MLB: How can we fix the playoff system?
Issue   |   Wed, 09/23/2015 - 00:58

Major League Baseball’s one-game, wild-card playoff — an arbitrary gimmick devised in 2012 — is coming under increased scrutiny this year. The format pits the top two non-division winners in each league against each other in a one-game playoff, the winner of which advances to the real playoffs.

This season will likely mark the third straight year that the Pirates host the wildcard game. Under the old format, Pittsburgh would have gone directly to the real playoffs each year. (The Pirates won the wild-card game in 2013 and lost in 2014.) As of today, Pittsburgh is the second-best team in the National League. In two weeks, it is entirely possible that the Pirates will be sitting at home, leapfrogged for playoff berths by three teams with worse records, just because they lost a single game to one of those three teams.

Major League Baseball pushed several justifications for the playoff. One of these was the “problem” that winning a wildcard was as good as winning a division, which meant that, in certain situations, teams were not incentivized to try very hard in September. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman emphasized this when the format was announced in 2012.

Cashman argued from personal experience: In late September 2010, the Yankees had clinched a playoff berth and were tied with Tampa Bay for the division title. Instead of trying to win the division, the Yankees rested their starters.

This argument makes sense on its face: Baseball should certainly do its best to make sure that all regular season games are meaningful. However, there is literally no conceivable playoff format that could guarantee that every late season game is meaningful, even for prospective playoff teams. For every possible format, it will always be possible to construct scenarios in which certain teams have little incentive to try in late September. The current format only pushes the problem one step down: In the past, there was no good reason to prefer the division to the wild card. Now there is no good reason to prefer the first wild card to the second wild card.

This season is an excellent example of a case in which the new format discourages effort from teams. The Pirates and the Cubs will almost certainly be the two wild cards in the National League: They are both several games behind the NL Central-leading Cardinals, and several games clear of everyone else in the wild card race. When St. Louis clinches the division, and Pittsburgh and Chicago secure wildcard spots, the Pirates and Cubs will have little incentive to compete with each other.

So far, there have been six wild-card games. The home teams are 2-4. Of course, six games is a ridiculously small sample size — maybe it doesn’t make sense to generalize from the home teams’ wild card struggles in the last three years to a statement that home field advantage doesn’t matter in the wildcard game. But, if you can’t generalize about home field advantage based on one game, how can you argue that a single game is a good way to decide which team gets to go forward in the playoffs?
Maybe the competitiveness of late season games is not the best justification for the new format. Never fear, Manfred can produce a different one!

“Then you get to the question of, what do you do with those two wild cards? That’s the next sequential question,” the commissioner said in an interview with FOX Sports. “The balance we struck there was that we were trying to disadvantage the wild cards. We wanted the division titles to be more meaningful.”

I don’t really have a good answer for this one, if only because it makes so little sense to begin with: Manfred thinks that there is some sort of intrinsic value to winning a division, that the Mets, who are currently 4.5 games worse than the Pirates, are somehow more deserving of a playoff bid because the rest of the NL East is worse than the rest of the NL Central.
Others say they like the new format because the wildcard games create drama. Jayson Stark made this argument on ESPN in 2012.

“You can’t beat the drama of a win-or-go-home game — in any sport,” Stark said. “So try to envision how riveting it would be to begin the postseason with a game of that magnitude. One game — with the entire season riding on it. It’s March Madness with bats and balls.”

This is true to a certain extent, but the drama of the event is less exciting when you realize how arbitrary the whole thing is. There’s a famous moment in “Moneyball” when Michael Lewis points out that it would be very hard to tell the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter simply by watching them, because the .300 hitter would only, on average, get one more hit than the .275 hitter every two weeks, or every 40 at-bats. That is, the question of whether one baseball player is better than another cannot be determined by comparing their performances in one game; it has to be done by observing the patterns that develop over a lot of games.

Similarly, the only way to get a realistic idea of whether one baseball team is better than another is to observe their results over a series of games. To adapt Lewis’ example, imagine a team of .300 hitters playing a team of .275 hitters in the wildcard game. Also, suppose that the teams are equal in every other way. Teams usually get about 40 at-bats in a game, so you would expect the team of .300 hitters to get one more hit than the team of .275 hitters. That extra expected hit would be nothing more than a small advantage, and the .300 hitters — a better team — would have a significant chance of going home.

Therefore, the only way to determine with any certainty which team is better is to play a series of games; deciding the result of a team’s season based on one game is little better than deciding it with a coin flip. Fortunately, baseball teams spend the entire summer playing 162 games for that very purpose. Why not use those games to decide which teams get to go to the playoffs, instead of the relative crapshoot of a single game?

So, if the current system is so bad, what system should baseball adopt? One option is the old format, with only one wildcard. Another is the really old format: Until 1969, the only playoff series was the World Series, which simply pitted the best regular season NL team against the best regular season AL team. I’m partial to the really old format; a five-game series is less random than a one-game series, but not by that much. Of course, this would leave the Pirates out in the cold even more than the new format, because the Cardinals would just go straight to the World Series.

Grant Bisbee makes this point in an SB Nation post.

“You think screwed means that a team could lose a one-game playoff for a potential postseason berth?” he writes. “Teams throughout the long, harsh history of baseball laugh at you. The 1960s Giants averaged 91 wins for an entire decade, with rosters saturated with future Hall of Famers, and made the postseason once.”

His definition of “screwed” is completely wrong. The 1960s Giants missed the playoffs because other teams deserved the single available playoff spot more than they did. The 2015 Pirates will miss the playoffs because baseball’s convoluted system will award their spot to three teams with worse records, on the strength of a single game. If the Cardinals were the only team going to the playoffs from the NL, the Pirates could have no complaints, but as it is, they are getting screwed.