This year is the first with three wild card teams. I personally preferred the old format, but the new way means more TV money. Money drives every business decision, so the new format was inevitable.
Still, I don’t have to like it. Here I will explain why…and at the end suggest a couple fixes to mitigate my complaints.
First: since only the top two division winners get byes, one division winner gets treated like a wild card. This season isn’t so bad, when two division leaders in each league appear clearly better than the third. However, what if one division is top-to-bottom stronger than the others? What if that is why the division winner’s won/loss record is worse than the others?
Second, there is no re-seeding after the wild card round. The winner of the 4 seed vs 5 seed plays the 1 seed, and the 3 seed vs 6 seed winner plays the 2 seed. The issue here is obvious: if the 6 seed wins, then the 2 seed has a theoretically easier path to the World Series than the 1 seed.
More playoff teams waters down who gets in. This year every team currently in position to make the playoffs is safely above .500. However, it’s inevitable there will be years where losing teams will still be in the race for the playoffs right up to the end. The NHL and NBA, granted with 8 teams per conference making it in, have losing teams in the playoffs every year. The NFL a couple years ago had a division “winner” with a losing record. That, to me, is anathema.
Okay, those are my main gripes. What to do about them—other than go back to five teams per league in the playoffs since that simply won’t happen? For the division winner not getting a bye, I see two possibilities. One is realign to two divisions. Ideally that should come with MLB adding two more teams so each division would have eight teams. That would be reminiscent of pre-expansion MLB with eight teams per league back then. It would also mean two division winners, both getting byes, and four wild cards—the four best records regardless of division. Another way would be the two best records regardless of division getting the byes without bothering with realignment. That could mean a wild card getting a bye, but few would argue the fairness, particularly with a less unbalanced schedule starting in 2023. Last year’s 105 game winning Dodgers would not have been relegated to a wild card round last year under that format. Next, the playoffs need to be re-seeded after the first round. There should always be a reward for being the top seed. Also, there should not be a theoretical advantage to being a 6 seed instead of a 5 seed. (Who you want to play in the second round of the playoffs if you get there—the Dodgers or the Mets/Braves?) Re-seeding eliminates disincentive for being the 5 seed instead of the 6 seed. Last, there should be an ban on sub-.500 teams in the playoffs. MLB and TV won’t go for it, I know. But really—if the 6 seed has a losing record, then they should be automatically eliminated and the 3 seed automatically advance to play the 2 seed. Even before the wild card era, we had a couple instances of division winners barely above .500 get to and win the World Series. The only thing more nauseating would be a losing team being “the world champion.”