Perspective | The MLB playoffs are broken? No, the MLB playoffs are beautiful. (2022)





The 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers are out. The 87-win Philadelphia Phillies are in. The 101-win New York Mets and Atlanta Braves are out. The 89-win San Diego Padres are in. Baseball’s postseason isn’t broken. It’s beautiful.

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This is the first season of Major League Baseball’s doubly expanded postseason — not just with two wild-card games but with four opening-round series. And with the league championship series almost upon us, there’s angst that the regular season produced four 100-win teams — and three of them are out?

The answer to that: Win games. Don’t lose. Stay alive. Find a way.

Sports are a meritocracy. So what if the baseball postseason is a compressed version? Results over a 162-game season don’t need to conform to results in five- or seven-game series. Often, they don’t. If they did, it would be boring. Because they don’t, it’s enthralling.

The Dodgers are proof that, in the postseason, nothing is guaranteed

The Dodgers won those 111 games — more than any team in a regular season since 2001 — and they’re supposed to need extra advantages once the playoffs arrive? The extra advantages are baked in — their talent and experience. Failing to advance isn’t the fault of the format. Failing to advance is the fault of the team. Prefer to move on? Don’t blow a three-run seventh-inning lead in Game 4.


The NBA playoffs are “fair,” right? All four rounds are seven games, and the No. 1 seed, which has proved its superiority over 82 games, has advantages in both home court and talent over the eighth-seeded also-rans. Since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1983-84, just five top seeds have fallen in the first round — and some of those upsets arrived when the opening round was still best-of-five. More than that: Just five No. 7 seeds have beaten No. 2 seeds.

That’s fair? That’s dull. Why have so many teams in the playoffs if only half of them have a shot at winning? Money, obviously, because more games mean more product for TV, and that’s a force that’s undefeated. Still, only one No. 8 seed in the NBA has even reached the Finals, and none has won. They’re fodder.

The baseball playoffs are not just different. They’re better. The most recent, just-changed format began in 2012, when a second wild-card team was added to create Octobers that began with two one-game playoffs — two Game 7s to start everything off. In the nine seasons of that format (excluding the 2020 covid-19-shortened season, in which the playoffs were expanded further), wild-card winners went on to win the best-of-five division series nine times and lose nine times. Three have reached the World Series, and two — the 2014 San Francisco Giants and 2019 Washington Nationals — won the whole darn thing.


Is that tilted in favor of the wild cards? That seems tilted in favor of competition that’s not predetermined. Everyone has a chance.

There’s an old saying so common that it’s a bit cliche, but my feelings about cliches are that they’re overused for a reason: They’re often true. This one: It’s not who you play; it’s when you play them.

The Dodgers were 14-5 against the Padres in the regular season. It’s actually lovely that such dominance doesn’t automatically translate to the postseason. The Braves beat the Phillies five out of seven times in September, a big part of their come-from-behind surge to take the National League East from the Mets. Suddenly, there’s something unjust about them losing three of four to Philadelphia in the playoffs?

The reward for the regular season now is a bye in the opening round, and in an age when pitchers are fragile and injuries common, that time off — to reset the rotation and the bullpen, to rest bodies and minds — could be essential. Yes, baseball’s regular season is built on a relentless rhythm. Interrupting that could be disruptive? Maybe. But the Dodgers won Game 1 over the Padres, the New York Yankees won Game 1 over the Cleveland Guardians, and the Houston Astros — who followed their 106-win regular season with five days of rest — responded to that disruption by sweeping Seattle.

An epic, 18-inning win for the Astros produces only pain in Seattle

One solution to a problem that doesn’t need solving seems to be to make the division series best-of-seven. Baseball prides itself on avoiding evaluations based on small sample sizes. October inherently involves small sample sizes. Is best-of-seven a more fair determination of who’s better than best-of-five? Sure, I guess. But why aren’t we then wondering about best-of-nine?


“The division series has been five games for a long time, as far as I know,” Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker said. “You know what? I think the system’s fine.”

Indeed it is.

“Because this is a new format, at the end of all this, everyone is going to analyze it and probably, frankly, overanalyze it some,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said over the weekend, when his 99-win team was pushed to the brink by the 92-win Guardians. “I think you have to do it for years to really get a real firm grasp on it. There’s nothing for us that’s been, you know, like we shouldn’t be able to be successful.”

Win. The. Games. It’s the only way to last in October.

Oh, did I say October? Sorry. I meant October and November. If the World Series goes seven games, more will be played in November than October. Game 7 would be Nov. 5. Yeah, some of that is because the season started late because of MLB’s labor dispute. (Remember that?)


Still, the 2023 regular season opens March 30 and concludes Oct. 1. The postseason schedule for next year isn’t out yet, but follow the regular format, and given the extra games in the opening round, Game 7 would almost certainly be scheduled for Nov. 1. You want to lengthen the first round and take the chance of regularly playing World Series games deeper into November in, say, Detroit or Boston? I mean, I know the planet’s getting warmer. Still.

If the Phillies win the whole thing, they would have the fewest regular season victories of any champion in the multiple-wild-card era. Indeed, had the playoffs been formatted as they were a year ago, the Phillies wouldn’t have qualified.

Would that make them an illegitimate World Series champion? Hardly. No one has taken away the trophy from the 2006 champion St. Louis Cardinals, who went 83-78 in the regular season — and won anyway. The 1987 Minnesota Twins are still heroes in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, even though they went 85-77 over the summer, then blitzed the favored Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series before taking the title.

Upsets are among the best things about sports. If this October has you disconsolate about a particular result, your ire should be directed at the teams that were supposed to avoid them, not the format in which they were staged — which everyone knew from the first day of spring training and has already provided a thrilling month.

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