games, one per league, shouldn’t be a significant financial hit).
- Teams competing for the same spots should play, as much as possible, the same schedules.
- The system should reward better teams at the expense of lesser teams.
- Building rivalries is good for baseball.
For any system, trade-offs are necessary. As an example, to truly reward the best team, the ideal system would get rid of the playoffs, leagues and divisions completely, and declare the team with the best record the champion. But baseball hasn't done that since the turn of the 20th century, and no one since John McGraw in 1904 has objected to playing the World Series to decide a champion. On the other hand, a system that retains the eight- or 10-team postseason but lumps everyone into two one-division leagues would be flawed because the regular season would become meaningless. Good teams would spend August and September playing for meaningless postseason seedings.
So what should be done? Regular readers know what’s coming: Major League Baseball should be reconfigured into two leagues with two divisions per league. The top two teams in each division would make the playoffs. The schedule would remain unbalanced -- teams would play more games within their own divisions than against the other divisions. Reduce interleague play to a minimum.
This is how the playoffs would work: The first round of the playoffs would pit the Eastern Division winners against the runners-up from the Western Division. The winners of the West would play the second-place teams from the East. These series would be modified to give an advantage to the first-place teams. It would be something like this: A first-place team needs three wins to advance, but the second place team needs four. Also, the division winners would host most or (my preference) all of the games.
After that? Whoever wins, wins, and the remainder of the postseason functions as it does now.
I’ll compare my 2x2 (two leagues, two divisions) plan to two alternatives: the current system (3x2), and a hypothetical 4x2 system with four divisions per league. Of course, the latter would require expansion.
So how do the systems stack up against the constraints I laid out above?
For a meaningful regular season, the big loser is 4x2. The math is clear: Bigger divisions make for closer pennant races. The big advantage of 2x2, however, is that fans would have a much better sense of who the competition is. One disadvantage of wild-card play is that it’s hard to get a fix on which teams to root for. Another advantage? The chances for September showdowns between competing teams are much higher in 2x2 (and, to be fair, 4x2) than in the current setup.
All three systems would retain the same number of playoff teams. I suppose I should note that 3x2 is slightly easier to expand, because the play-in games could be expanded.
My proposal and 4x2 are much better than the current system for allowing teams to play the same schedule.
The weakest system for rewarding the best teams is 4x2. That system even allows for the possibility of a losing-record team winning the World Series.
The one problem with 2x2 is that it will sometimes produce a situation in which a team with more wins winds up with a lower seeding in the first round of the playoffs. That’s a real drawback. I think that drawback is more than offset by guaranteeing a meaningful advantage for the best teams in the leagues. And the current system can also force the league’s second- or third-best team (or even both) into a play-in game, while division winners with inferior records automatically advance into the first round. Some type of unfairness is a necessary trade-off for having a meaningful regular season. On balance, I think it’s significantly better to reward the best teams in each league than to worry about protecting the second- or third-best teams.
And 2x2 and 4x2 are clear winners for building rivalries. The wild-card system makes it complicated for fans. Not only that, but with an unbalanced, smart schedule, the likelihood of head-to-head showdowns at the end of the season increases. Even when the dice don’t roll that way, traditional rivals can face each other with one team in a spoiler role.
Overall, 2x2 is the best system for managing the necessary trade-offs. The only real negative is its possibility of unfairness to the second-best team.
Unless, that is, people can't handle the prospect of forcing a team to win an extra game in order to win the early playoff series. I can understand that. But just look at what that extra win buys over the 162-game season, and it increases the chances of the best teams meeting in the World Series.
I’ve been pushing this for some time now, and I still haven’t heard a serious argument against it. What do you think?
To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org