Major League Baseball Playoffs – Is There a Better Way?

Being that it is October and the postseason of Major League Baseball is currently in progress, I thought that I’d devote a few moments of my time to share my thoughts with all of you about some alternative ways Major League Baseball could use, or has used, to promote a great postseason experience for everyone. I firmly believe there are a number of scenarios that could improve the game. I’m going to share three of those scenarios with you, and also, I’ll be sharing some pros and cons of each scenario. You may also learn some history and facts about Major League Baseball that you may not have already known previous to reading this post.

First, let’s discuss Major League Baseball’s current postseason format.

Right now, Major League Baseball operates under the new “Divisional Play Rules,” which, when restructured following the 1994 player strike, state that there are to be three divisions in each league, the East, West and Central Divisions. The team with the best win-loss record in each division after the regular season ends will compete in the playoffs, and one Wild Card team (the team in each league with the best win-loss record out of all the teams who did not win a Division Title) will compete in the playoffs. The current MLB playoffs consist of a Divisional Series (best-of-five games), a League Championship Series (best-of-seven games) and World Series (best-of-seven games). Typically, the #1 seed (Division Champion with the best regular season record) plays the #4 seed (Wild Card) and the #2 seed (Division Champion with the 2nd best record) plays the #3 seed (Division Champion with the 3rd best record) in the initial, Divisional Series. Four total Divisional Series take place, two in each league. The winners of each Divisional Series will compete with each other in their corresponding league’s Championship Series. Two total League Championship Series will take place, one in each league. The winner of each series is crowned as either National League Champions or as American League Champions, depending on the league in which they compete. Each will represent their respective league in the World Series. The winner of the World Series is crowned as the World Champion of Baseball.

Your probably also wondering how Major League Baseball determines which teams will host certain games of each series, and how many games each team will host. Home-field advantage is based strictly on regular season records, but this only holds true in the Divisional Series and the League Championship Series. The #1 seed in each league entering the playoffs has clinched home-field advantage for their entire league playoffs. If the #1 seed is eliminated following Divisional Series play, the team with the next best record who is not a Wild Card will hold home-field advantage for the League Championship Series. A Wild Card team can NEVER hold home-field advantage during league playoffs. Usually, teams in each Divisional Series follow a 2-2-1 format (the team with home-field advantage hosts the first two games and, if necessary, the final game of the series), but this can vary depending on the length of the series that the top seeded team chooses to play (the top seeded team of each series can decide on the length of over how many days the games of the series take place). For example, the top seed can choose to have the series played over a total of 5 games in 6 days or a total of 5 games in 8 days. This choice could ultimately change the format of the series, which is at Major League Baseball’s discretion. The League Championship Series ALWAYS follows a 2-3-2 format (team with home-field advantage hosts the first two games, and, if necessary, the final two games.) The length of over how many days the series is played and, also, which days the teams do not play is decided by Major League Baseball. Again, the team with the best regular season record who is not a Wild Card will hold home-field advantage for the LCS.

The topic of home-field advantage in the World Series has become one of the most hotly debated issues in the sports world. Previous to 2003, the two teams competing in the Fall Classic decided who held home-field advantage based on who had the best regular season record. This was soon dramatically changed. Following 2002, Major League Baseball, and Commissioner Bud Selig, ruled that the All-Star Game each July would determine which league would hold home-field advantage in the World Series each October. This was, in large part, due to the All-Star Game disaster that took place in July 2002. During that game, which was held at Miller Park in Milwaukee, both mangers approached Commissioner Selig during the 7th inning and informed him that they were both out of players. Selig ruled that the game would end, right then, in a tie. In my opinion, Commissioner Selig had no other choice. Had he kept the game going, players would have been at an increased risk for injury and pitchers would have been overthrown, affecting their respective team’s strategy in the weeks following the All-Star Game. This decision resulted in much criticism from the press, players, and fans. Baseball had to do something to prevent this occurrence from ever happening again. So, the Commissioner, owners, board members, and MLB Player’s Association (MLBPA) heads got together to figure out a solution. The result: the All-Star game would determine home-field advantage each season for the World Series. The game was actually going to mean something more than just plain old bragging rights, and, in addition, extra players would be added to the rosters of each league’s team. This final decision resulted in even more criticism than that of the decision to end the game in a tie. I do not personally believe that making the game count was the best move, but that’s a topic for a future post. The All-Star Game was meant, simply, to be an exciting experience and a terrific opportunity for fans and players. People believed that Major League Baseball’s decision to make the game count demeaned the actual intentions the league had when it began the playing of the Summer Classic in 1933. (The All-Star Game began as a fun addition to the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. It was the brainchild of The Chicago Tribune sports editor, Arch Ward. The game has grown into one of the most prolific events in professional sports. In the years following Major League Baseball’s acceptance of the infamous game, every single professional sport in America has followed with its own variation of an All-Star Game.)

