Friday, February 5, 2016

Proposing a Major Change to M.L.B. Playoff Structure and Schedule

In the midst of recording a podcast about the problems with the current M.L.B. playoff structure and schedule, I stumbled upon what I think is a great solution to those issues. As I mention in the podcast, a lot of the credit goes to my mother, Susan Termohlen, who helped me think of the idea after we had just watched the Pittsburgh Pirates get eliminated from the playoffs after just one game, despite winning 98 games in the regular season, good for second best in all of baseball. The New York Mets (90 wins) and Los Angeles Dodgers (92 wins), meanwhile, were guaranteed best-of-five series' because they won their respective divisions.

A brief summary of the current playoff structure:

There are 30 Major League Baseball teams: 15 in the National League and 15 in the American League. Within each league, there are three divisions (West, Central, and East), each consisting of five teams. So there are six divisions overall (three in each league). 

Here’s the important part: if a team finishes in first place in its division, that team is automatically guaranteed a spot in a best-of-five division series, no matter their record. Six playoff teams are determined in this way (winning their division). However, there are four additional playoff teams.

These four teams are made up of the two best non-first place teams in each league, regardless of division. They are known as the “Wild Card teams,” and they must play a one-game play-in for the right to play the top team in their league in the division series.

Here's an example from CBS Sports of what the playoff structure looked like in 2015. The Cubs and Pirates (far left) were the two National League Wild Card teams, and the Astros and Yankees (far right) were the two American League Wild Card teams. The Cubs and Pirates played one game, the winner of which (the Cubs) went on to play a best of five series with the Cardinals. The Astros and Yankees also played one game, the winner of which (the Astros) went on to play the Royals in the best of five division series:

The major flaw:

The problem with this format is that a division winner could theoretically have a much worse record than one or both of the wild card teams, who face elimination in the one-game format.

This is exactly what happened last year. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 98 games, the second most in all of M.L.B. in 2015. Yet they happened to play in the same division as a team that won 100 games (the St. Louis Cardinals), so the Pirates “lost” the division. What’s more, the Chicago Cubs finished the regular season with 97 wins, the third-best record in all of baseball. One division literally had the three best teams (by record) in all of the sport. 

By the current rules, the Cardinals secured a spot in the division series by winning the division, and the Pirates and Cubs were the National League’s two Wild Card teams. They were forced to play a one-game playoff to determine who would move on to face the Cardinals and who would be eliminated and sent home.

As it turned out, Pittsburgh—the team with the second best record in the game—was bounced from the postseason after just one game. Keep in mind that the regular season in baseball is 162 games—by the far the most of any major professional sport. Remember, too, that the Mets (90 wins) and the Dodgers (92 wins) secured a spot in the best-of-five round, despite having a significantly worse records than the Pirates, because they won their respective divisions.

Possible solution?

It might seem like a simple solution would be to have a seeding system in which the two worst playoff teams (by record) play each other in the Wild Card game, and the winner of that game (thus the No. 4 seed) would play the No. 1 seed, and the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds would play each other. This is the right solution, but it has its own major flaws because of the unbalanced M.L.B. schedule.

How the schedule is now:

As it is now, teams play the other four teams in their own division 19 times per season (76 games), and they usually play the other teams in their league 6-7 times a season (~65 games). The rest (~20 games) is made up of interleague games (in which National League teams play American League teams).

The schedule is intentionally unbalanced. (It’s become even more unbalanced in recent years with the increased number of interleague games).

Why not just balance the schedule?

You may be correctly thinking that the best solution to the playoff structure problem is a more balanced schedule, but there are major problems with that, too. The biggest issue is travel. The M.L.B. travel schedule is brutal enough as it is. Adding more games against non-division teams (remember, divisions are set up according to geography) would make an already bad travel schedule even worse.

