MLB playoff format: What would last five postseasons have looked like under proposed 14-team structure?
There are some decidedly not good teams that would've made it to October
A report surfaced Monday that Major League Baseball is seriously considering a new playoff format which would be a drastic shift from what we've become accustomed to watching in October. Under the proposal, there would be four wild card teams in each league, meaning 14 of the 30 MLB teams would make the postseason, and the new wild card round would be a three-game series.
This seems like too many teams to me. I've long enjoyed baseball rewarding regular-season greatness more than other professional leagues. The regular season is such a huge sample that we end up with the actual best teams having the best records. If we're going to let half the league in the playoffs, there's no reason for the marathon that is the regular season.
I'll stop preaching now and instead turn to an experiment: let's run through the last five seasons and see what the playoffs might have looked like under this proposed format. I say "might" because we can't be sure which teams the division winners would have picked to be their wild card foes. Also, once teams are eliminated from playoff contention, they don't exactly keep the foot on the gas, so the outcomes might have been different with a seven-team format.
Regardless, let's just take a look to give us an idea of what sorts of teams would be getting in.
[WC = wild card; DW = division winner]
AL bye to ALDS: Royals (95-67)
Angels (85-77, WC3) at Rangers (88-74, DW3)
Angels-Rangers might've been a fun one. It was 40-homer Albert Pujols and MVP Mike Trout in front of a decent pitching staff. Not that the regular season results carry over, but the Angels were 12-7 against the Rangers that season. It's not as though the Rangers had an imposing rotation or anything. Might this have been Trout's deep playoff run?
NL bye to NLDS: Cardinals (100-62)
The Mets went on a magical run through the NL behind Daniel Murphy's transformation into Babe Ruth at the plate, but they would've had to contend with prime playoff Madison Bumgarner in their first wild card round game. What if they lost? Somehow, the guess is one of the three NL Central teams wins the pennant.
Former Miami Marlins president David Samson reacted to the idea of a 14-team playoff format on Tuesday's Nothing Personal with David Samson.
AL bye to ALDS: Rangers (95-67)
Orioles (89-73, WC2) at Blue Jays (89-73, WC1)
The Blue Jays hosted the Orioles in the actual Wild Card Game, so we'll assume the tiebreaker remained the same. There would have been an extra game needed, however. The Indians and Tigers had a game postponed the last week of the season. For seeding purposes, they would have had to play that game on Monday, pushing back the wild card round.
Could the Tigers have made some noise? Justin Verlander (3.04 ERA, 1.00 WHIP) and Michael Fulmer (3.06 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) would've been their starters in the first two games of the wild card series. They were also second in the AL in OPS.
NL bye to NLDS: Cubs (103-58)
Marlins (79-82, WC4) at Nationals (95-67, DW2)
Cardinals (86-76, WC3) at Dodgers (91-71, DW3)
Giants (87-75, WC2) at Mets (87-75, WC1)
Again, we know the Mets hosted the Giants in the actual game, so we'll leave that tiebreaker. Let's discuss two things here:
- The Marlins being a playoff team despite being three games under .500.
- The Marlins only finished one game ahead of the Pirates and both teams only played 161 games. So they'd have to make up their games, and if they ended tied we'd need another one-game playoff.
The Marlins had a negative-27 run differential and ranked 13th in the NL in runs. They did have a very talented outfield in Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton, not to mention J.T. Realmuto behind the plate, but this team was not great.
It's hard to see any team taking down those Cubs, but you never know.
AL bye to ALDS: Indians (102-60)
Uh oh. We have a three-way tie for two wild card spots between 80-82 teams. The Rays, Royals and Angels are the culprits. They would have to play some string of tiebreakers. Let's take the Rays and Angels just because the Royals won it all in 2015 (hey, we're just messing around here anyway).
