MLB playoff format a success

The stage for the Fall Classic is now set. For the first time since 2016, it will not feature either of the evil-empire powerhouses (the Houston Astros and the L.A. Dodgers).

In what was an exhilarating week of playoff baseball, both the No. 5 seed Texas Rangers and the No. 6 seed Arizona Diamondbacks came back from the brink of elimination to thwart campaigns by the reigning champs of their respective leagues to return to the World Series. 

On Saturday night, things looked bleak for the underdogs. The Diamondbacks turned in a dismal showing against the Phillies, and the Rangers were reeling from a stinging defeat at the hands of the Astros’ postseason legend José Altuve, who had hit a three-run shot in the ninth inning to flip the scoreboard. It looked likely that we would see a rematch of the 2022 World Series between the Astros and the Phillies.

Instead, both teams rallied to win the final two games of their league-championship series (LCS): the Rangers in dominant fashion (winning 9–2 and 11-4 respectively), and the D-backs handily (5–1 and 4–2). The Rangers are now set to pursue their first-ever World Series title, while the Diamondbacks are making just their second-ever appearance in the Fall Classic. While both teams had their mettle tested in the LCS, both had sailed through the first two rounds without a single loss. The Rangers dispatched the Tampa Bay Rays (with their impressive 13–0 start to the 2023 season) and the 101-win Baltimore Orioles, while the Diamondbacks soundly defeated the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both of the latter teams were thought to be major players for the title.

That’s the beautiful thing about baseball: Anything can happen at any time. The most unlikely hitters have the chance to play the hero, and the most unlikely teams have the chance to stun the favorites at any time. And thanks to the new playoff format, there are more opportunities for that to happen.

The 2023 World Series will mark the first time ever that a 5-seed and a 6-seed will face off in the championship — something that was impossible before the 2022 playoff expansion that broadened the field from ten to twelve teams. Although this was, and remains, a controversial change, a larger playoff field has yielded not just more playoff baseball (a big win already), but also dramatically more meaningful games down the stretch of the regular season. 

The incentive structure of the league should encourage teams to compete. However, when a team faces slim playoff odds, it often prioritizes the future over the present by trading key players for emerging talent that can contribute down the line. Losing games can even be to its benefit, as teams with poorer records are rewarded top draft picks the following year. Expanding the number of playoff teams allows more teams to compete for the playoffs and discourages teams from giving up on their season because of a poor start, leading to regular-season games that are more competitive. 

At this season’s trade deadline — the cutoff date for which teams are allowed to trade players — the Seattle Mariners had a 14.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, per Fangraphs. Perceiving the playoffs as out of reach, the team traded away one of its best relief pitchers, Paul Sewald, to the Arizona Diamondbacks. 

In the end, the Seattle Mariners fell short of the playoffs by just one game, a frustrating finish that surely brought regret to the team’s front office and heartache to the fans in Seattle. In contrast, the Arizona Diamondbacks — who had a 39.5 percent playoff probability when they acquired Sewald — narrowly squeaked into the last playoff spot and proceeded to upset two division winners and the reigning National League champions, sending the team to the World Series. Sewald has emerged as the most trusted Arizona relief pitcher, assuming the role as closer, and pitching eight scoreless innings in the playoffs while allowing only three hits. 

Had the playoffs not expanded, not only would Arizona have missed the playoffs, but it’s also quite possible it would have followed Seattle’s playbook and waved the white flag on the season. Instead, the additional playoff spot provided Arizona with an incentive to compete — a risky gamble that ultimately paved the way for an extraordinary Cinderella story, ushering the team to the World Series. 

The expanded-playoff format brings a more competitive drive to regular-season games. It offers teams disheartened by a mediocre start or plagued by player injuries a reason to be resilient and remain competitive. Critics of the new playoff format argue it diminishes the importance of regular-season games. But when nearly half of the league is more focused on winning the following season than on the present one, doesn’t that bring more harm to the value of regular-season games?

Admittedly, opponents of the new format have legitimate concerns about whether including more teams diminishes the importance of regular-season performance. But the new format’s provision for the top two teams by record to receive a bye into the second round is a good compromise. Interestingly, some teams complained this year that they felt the bye gave them too much rest and that their teams had lost all momentum by the time they actually got to play. But when push comes to shove, you’d be hard-pressed to find an MLB manager who would chose an extra three-game series over a free pass to the second round given the choice.

Much like the new MLB rules (which have driven a massive increase in TV viewers and a notable increase in game attendance), the new playoffs increase fan engagement as more different fanbases can watch exciting postseason baseball. That can only be a good thing.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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