Anyhow, the World Series ALWAYS follows the 2-3-2 format, and home-field advantage is decided based on the result of the All-Star Game. The league that wins the Summer Classic will give their league champion home-field advantage in the Fall Classic. The “Designated Hitter Rule” is in effect when playing at an American League park (the “DH rule” was initiated in 1973 by the American League as a solution to having a much lower attendance rate than their counterpart National League). The rule is another controversial one, and it is one that I absolutely despise. It contradicts the first rule in the book of baseball. Rule 1.1 (Official Major League Rulebook) states that “baseball is a game of two teams, each side consisting of a total of nine players.” When the “DH rule” is in effect, it is in direct violation of Rule 1.1. Again, the World Series is a best-of-seven game series. The first team to win four games is crowned as World Champion.

Now that you are familiar with the current Major League Baseball postseason setup, here are three other possible scenarios baseball could go with, or once had gone with:

Scenario #1, “The Purist’s Way”: Previous to 1969 (the season in which Divisional Play began), the team in each league with the best win-loss record after the regular season would meet in the only playoff series of the year, the World Series. There are no Divisional Series or League Championship Series played when using this format. This format was used from 1901 (the first season in which a World Series was held) to 1968 (the final season of non-Divisional play). Baseball purists are almost always advocates of this format, as it was the first format ever used to crown a champion between the two competing leagues. A TON of arguments can be used when debating whether or not this format was a useful one. First off, purists argue that having only one team make the playoffs from each league results in a much more exciting and competitive regular season. They argue that a Wild Card team has no place in the playoffs and that Wild Card teams are winning and competing in too many World Series because of the current postseason format. Purists also argue that this is the way Major League Baseball had intended when crowning a World Champion.

Because of the way in which money and economic status dominate the game in modern times, owners and investors of the game have a much more formidable argument as to why this format is no good: including more teams in the postseason will result in a greater amount of profits from ticket sales, advertisements, and other resources. With more teams participating in October baseball, there are more games being played. This directly results in much, much more money being made from ads in the stadium and through alternative viewing platforms (such as television, the internet, 3G devices, and Apple Inc.’s iPod), a greater number of tickets sold because there are more games being played, and much greater non-ticket profits from a variety of team merchandise, concession sales, and also via franchise bonuses from Major League Baseball. Also, with more teams in the postseason, more organizations are able to present their “product” (or team) to a wider variety of consumers. Instead of their game only being broadcasted regionally, team’s games are broadcast to the entire nation and to different parts of the world. This attracts newer fans in huge numbers, something every MLB organization is trying to accomplish in attempting to compete in the playoffs.

Purists cannot stand the argument of business and economics being brought into the conversation of the game. They believe that baseball was never about the money and, also, that baseball being promoted as such a big-time, big money-making business is demeaning to the game itself. In reality, professional baseball is all about making money. The game going professional was a business venture that investors used to reel in the big bucks, although most want to believe that the formation of Major League Baseball held other meanings. Once again, every professional sport, baseball included, is all about making money. That is why “The Purist’s Way” will never again be considered as a legitimate format for Major League Baseball playoffs.

