MLB's Flawed Playoff Seeding Rules Could Ruin October

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJune 21, 2018

New York Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia reacts on the mound during the third inning of the team's baseball game against the Boston Red Sox in New York, Thursday, May 10, 2018. The Red Sox scored one run in the first inning and two in the third. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The New York Yankees are on pace for 111 wins as of Wednesday. The archrival Boston Red Sox are on pace for 107. 

Even if they maintain that pace—an admittedly massive "if"—one of them will face a one-and-done wild-card playoff at best.

Is that justice?

It's a question we may plausibly confront this fall, as baseball's playoff seeding rules collide with the new, top-heavy reality of MLB.

On its face, the renewal of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is a great thing for the game. Two ancient foes with large, vocal fanbases crossing swords. What could be better?

Here's one thing that could be better: a club with triple-digit victories not being subjected to sudden death. 

The do-or-die wild-card play-in has undeniably provided drama. It's an instant Game 7; just heat and serve. 

"Clubs really want it. I don't think I've ever seen an issue that the clubs want more than to have the extra wild card this year," then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said prior to the 2012 season when the new format was initiated, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com).

Added Selig: "It'll be exciting. One-game playoff, it will start the playoffs in a very exciting manner."

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 23:  MLB Commissioner Bud Selig speaks to the media before a game between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on September 23, 2014 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty I
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

He wasn't wrong. But there's something fundamentally flawed about boiling a 162-game marathon down to a single contest, and that's shaping up to be especially true this year.

It's not all about the Yankees and Red Sox. Over in the AL West, the defending champion Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners are also on pace for 100-plus victories. Two of the four best teams in baseball, at least by current record, could be shoved into the wild-card crucible where one costly error or errant pitch can tip the scales.

In the National League, presumed title contenders such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs are currently lined up as wild-card hopefuls.

Turning back the clock, in 2015 the Pittsburgh Pirates finished with 98 wins and the National League's second-best record but lost the division to the St. Louis Cardinals and were defeated in the Wild Card Game by Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs.

Bucs fans may be rolling their eyes and asking where the outcry was then. Now that it's New York and Boston, we're suddenly pointing out the unfairness?

The point, though, is that it was unjust then and unjust today. The playoffs should be about the best teams competing under the brightest lights, not a top World Series hopeful going home because it ran into an ace in the smallest possible sample of one game. 

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 19: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox looks on during the game against the Minnesota Twins on June 19, 2018 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Red Sox 6-2. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

There's a lot of baseball left, obviously. We haven't even reached July, let alone the heat of the pennant race.

But we're also living in the era of tanking. A number of teams gave up on contention before the first spring training workout and instead trained their sights on a high draft pick.

In a league where parity reigned, there'd be an argumentif a flawed onefor the wild-card play-in.

In today's stratified MLB? Not so much.

Four teams—the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds and Kansas City Royals—are on pace to lose 100 games. The Miami Marlins are on the precipice of joining them in that ignoble category.

Last season, no team lost 100 or more games. In 2016, only the Minnesota Twins did.

If MLB is becoming a league of extreme winners and predetermined losers, it makes less and less sense to shove any winner into a one-game playoff. Emerging victorious from 100 regular-season contests ought to earn you something more than a single showdown.

One fix: Revert to the pre-2012 format, when there was a single wild-card team that jumped to the division series with a puncher's chance of making it through.

More drastically, the league could seed teams according to record alone, regardless of divisional affiliation, and let the bottom two teams duke it out in a one-game playoff. Or, the Wild Card Round could be expanded to at least a best-of-three.

No matter what, something has to give.

Letting the top teams play at least a best-of-five series is best for the league, best for the fans and best for the sport. That ought to be enough for a change.

      

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of Baseball Reference.

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