Over time, I’ve written several pieces about the change to baseball’s playoff system. Overall, I’d say my position on it has shifted from “Get rid of the second wild card” to “if we’re going to have a fifth team, at least do it better than we are now”. I would hope that prospective improvement is something that we can all agree is a good goal, right? So what would prospective improvement for the current system be?
Well, I think there are a number of things that could be fixed, but the one I want to focus on today is seeding. You may or may not have heard, but the three best records in the majors this year all belong to teams in the NL Central. Despite this, the Pirates and Cubs will need to play one game to determine which one of them “really” deserves a post-season spot, at which point the winner will face the Cardinals. So we are guaranteed to see only one of the best records in the majors making the Championship Series round.
That’s a little absurd. Why can’t baseball switch to seeding solely based on record, like the NBA recently decided to do? I see people arguing against it all the time, but the arguments just don’t make sense to me. The Pirates won 98 games; the Cubs won 97. You mean to tell me that, because they were assigned to the Central division back in 1994, that the 92-win Dodgers and 90-win Mets deserve those automatic bids to the ALDS more? Sure, sure, you can scream “DOESN’T MATTER, JUST WIN YOUR DIVISON” all you want, that still doesn’t explain why teams that did less to win their division (in just about every conceivable way) than the Pirates and the Cubs should see benefits. It’s not even like the Mets and Dodgers were noticeably better at beating the Cardinals; they went 3-4 and 2-5 versus St. Louis respectively, while the Cubs went 8-11 and the Pirates went 9-10.
Some might point out that it’s rare for the three best teams in the majors to all come from one division, and that is true. However, what’s not uncommon at all is for a wild card winner to have a better record than a division winner; since the first full season with the new format in 1995, there have been thirteen seasons in the AL and fourteen seasons in the NL where the top Wild Card has had a better record than at least one division winner.