Scenario #2, “The Pre-Divisional Series Format”: If more games being played can result in even higher profits, why not incorporate more games, more teams, and maybe a whole new series into the postseason? This type of scenario is one that is not usually discussed when debating alternative MLB playoff formats, however, I’m not sure why. After all, the three other major professional sports in America (NFL, NBA, and NHL) have all incorporated an extra playoff series (NBA and NHL) or an extra week of playoff games (NFL) into their league’s playoff formats. All three sports have done so in different variations, but based on the same profitable concept. All recognized that a significant amount of money could be made by expanding on their sport’s playoff format. This theory has worked out exceptionally well for each sport, and it has resulted, not only in the expansion of each respective sport, but, in a profit increase for each team competing, as well as a profit increase for each individual league. This scenario also gives more teams more opportunities to get involved in the postseason. The greater probability of making the playoffs excites most fans and tends to encourage more fans to frequently follow up on how their favorite team is doing. If a team has fans that believe their team has a chance, those fans are going to come to the games more often. They may also tune into alternative viewing platforms, which could result in higher profits via advertisements.

Purists argue that allowing more teams into the postseason, once again, results in a much less competitive regular season. They also argue that when you allow too many teams into the playoffs, there will be significant numbers of sub-par teams that do not belong. The purists that buy into the concept of baseball as a business say that fans will not turn out to as many regular season games, believing the season is less competitive and far less important when you allow more teams into the playoffs. Purists deny that this scenario would be effective when considering baseball, although most purists intensely reject change to the game itself. There are many examples that lead me to believe that this scenario might actually work and be good for baseball.

The National Basketball Association is a prime example of this scenario being put to good use. The NBA decided, just recently, to incorporate an extra playoff series into their postseason format. The league came together and came up with the idea to add Conference Quarterfinals to the postseason. This decision resulted in a total of four extra teams from around the league being able to compete in the NBA’s playoffs each and every year. The decision to expand on their playoff format has led to good results for the NBA and for the game of basketball. Not only is more money being made, but the league is attracting a significant amount of new basketball fans. Take China for example. There are now an estimated 300 million basketball fans there now. That’s the entire United States population! The growth of the booming NBA market can be linked to the idea of expanding the playoffs. Of all major basketball broadcasts in China, over 60 percent are related to the NBA postseason. Generating millions of new fans provides a much larger consumer base that the league and its teams can profit from and draw upon. When new markets are created, there are millions upon billions of dollars of profit that have just been created as well.

Let’s also not forget how exciting the new NBA playoffs have become. The NBA playoffs provide some of the most improbable, stunning and exciting games of the year in sports. I’d also like to point out that having longer playoffs may also weed out the teams that do not belong. An NBA team must win a total of 16 games over four best-of-seven playoff series. Winning that consistently is what separates the good teams from the great teams, and it may also result in the sub-par teams eventually being eliminated. In a long playoff format, teams must prove themselves. This is the answer to the purist’s belief that too many sub-par teams are let in via this scenario.

NBA playoff series, as well as NHL playoff series, all consist of best-of-seven game formats. This brings us to our next type of scenario.

Scenario #3, “The Seven Game Divisional Series”: For the last decade, ever since the institution of the Divisional Series, people have been arguing over the length of the five-game playoff. They want to know why the series is so short and why it’s not the same length as the other two MLB postseason series that are now in effect. The only answers to these questions that I can provide is that the series is so short due to Major League Baseball and the MLBPA being iffy when finalizing the decision to expand with a Divisional Series. At the time this decision was made, the process of purifying the game of baseball was at a high point and was, you could say, on Major League Baseball’s “to-do list.” You may not believe this fact because of the amount of change that took place following the 1994 player strike. But just take into consideration that the idea of keeping the game pure may have been on the minds of people who factored into making the final decision to change the playoff format. These people of Major League Baseball faced the daunting task of trying to devise a plan to increase profits as a direct result of the players demanding higher wages. This, while trying not to upset baseball fans by enforcing too much change. Before the players declared a strike, fans were horrified by the thought that baseball may never again be the same. Major League Baseball knew this. They had to find a way to keep everyone happy. They did not want to over-expand the postseason, so they increased the number of games that would be played in the League Championship Series and equaled the number of games played in the Divisional Series to that of the League Championship Series from 1969 to 1993. By doing such a thing, Major League Baseball felt they had found a way to sufficiently increase profits while not interfering too much with the pureness of the game. (I’m still unable to answer why the LCS was a short five games when that type of format was instituted in 1969. I can say that pre-World Series playoff series were a brand new concept to Major League Baseball at the time, and the pureness factor has to also be considered. Keeping the game pure had to be even more important to baseball then when compared to the 1994-95 format changes. The postseason had been virtually the same for nearly 68 years up to that point, except for the change in the length of the World Series from nine games to seven games in 1920. At the time when playoff format was changed and expanded for the first time ever, changes in season routines were unheard of, as well as unwanted. Baseball had to do whatever it could as to not affect the routine too much, just like in 1994-95.)

