The five-day break between the end of the regular season and the start of the Division Series is not the reason the Baltimore Orioles are losing to the Texas Rangers, two games to none. That’s not the reason the Los Angeles Dodgers lost Game 1 of their series against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Clayton Kershaw on Saturday night. This may not be the reason why any of the top seeds lose, if they lose at all, in this round.
Still, a second straight elimination of the Atlanta Braves in particular would spark a debate about the fairness of the current postseason format, which began last season. There are no easy answers. Since 1969, the beginning of the division era, there have been no easy answers. From that point on, the teams with the best regular-season records in each league were no longer guaranteed to play in the World Series.
Major League Baseball thought it had made everything clear with the new system – first-round byes to the two major league winners in each league, home games only for higher-seeded teams in the wild-card round. However, the addition of a three-win wild card series resulted in a five-day break for the teams that had a bye. An exemption of this length may – I repeat – may be too much.
Throughout the four-plus decades of the division’s era, there was no threat of rust from prolonged layoffs. From 1969 to 1993, the division champions advanced directly to the League Championship Series. From 1995 to 2011, each league had only one wild card and the Division Series began immediately.
The trouble began with the addition of a second wild card in each league, which led to the creation of a wild-card game and a three-day break for division champions from 2012 to 1919 and again in ’21. The current five-day break is longer than teams receive during the All-Star break , which is an anomaly in everyday sports.
A two-year sample is not large enough for anyone to draw appropriate conclusions. Bye teams can still win the majority of the four-division series. But while these clubs tried to create a competitive environment during their layoffs – the Braves, Dodgers and Orioles played simulated games in front of fans – their efforts may have been in vain.
A striking example, at least in one game, was the Braves, who were not shut out of the home opener once during the regular season but lost their Division Series opener to the Phillies 3-0. The Braves won 104 regular-season games, the Phillies 90. A year ago, the Braves won 101 games and the Phillies 87. However, the Phillies won the Division Series in four games.
Not everything can be attributed to the format. In baseball, you can rarely blame one thing. The Braves rotation wasn’t at full strength last October. In October he is not yet at his full strength. Meanwhile, the Orioles have even less reason to invoke a break after starting 0-2 against the Rangers. They didn’t score in the first leg, but that may have just been an extension of their sporadic attacking performances later in the game. And when they struck out in the second game, their pitchers scored 11, resulting in an 11-8 loss.
The Astros were the only team to win the first game and then lost the second game to the Twins 6-2. If they lose the series, which now moves to Minnesota, it will likely be because their starting pitching isn’t as strong as it has been in recent postseasons. If the Dodgers lose to the Diamondbacks, the reason will likely be the same.
This does not mean that the format should be beyond control.
Let’s start with the fact that home field advantage does not provide the advantage the league expected, at least in the first rounds. As Ryan Fagan from Sporting News points out: five teams won 92 or more games in the regular season. These teams – the Braves, Rays, Brewers, Dodgers and Orioles – are a combined 0-7 in the playoffs, with all seven of their losses coming at home.
The minor-league, all-away team has won five of eight wild-card series over the past two seasons. A year ago, the Astros and Yankees won their Division Series on home-field advantage; The Braves and Dodgers don’t. This year, three of the four hosts have lost their opener – no small thing considering the loser of the first game only wins the series 29 percent of the time.
All of this may be oddities in a small sample, but one immediate solution would be to reseed after the first round. The No. 1 seed will currently face the winner of the wild-card series between the No. 4-5 seeds, while the No. 2 seed will face the winner of the No. 3-6 series. The idea is to avoid facing another division winner in DS in Season 1, while maintaining the original bracket. Nonsense. The #1 seed should face the lowest remaining seed. If you need a new bracket, big deal.
There is still the matter of further handicapping of wild cards. On Sunday’s FS1 broadcast of Game 2 of the Rangers-Orioles series, Hall of Famer John Smoltz suggested eliminating the day off between Game 3 of the Wild Card Series and the start of the Division Series, which may have some advantages.
One problem: Game three will likely have to be played in the afternoon to ease the travel burden, which ESPN will almost certainly object to. However, under Smoltz’s plan, the team could not bring back its Game 1 starter in the wild-card round in Game 2 of the DS, as the Rangers did with Jordan Montgomery on Sunday and as the Phillies did with Zack Wheeler on Monday. The only way for the winner of the wild card series to get a day off before DS is to sweep.
Another option would be to borrow the concept from the Korean KBO and give the bye team an immediate 1-0 advantage in the Division Series. The bye team would then only have to win two games, while the lower league team would have to win three (however, there would be a potential loss of league revenue). However, the KBO only uses this system at the beginning of the postseason, i.e. in the best-of-seven wild card round. To win one game, a higher seed is required, and a lower seed requires two.
The problem with both Smoltz’s plan and the KBO’s plan is that neither includes waivers, although Smoltz could reduce them by one day in at least one league. On the other hand, are layoffs even a problem that needs to be solved? Visiting teams usually welcome them in to tidy up their throwing and rest tired players. Perhaps in the future these teams will find better ways to stay fit.
The ultimate answer may be expansion. Once the league grows from 30 to 32 teams, it could expand from 12 to 16 after the season (I know that’s too much in the eyes of many fans). The format would be similar to the one the league adopted for the shortened 2020 season, starting with eight best-of-three series and wild cards. The danger, of course, would be the devaluation of the regular season. Imagine the outcry if a No. 16 seed knocked out a No. 1 seed.
Let me repeat: there are no easy answers. Even in the regular season, any team can win two out of three or three out of five against anyone else, as evidenced by the A’s and Royals’ scoring runs against the eventual AL West champion Astros in September.
The teams in the playoffs are closer in terms of quality. The potential for upset is even greater. No matter how baseball goes, the postseason will always be crap. No format after a six-month regular season will be truly fair.
(Illustration: Athlete; Photos: Harry How, Patrick Smith and Elsa / Getty Images)
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