Does The New MLB Playoff Format Work?

Baseball, MLB article at Knup Sports

Is the longer bye for the top two teams in each conference a good thing for Major League Baseball? Exploring this debate in the aftermath of the Orioles and Dodgers losses in the playoffs. 

Is the longer bye for the top two teams in each conference a good thing for Major League Baseball? Exploring this debate in the aftermath of the Orioles and Dodgers losses in the playoffs. 

Does the New MLB Playoff Format Work? 

No matter the league, it is no secret that the teams that are expected to do well in the postseason are the same ones who did well in the regular season. Using this framework, you would expect that this has been the case in the 2023 MLB postseason.

However, as of last night, the 101-win Baltimore Orioles and 100-win Los Angeles Dodgers were both eliminated in sweeps by wild card teams. In the wild card round, the 99 win Rays and 92 win Brewers were swept as well. The 104-win Braves, who have been considered by most people the best team in the league, are down 2-1 going into a key matchup against the Phillies tonight. Now, parody is very prevalent in baseball and could be the reason for why this is happening.

Teams like the Rangers and Diamondbacks are good. However, in the divisional round, fans of some teams have voiced the opinion that the long layover in between the end of the regular season and the division round could have left some players rusty. 

Hard to Predict Change

For the last two postseasons, a change to the format has been made, making it so that instead of two wild card teams playing one game in each conference, there are two three game “wild-card” series played between four teams. This means more teams in the wild card and more wild card games.

However, this means that these Wild Card series take longer, leaving the teams with byes with up to five days rest before their first games. The conversation of rust is important because baseball is a 162 game sport with most players playing almost every day, and their bodies getting used to being in rhythm. 

It was hard to predict that this would happen, but so far, in the two years of this new MLB playoff system, eight teams have had these first round byes and four of them have been eliminated in the division round. The Braves could be the fifth if they do not beat the Phillies, and two of the three teams that have advanced have both been the Astros.

The Astros are on a dynastic run and just made their seventh straight ALCS, so it’s very fair to call them an outlier. Meanwhile, the 2022 Dodgers won 111 games and flamed out to a Padres team with under 90 wins. They won 100 this year and lost to an 84-win Diamondbacks team. There is definitely a question about if rust was a factor, but the reality is it’s hard to know and we probably need more data. Teams flaming out in the playoffs is also not a new thing in MLB. 

Why It’s Probably Not the Issue

Despite it being a possible explanation, I ultimately don’t believe that extra rest can be a bad thing for MLB teams. This is because of the pitching side, where players definitely don’t play every day and in fact risk injury by pitching more than once every four days.

Teams that play wild card series frequently have to put up their best arms to win wild card series, while the divisional round teams that are already advanced can line up their best arms for a run. The issue for teams like the Dodgers and Orioles is that these arms simply didn’t perform.

Clayton Kershaw and Lance Lynn were horrible for the Dodgers, and the Orioles just had subpar starting pitching for a good team. We can’t blame rest for their pitchers underperforming because pitchers are supposed to need rest. Hitters can also keep themselves in shape with simulated practice or games. 

There is also the fact that randomness happens in baseball. Even in 2019 and 2021, before the new MLB playoff system, wild card teams upset great opponents. Nothing is ever guaranteed and that is what makes the sport good. We need a larger sample size than two years to really uncover if anything is being affected, but the reality is it shouldn’t be.

Teams need to adjust and prepare for the new format, and they will still try to get good records for a higher seed anyway. As is usually the answer in sports, teams need to stop complaining and play better.

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