Rays (80-82, WC4) at Astros (101-61, DW2)
Angels (80-82, WC3) at Red Sox (93-69, DW3)
Twins (85-77, WC2) at Yankees (91-71, WC1)
Remember how good that Indians team was, but they collapsed against the Yankees in the ALDS. This format would've given them a bye while their opponent would have to burn at least two starting pitchers. The Astros were awesome that season, but it's entirely possible in this format the Indians win their first World Series since 1948.
NL bye to NLDS: Dodgers (104-58)
Cardinals (83-79, WC4) at Nationals (97-65, DW2)
Brewers (86-76, WC3) at Cubs (92-70, DW3)
I wonder if a different format would've helped the Nationals? They were stacked, but the Cubs sneaked by them in the NLDS. Perhaps with more time for Max Scherzer to recover from his injury things are different. Think about the domino effect then. Dusty Baker wouldn't have gotten fired, and who knows how 2019 would've played out in D.C.
AL bye to ALDS: Red Sox (108-54)
Mariners (89-73, WC4) at Astros (103-59, DW2)
Rays (90-72) at Indians (91-71, DW3)
Athletics (97-65, WC2) at Yankees (100-62, WC1)
If you buy the hot hand theory: The Rays were 41-25 after the All-Star break and won 28 of their last 39 games. Seeing them beat the Indians wouldn't have been a shock.
Fun aside: The Mariners haven't made the playoffs since 2001 -- the longest MLB drought -- but under this format they would've gone twice in the last five years.
NL bye to NLDS: Brewers (96-67*)
We have an absolute mess on our hands here. The Pirates were 82-79 and would've had to play their makeup game, because both the Nationals and Diamondbacks were 82-80. If the Pirates lost their makeup game, we'd have a three-way tie for the fourth playoff spot. Let's just say the Pirates won it, but also realize how big a problem would've been presented if the Pirates lost.
Pirates (82-79; WC4) at Dodgers (92-71, DW2)
Cardinals (88-74, WC3) at Braves (90-72, DW3)
Rockies (91-72, WC2) at Cubs (95-68, WC1)
The Pirates had a negative run differential and were a sub-par team aside from an 11-game winning streak in July. And yet, they'd have had a shot at the pennant-winning Dodgers. Remember, these would only be three-game series, so who knows what happens?
*Would the Brewers and Cubs have played their 163rd game under this format? The bet is no. The Cubs had the tiebreaker, too, so it's likely that this is wrong and the Cubs would've had the bye and then faced probably the Braves in the NLDS, likely leading us to a third-straight Cubs-Dodgers NLCS. Since they did play that game 163, however, we'll leave the Brewers with the bye for this exercise.
AL bye to ALDS: Astros (107-55)
Red Sox (84-78, WC4) at Yankees (103-59, DW2)
Indians (93-69, WC3) at Twins (101-61, DW3)
Rays (96-66, WC2) at A's (97-65, WC1)
The Yankees likely wax them, but the Red Sox getting a shot at a team 19 games better than them in the regular season seems wrong, no? The Twins were better for sure, but that Indians pitching staff in a short series would be pretty scary.
NL bye to NLDS: Dodgers (106-56)
Diamondbacks (85-77, WC4) at Braves (97-65, DW2)
Mets (86-76, WC3) at Cardinals (91-71, DW3)
Brewers (89-73, WC2) at Nationals (93-69, WC1)
How about Jacob deGrom vs. Jack Flahery in the middle series opener? That Mets rotation would've made them pretty scary and I would've picked them over the Cardinals and their lackluster offense.
If we went back even further, I found a few more problems.
- In 2014, the Braves and Mets would've tied for the fourth NL wild card at 79-83.
- The 2006 Reds would've made the fourth wild card at 80-82.
- Some more 81-81 playoff teams: 2013 Diamondbacks, 2011 Blue Jays and 2002 White Sox.
I only went back through 2000, but this should give us an idea of some of the problems that might be presented if MLB does, in fact, move forward with this plan.
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