On Friday night, the 93-69 Texas Rangers were eliminated from the American League playoffs by the 93-69 Baltimore Orioles. Meanwhile, the 88-74 Detroit Tigers rested at home, awaiting Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
And why did this happen? Why was a team that finished five games behind two others in the regular season awarded a bye in the playoffs for its accomplishments? Because Major League Baseball, like most sports leagues, places way too much value on winning one's division.
In 2012, the six best records in the American League were compiled by teams from the AL East and AL West. The Tigers, who hold the seventh-best record in the American League, made the playoffs ahead of the Rays and the Angels, who both posted better regular-season records. This seems like a big enough reward for winning one's division already.
Not to mention that the Tigers played a substantially easier schedule than their AL East and AL West counterparts by virtue of baseball's unbalanced schedule. The Tigers finished with the seventh-best record despite the fact that the three teams with better records each had to play their more successful divisions more than twice as often as the Tigers did, while Detroit was playing the likes of the Royals and the Twins.
Favorably seeding division winners is not unique to baseball. In fact, only the NBA currently supports a seeding system in which a non-division winner can rank ahead of a division winner. Yet in baseball, where the regular season is supposed to be paramount and the lowest number of teams make the playoffs, this sub-optimal seeding progress seems the most egregious.
Seeding inequity is made worse by the new baseball playoff system, which pits wild-card teams against each other in a one-game playoff. Essentially, the Rangers and Orioles were both only half of a playoff team, despite the fact that each team would have won the AL Central by five games while facing a more difficult strength of schedule.
Due to the geographical differentiations within leagues and the historical significance of certain divisional rivalries, it's understandable that division winners make the playoffs. They are representing their geography, and they deserve some chance to show that, for whatever reason, they may be better than their record indicates.
But division winners should be seeded according to their records; if they are truly Cinderella stories, they should start at the back of the pack. And no 93-69 team should ever be eliminated while a team that finished five games behind it in the regular season rests at home.
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