Is MLB's 2-3-2 Postseason Format Fair for the Favorite?

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Is MLB's 2-3-2 Postseason Format Fair for the Favorite?

Both of Major League Baseball's Championship Series have shifted to Game 3, meaning each matchup heads to the lower-seeded team's home park for three straight games.

That presents an interesting question: Is it fair that the "favorite" (i.e. the club with home-field advantage) should have to face such a scenario, particularly if there's a chance that the best-of-seven series could be over and done before the higher-seeded team gets back home?

After all, that happens to be the case as the Boston Red Sox, the higher seed, are in Detroit for three straight contests against the Tigers, who are the lower seed—but could close out the matchup at home.

Last week, we learned that home field wasn't actually an advantage in Major League Baseball, especially compared to the other three major professional sports. This time around, we're going to take a look at whether MLB's October format for best-of-seven series is similarly fair—or perhaps even too fair.

You're aware, no doubt, that unlike in the NBA and NHL, where the best-of-seven format is 2-2-1-1-1, baseball's home-road breakdown of games for a seven-game series is 2-3-2. 

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Given that structure, logic says that if the underdog team can simply split the first two games on the road, that presents the opportunity to finish things off before the favorite is even allowed to return home.

To figure out just how often that happens, as well as whether or not there should be an alteration to MLB's playoff format, we combed through the last 10 postseasons (2003-2012) and identified every best-of-seven series (league championship and World Series) that was 1-1 through the first two games.

Note that for our purposes, "higher seed" means the team that had the home-field advantage (Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 at home), whereas "lower seed" means the team played Games 3, 4 and 5 on its turf.

 

Breakdown

Best-of-Seven Postseason Series that Started 1-1 (2003-2012)
# OF GAMES TOTAL HIGHER SEED LOWER SEED
Won in 5 Games 4 1 3
Won in 6 Games 6 2 4
Won in 7 Games 7 5 2
TOTAL 17 8 9

Baseball Reference

Overall, out of a possible 30 World Series and championship round series from 2003 to 2012, there were 17 that started out 1-1. That gives us a fairly large sample size.

When one of those sets was split 1-1 in the first two contests and ended in five games, the lower-seeded team actually won three of four times. And when Game 6 was the clincher, the lower-seeded club actually won four of six times.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
As the underdogs in the 2011 NLCS, Albert Pujols and the Cardinals beat Milwaukee in six games after splitting the first two.

Put another way: In the 10 World Series and championship rounds that started out with a game apiece from 2003 through 2012, the lower seed went on to win seven of those matchups that finished up before getting to a winner-take-all Game 7 played at the higher seed's park.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Last October, the Giants beat St. Louis in NLCS Game 7 at home.

In those cases where the series went the full seven games, though, the home club won five of seven.

Basically, judging by the past decade's worth of Octobers, any time the higher-seeded team split the first two games at home, the favorite only fared noticeably better if able to get to a Game 7.

As for the "conventional logic" outcome mentioned in the introduction (i.e. the underdog took either Game 1 or 2 on the road then closed it out at home), that actually played out only three times out of 17. That's a fairly small percentage, so while it has happened, it wasn't often.

If we attempt to apply that to the 2013 ALCS—which is currently 1-1—it would indicate that if the Tigers are going to get back to the World Series, they probably shouldn't expect to do so by sweeping the Red Sox in Detroit.

On the flip side of that coin, when was the last time a higher-seeded club went on the road with a best-of-seven matchup tied at one game apiece and then won three straight in enemy territory? Try the 2005 ALCS, when the Chicago White Sox did it against the Los Angeles Angels—the only time that's happened in the past 10 Octobers.

That would seem to indicate that the Red Sox probably have to get this year's Championship Series back to Boston if they hope to advance. That's not quite Earth-shattering, but it does put things in context a bit.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
On their way to winning the 2005 World Series, the White Sox swept the Angels in L.A. during the ALCS.

Of course, that White Sox club went on to win the title, so if the Red Sox can win three in Detroit, maybe they'd be in position to follow suit.

 

Conclusion

Based on a sample stretching over the last decade, the 2-3-2 format doesn't do the higher seed any favors.

But it isn't all that damning, either.

Part of that has to do with a fact that we already knew: Home field hasn't exactly been an advantage in October. There have been plenty of instances—more than half, in fact, at 17 of 30—in which a best-of-seven started out 1-1. But just because the higher seed then faces three straight on the road—and the possibility of elimination without ever returning home—that exact scenario has played out all of three times.

All in all, MLB's 2-3-2 format is neither fair nor foul. It just is.

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