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Wednesday Rockpile: MLB playoff format needs work

Baseball's postseason format produces champions that often do not represent the sport's best teams. This is because the attributes that often contribute to a successful regular season (like a deep pitching staff and well-rounded bench) aren't that important in a short playoff series.

Jared Wickerham

The calendar has turned to October and, as it has for 17 out of the 21 years in their existence, Major League Baseball is determining its champion without the Colorado Rockies - that's three playoff appearances for the Rockies and one strike if you're keeping score at home. During those 21 years, baseball's postseason has changed quite a bit - and not for the better, if your desire is to see regular season success rewarded (more on that below).

It's an exciting time for the fans of the ten teams that enter the fray, but for most other fans the baseball postseason becomes nothing more than a curiosity or a chance to root against a bitter rival. After all, the sheer length of the baseball regular season (and the time commitment required to be a dedicated follower of even one team) renders it almost impossible to follow more than one team intensely all year.

With that said, the fate of the fans of teams who are not playoff-caliber is very similar to that of other major professional sports - watching with varying levels of interest as teams that they have not followed obsessively play for the championship. That part of the postseason isn't going to (and shouldn't) change - after all, those teams had a long season to prove their worth and fell short.

What I want to focus on for a little bit is the experience for fans of playoff teams. These are fans that have lived and died with their teams for 162 games - spending countless hours watching games, reading stats, and commenting on sports blogs like this one. Their team has earned entry into the most exclusive postseason in American sports and it's a fantastic feeling for those fans - I mean, the Rockies run to and experience in the 2007 and 2009 playoffs are my favorite baseball memories. It's such a great feeling to have your team in the playoffs that I don't necessarily begrudge MLB's desire to give more fan bases that gift (even if the real reason is making more money).

The problem is that for four fan bases, their reward for a successful season - all of the emotional and financial capital spent on following the team - is one coin flip of a "playoff" game. It's not a true postseason experience and it's a darn shame. Every postseason team deserves a chance to reward their fans with the electric atmosphere of a home playoff game. So yes, if we must have two wild card teams, I would prefer that they play a best of three series to reward each team's fans for their time and investment in the team. As former MLB player Doug Glanville writes, the one game playoff is just a poor way to determine postseason advancement.

For that matter, the baseball postseason is a poor way to determine a champion for a league that plays a 162 game regular season. Baseball's postseason format produces champions that often do not represent the sport's best teams. This is because the attributes that often contribute to a successful regular season (like a deep pitching staff and well-rounded bench) aren't that important in a short playoff series. A team with three top tier starters and a group of elite position players can and will go far.

Also of import: baseball has a 162 game schedule for a reason (besides money), and that is because we need that sample size to figure out who the best teams are. Let's face it - even the worst team in the league (Astros) will have a 30-40% shot of winning a five game series with the best regular season team (Red Sox). The fact is that 27 out of 30 MLB franchises (90%) won between 40 and 60% of their games this year.

Comparing that to the most recent completed seasons of the NBA (13 out of 30 teams between 40-60% win%) and the NFL (9/32) demonstrates that, more so than those sports, most individual baseball games are more in doubt than those other sports. This is especially true in the playoffs - this year, the ten playoff teams* all have a regular season winning % between 0.556 and 0.599. In other words, all of this year's playoff teams are of such similar quality that nobody will be particularly surprised if any of these teams wins it all.

*By the way, I'm actually fine with ten teams making the playoffs because a) it's great for more fans to enjoy the euphoria that comes with a playoff berth, b) the unbalanced schedule means that certain teams have an unfair advantage that more playoff teams helps neutralize, and c) the teams are all very similar in quality

To better separate these mostly evenly matched teams, might it not be better for the fans to squeeze in as many postseason games as is reasonable? Without changing the number of teams in the postseason, I'm thinking a three game wild card series and best of seven game series for all other rounds - maybe even a return to a nine game Fall Classic.

Yes, that would push the conclusion of the season further into fall, making cold weather more of a concern. However, wouldn't it also return the postseason to a closer facsimile of its regular season - removing a few off days from the schedule, requiring teams to lean more on the depth that got them to this stage in the first place? In addition, a larger sample size increases the chance for the superior team to emerge without eliminating the possibility of an upset. It would provide more revenue for MLB and more importantly, a better postseason experience for the fortunate fans of teams entering the tournament.

It'll never happen, but wouldn't it be nice if it did?

MLB Playoffs Predictions

With all of that said about the playoffs, I'll still be watching and enjoying myself. Here are my predictions for this year's MLB postseason:

National League

Cardinals over Pirates, 3-1
Dodgers over Braves, 3-2
Cardinals over Dodgers, 4-2

American League

A's over Tigers 3-2
Red Sox over Indians/Rays 3-1
A's over Red Sox 4-3

World Series

A's over Cardinals 4-2 - ten years after Moneyball, Billy Beane gets his trophy...and the Bay Area gets another World Series championship.

As I usually do when they make the playoffs, I'll be rooting for the Cardinals this year, but if they lose to the Pirates I'll be pulling for Pittsburgh. Speaking of them, please read this article on Clint Hurdle if you haven't already. It really is a great read and provides some insight into just what the Rockies lost when Keli McGregor died.

Here's the full postseason schedule in case you were wondering.

Site News

We'll be posting game threads for playoff games daily as the postseason marches on. In terms of the Rockies, we'll be running a high-content series beginning next Monday that will review the 2013 season in detail


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