Tuesday, May 24, 2022

What the new 12-team MLB playoffs will look like, and how it would have looked in recent years

Among the handful of things in the new MLB collective bargaining agreement that casual fans will actually notice would be the new playoff format. It’s actually the most impactful thing from a spectator standpoint. Within my lifetime alone, we’ve now gone from four to 12 playoff teams for full seasons. 

For those interested, a quick rundown of the MLB playoff formats through history: 

  • Pre-1969: World Series only (two teams)
  • 1969-1993: Four division winners leading to two LCS and a World Series (four teams)
  • 1995-2011: Six division winners and two wild cards, meaning four teams per league with divisional rounds, LCS and World Series (eight teams)
  • 2012-19; 2021: Six division winners and four wild cards, with one game as a single-elimination wild-card game per league before the divisional series (10 teams) 

2020 was, of course, an outlier and we’ll just leave it aside here, though it should be noted the Dodgers World Series championship absolutely counts as real. 

The 12-team format now will be as follows. Again, this is per league. 

1 seed: Best overall record

2 seed: Second-best record among division winners

Those top two seeds get byes to the second round. 

3 seed: Third-best division winner record

4-6 seeds: Three best records among non-division winners, in order of record

In a departure from past years, there won’t be tiebreaker games to determine playoff teams. A system of tiebreakers would be used to break ties instead of a “Game 163.” 

In the wild-card round, the three seed will host the six seed for a three-game series; same with the four seed hosting the five. 

The winners then advance to the divisional round as we’ve previously known it. There is no re-seeding. The one seed hosts the winner of the 4-5 series while the two hosts the winner of the 3-6. 

The biggest adjustment here, obviously, is the extra playoff team per league. How would that have looked in the recent past? Let’s check it out. Again, we’ll ignore 2020 for obvious reasons. 

2021

AL byes: 1. Rays (100-62); 2. Astros (95-67)

AL wild card round: 6. Blue Jays (91-71) at 3. White Sox (93-69) and 5. Yankees (90-72) at 4. Red Sox (90-72)

NL byes: 1. Giants (107-55); 2. Brewers (95-67)

NL wild card round: 6. Reds (83-79) at 3. Braves (88-73) and 5. Cardinals (90-72) at 4. Dodgers (106-56)

2019

AL byes: 1. Astros (107-55); 2. Yankees (103-59)

AL wild card round: 6. Cleveland (93-69) at 3. Twins (101-61) and 5. Rays (96-66) at 4. Athletics (97-65)

NL byes: 1. Dodgers (106-56); 2. Braves (97-65)

NL wild card round: 6. Mets (86-76) at 3. Cardinals (91-71) and 5. Brewers (89-73) at 4. Nationals (93-69) 

2018

AL byes: 1. Red Sox (108-54); 2. Astros (103-59)

AL wild card round: 6. Rays (90-72) at 3. Cleveland (91-71) and 5. Athletics (97-65) at 4. Yankees (100-62)

NL byes: 1. Cubs* (95-67); 2. Dodgers* (91-71)

*NOTE: In this format, there aren’t tiebreaker games. The Cubs finished tied with the Brewers for first in the NL Central and won the season series. The Dodgers tied the Rockies in the NL West and won the season series. In reality, the Brewers actually took Game 163 against the Cubs. Had this system been in place, they wouldn’t have had that chance. 

NL wild card round: 6. Cardinals (88-74) at 3. Braves (90-72) and 5. Rockies (91-71) at 4. Brewers (95-67) 

2017

AL byes: 1. Cleveland (102-60); 2. Astros (101-61)

AL wild card round: 6. Royals* (80-82) at 3. Red Sox (93-69) and 5. Twins (85-77) at 4. Yankees (91-71)

*NOTE: The Rays, Royals and Angels all finished 80-82, so not only do we have a sub-.500 playoff team, but there’s a three-way tiebreaker. The tiebreaker rules aren’t yet set in stone, but the best record if we calculated all head-to-heads between these three teams was the Royals at 10-4 (4-3 against the Rays and 6-1 against the Angels). 

NL byes: 1. Dodgers (104-58); 2. Nationals (97-65)

NL wild card round: 6. Brewers (86-76) at 3. Cubs (92-70) and 5. Rockies (87-75) at 4. Diamondbacks (93-69)

2016

AL byes: 1. Rangers (95-67); 2. Cleveland (94-67)

AL wild card round: 6. Tigers* (86-75) at 3. Red Sox (93-69) and 5. Orioles (89-73) at 4. Blue Jays (89-73)

*NOTE: The Tigers and Mariners both won 86 games. The Tigers lost one game fewer, but by virtue of winning the season series against the Mariners, 4-3, they wouldn’t have had to play their hanging make-up game. 

NL byes: 1. Cubs (103-58); 2. Nationals (95-67)

NL wild card round: 6. Cardinals (86-76) at 3. Dodgers (91-71) and 5. Giants (87-75) at 4. Mets (87-75)


The biggest takeaways? 

  • The road is a lot tougher for the third seeds. Instead of waiting for a series against the two, they have to deal with a three-game series to get there. 
  • The road also gets a lot tougher for the second wild-card teams. Instead of having to win one game on the road, now they have to win two games on the road, though they get three tries to do it. Of course, the easy retort there to any complaints would be: win more games in the regular season. 
  • Much of the hand-wringing over weak teams getting into the postseason is overblown. Generally, it’s just another mid-80s win team and we’ve already seen those floodgates open. On occasion, though, there is the losing record entering the fray, such as it would have in 2017. 
  • Opinions will vary on losing the possibility of a Game 163, but replacing it with guaranteed extra games in the wild-card round is going to be a huge win for MLB in terms of TV and gate revenue. 
  • Drama was high, but the one-and-done format of the wild-card game has long flown in the face of what regular-season baseball is. Sure, the entire postseason is built upon small samples, but at least now every round is a series. It says here that this is a net win for baseball. 
  • Getting that second bye but not a third for division winners seems like a net win for regular season baseball. There’s more emphasis on winning the division, but if there’s a straggler who won a bad division and couldn’t get to 90 wins, they need to earn the divisional round. 
  • It’s going to be an incredibly fun month of action. 

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