The Los Angeles Dodgers won 106 games during the 2021 regular season. That's tied for the most wins in the franchise's 138-year history, and one of only 23 seasons of its kind throughout all of Major League Baseball history.
Their reward? A single playoff game.
Though the Dodgers would have handily won any of MLB's other five divisions, they just could never catch up to the San Francisco Giants in the National League West. They had a historic season in their own right, winning a club-record 107 games to snap the Dodgers' eight-year reign atop the division.
Of course, the Dodgers may yet play in more postseason games. They'll only need to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals (90-72) in the NL Wild Card Game at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday to earn a grudge match against the Giants in the National League Division Series. In spite of St. Louis' recent 17-game win streak, this should be doable.
In the event that the Dodgers lose to the Cardinals, not everyone will weep for them. The story will rightfully be that the reigning World Series champions had their shot and missed it.
For the moment, though, it is justifiable to call out the Dodgers' do-or-die fate for what it is: an injustice that underscores the need for MLB to reconsider its playoff format.
The Dodgers Did Nothing Wrong
As much as it feels like the Dodgers just weren't as good as the Giants, a more accurate way to put it is that they simply didn't win as many games as their longtime rivals in the Bay Area.
Though the Giants did their part to keep the Dodgers in their rear-view mirror by winning the season series 10 games to 9, the Dodgers actually outscored them by two runs.
So it went for the season as a whole, as Los Angeles' plus-269 run differential easily trumped San Francisco's plus-210 mark. Simply based on that, the Dodgers probably should have won six more games than the Giants.
The idea in pointing all this out isn't to diminish the Giants in any way. They had a truly amazing year from start to finish, never losing more than 10 games in any individual month. But if any Dodgers want to argue that their second-place finish wasn't caused by a talent deficiency but rather a few unfavorable coin flips, they'd have a point.
Since MLB debuted the wild card in 1995, the Dodgers are far from the first team to settle for one despite having more wins than certain division winners. This is actually commonplace, happening just in the National League with the 93-win Washington Nationals in 2019, the 95-win Chicago Cubs in 2018, the 93-win Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017 and so on.
But even if the Dodgers aren't necessarily an anomaly to that particular extent, they do represent an extreme.
They're only the third 100-win team to have to settle for a wild-card spot after the 2001 Oakland Athletics and 2018 New York Yankees. Though the latter was the first team in either league to have done so since the two-team, sudden-death wild-card era began in 2012, the Dodgers are the first team to feel that particular sting in the National League.
Because the 1993 Giants and 1980 Baltimore Orioles didn't even make the playoffs despite crossing the century mark for wins, this is hardly the worst fate to ever befall a 100-game winner. One postseason game isn't much, but it's better than nothing.
The Dodgers' situation should, however, nonetheless be cause for questions regarding how MLB might improve its playoffs so something like this doesn't happen again.
Either Make it a Wild Card Series or Use Seeds
Since the fundamental problem here is that a team as good as the Dodgers deserves more than just one playoff game, the first question might be why MLB couldn't simply expand the Wild Card Game into a Wild Card Series.
For instance, Joel Sherman of the New York Post thinks MLB should take a page from the Korean Baseball Organization:
If the top-seeded wild card finished five or more games better than the lower seeded wild card, then rather than playing just a sudden-death game (as it is now), they would play essentially a best-of-two series in the higher seed’s home stadium in which the higher seed would have to win just once while the lower seed wins twice.
However, a system like this wouldn't have done the 2021 Dodgers much good. Nor would it solve anything in years in which two excellent teams have to settle for a wild card, like when the 100-win Yankees met the 97-win Oakland Athletics in 2018 or when the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates met the 97-win Chicago Cubs in 2015.
A simpler way forward would be to have the two wild-card teams play a best-of-three series. A guarantee of two games might barely seem like an improvement on a guarantee of one, but it would at least diminish the likelihood of either contest turning into a Franken-game.
As in, a game in which both teams seek out every possible advantage through frequent substitutions that make it seem like an actual chess match more than a baseball game. The average game goes for long enough, typically lasting between 3:05 and 3:10. Between 2012 and 2019, all but four of the Wild Card Games lasted even longer than that.
The problem here is that a Wild Card Series would require the division winners to sit for at least three days. Time off in baseball can be a competitive disadvantage if rust sets in, in which case division winners would actually be punished rather than rewarded.
So, perhaps the best thing MLB can do is still have three division winners and a one-game playoff between two wild-card teams, but simply seed teams by their records without prioritizing the division winners. You know, like they do in the National Basketball Association.
“I do like the format of the NBA,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said in August, according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. “The two best teams, in the sample of a major league season, should have the best chance of meeting in the postseason, and not just in the first round.”
This way, teams like the Dodgers would rightfully get to skip ahead to the Division Series. To make sure division winners still get some reward, though, here's one for the "Just a Thought" file: MLB could allow them home-field advantage if they advance past the Wild Card Game.
Just Please Don't Expand the Playoffs
Instead of any of the possible changes discussed above, indications are that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is thinking bigger.
Though expanding the 2020 playoff field from 10 to 16 teams seemed like an emergency one-off that wouldn't come back in 2021, Manfred didn't even wait for the new-look playoffs to run their course before he began dreaming of them as part of the new normal after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think there’s a lot to commend it," Manfred said during an online event last September, as transcribed by Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors. "It is one of those changes that I hope becomes a permanent part of our landscape.”
Though Manfred has seemingly backed off this idea over the past year, he apparently hasn't given up on permanently expanding the playoffs. According to a report from Ken Rosenthal (h/t Michael Cerami of Bleacher Nation) during an episode of The Athletic Baseball Show in August, the possibility of a 14-team playoff field has at least been discussed.
Setting aside how a 14-team field would even work, the hard part for MLB will be getting the MLB Players Association on board with expanded playoffs. Per Rosenthal, the players fear that such a format would disincentivize competition and, in turn, spending.
Beyond that, there's a fundamental question here of how much baseball is too much baseball.
As a capper for a 60-game regular season, a 16-team playoff field was obviously a way to recoup revenue that got lost when MLB had to lop 102 games off its normal schedule. But it was also advantageous competition-wise, as those extra postseason games were necessary for the process of separating the contenders from the pretenders after such a short season.
Naturally, Exhibit A here is the Houston Astros. They were only 29-31 during the regular season in 2020, which marked a humongous downturn in the wake of three straight 100-win seasons. But the next thing anyone knew, they turned their second chance in the playoffs into a trip that lasted until Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
There shouldn't be any need for second chances like this after a full 162-game season, wherein teams have more than enough time to rise to the level where they belong. Hence why MLB is better off redefining the levels rather than creating more of them.
Whatever the case, here's hoping that the current playoff format is officially retired when [/fingers crossed] MLB and the MLBPA reach a new collective bargaining agreement this winter. The Dodgers and any team that might find itself in their shoes one day deserve better.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.