The solution:

The revolutionary idea that addresses all of the above problems:

In the regular season, all 30 teams should play the other 14 teams in their league (A.L. or N.L.) a total of ten times each year—five at home and five on the road. They should play five-game series’, instead of the traditional three- or four-game series’. This would equal 140 games played (14 teams x 10 games per team). Twenty of the remaining 22 games should come from interleague play. Each team should play a total of 20 interleague games per season, playing five teams four times—two at home and two on the road. The five teams that any given team would play per season would be based on the way divisions are currently structured, and they would rotate through all 15 teams every three years. For example, the San Francisco Giants would play all five A.L. East teams in 2016, twice on the road and twice at home. In 2017 the Giants would play all five A.L. Central teams, and in 2018 the Giants would play all five A.L. West teams. 

The interleague games should be scheduled to occur at a time when the road team is in the area for a five-game series against a nearby team in their own league. For example, if the Giants are in Washington, D.C. to play the Nationals for their five-game series, their next series could be two games against the Orioles in Baltimore (since Washington, D.C. and Baltimore are close geographically). Similarly, when the Orioles are in the Bay Area to play their annual five-game series against A’s, they could play their two games against the Giants, either before or after their series with Oakland.


There are two obvious issues with this proposal:

1) Because there are an odd number of teams in each league, there always has to be an interleague series, and the fact that I propose all intraleague series’ should be five games whereas all interleague series’ should be two games creates a problem with timing. I believe it could be worked around by having more off days. A way to create space for more off days would be shortening Spring Training—something virtually everyone in baseball, from players to managers to fans—thinks is a good idea.

2) There are two games left over (140 intraleague games + 20 interleague games = 160 games. There are 162 games in a baseball season). The solution to this would be having either two six-game intraleague series’ per season or two three-game interleague series’ per season. My preference would be two six-game intraleague series’ against your team's biggest rival.

Travel benefits:

One of the best aspects of this proposed change is less travel. If teams were always playing five-game series’, they would be traveling less frequently. Take the following example:

The Giants will have traveled by plane six times after playing their first 23 games of 2016. Now assume that their order of opponents were the same, but the Giants were playing five-game series’. This would be their schedule:

  • Fly to Milwaukee for five games (5 total)
  • Fly home to play the Dodgers for five games (10 total)
  • Fly to Colorado to face the Rockies for five games (15 total)
  • Fly to L.A. to play the Dodgers five games (20 total)
  • Fly to San Francisco to play five against he Diamondbacks and five against the Marlins (30 total).

That’s 30 games played and only five flights, compared to 23 games and six flights on the actual 2016 schedule. After 30 games played on the real 2016 schedule, the Giants will have made seven flights.

The above example is not even the best way to illustrate the point. Under my proposed change, the typical schedule would look something like this:
  • 10 home games
  • Travel
  • Five road games
  • Travel
  • Five road games
  • Travel home (for 10 games)
  • Repeat 

That comes out to three flights per 30 games. The way baseball travel schedules currently look is something like this:

  • Nine home games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  •  Travel
  • Seven home games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  • Travel
  • 10 home games
It takes six flights to get to 30 games. It appears that under the proposed change, teams would be cutting their travel frequency in half.

Other benefits:

Of course, another benefit would be fair playoff structure. A balanced schedule would mean the best teams make the playoffs and the worst playoff teams are forced to play in the one-game playoff. 

Five game series’ are perfect for baseball because the typical pitching rotation is made up of five pitchers. Every team would get to see every other team’s complete arsenal in each series, home and away. 

Players would be able to relax and enjoy road cities instead of packing up and leaving every three days. The M.L.B. travel schedule is notoriously one of the worst aspects of the sport.

In conclusion

I hope M.L.B. takes a serious look at addressing these issues. To date, I haven’t heard any solutions that would be as effective as the one proposed in this article. A balanced schedule is clearly the solution, and the only way to achieve a balanced schedule without making travel even worse is to have longer series’. 

Baseball is, in my opinion, the greatest sport on earth. However, it isn't without its flaws. The M.L.B. playoff structure and schedule are among its weakest points.

There are a number of exciting and substantial benefits that would come from implementing the ideas expressed in this proposal. There are few, if any, major issues.

Please read, share, and feel free to improve upon the ideas expressed in this proposal. Thank you.