Now that the acceptance of the current MLB postseason format has taken full effect, why not match the idea of the other major professional sports by making the number of games played in each series an equal one? Most believe that five games are not currently enough to decide on a series victor. I, for one, believe that the five-game Divisional Series has resulted in way too many Wild Card teams winning the World Series or, for that matter, even competing in the World Series. Remember the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals? That team won a total of 83 games in the regular season. 83 games! What a pitiful win percentage for a playoff team (.512). They entered the postseason as the #4 seeded Wild Card team in the National League and they proceeded to become World Champions. If you look at their performance in the Divisional Series, you might think that if there had been an extra two games added to the series (meaning the organization would have had to win one more game), the Cardinals would not have advanced. This concept can be applied to several teams playing in the Divisional Series since 1995. Adding two extra games to the Divisional Series may quiet the baseball purists who are against the outrageous number of Wild Card teams getting into and winning the World Series. Also, adding two more games would, again, increase profits, although not by much as it is just two more games in a series.

The facts are that while the game of baseball itself and the way the game is played have so greatly evolved, the players, owners, league, and fans have all resisted other changes that have been imposed upon the game.

There are many who love the game because of its spontaneity, and then, there are many who love the game for its immortal legends. There are some who hate baseball for what it has become, and there are some who hate baseball for what it once was. There are purists and then there are modernists, statisticians and enthusiasts. There are owners and there are managers. There are players, critics, and fans. There is umpiring and there is official scoring. There are organizations, franchises, associations, and teams from cities big and small. The game has seen rage from a fierce competitor who once beat a man in the stands who had no hands, it has seen a nation fall in love with the right arm of a cool-headed pitcher who preached spirituality, a man who was so adored that his hometown now devotes an entire holiday in his honor. It has seen two best-friends from different walks of life put on a home-run display unlike any other, only for that summer to soon be forgotten because of the two men’s appearances in front of grand juries in order to explain their alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. The game saw a nation provide no appreciation for a man they all hated, a man who broke the most hallowed record in all of sports. The hate was all because they believed he used drugs to alter his performance.

Baseball is a game that saw a 1922 Supreme Court ruling be upheld, a ruling that stated the game was, somehow, not interstate commerce, thus, becoming the first business to be exempt from a group of laws that no business had, or has, ever beat. It also saw a group of eight men, “Black Sox” if you will, have to appear in court because they were believed to having accepted money to throw the 1919 World Series. The game has seen a player hit a home run to win a World Series just twice, both times a feat that lifted the respective cities to the top of the sporting world. It has seen a team win a World Championship an unprecedented 26 times, watched another team win its first World Championship in over 86 years, and it has witnessed one team suffer a miserable 100 years, and counting, without winning a single World Championship for themselves or for their beloved city. The game saw a team fall behind three games to none in a League Championship Series, only to come storming back and win the series in seven games, a feat never before accomplished. Baseball twice has seen a team finish with the worst record in the league one season, and then finish with the best record in the league the following season. Baseball has seen just three men hit over 700 home runs, one of which became the face of baseball forever as he captured the essence of an ever-changing sport. He was a man who helped a country forget about its greatest economic demise with only the crack of his bat.

The game of baseball has seen the good and the bad. However, it is a game that can never be matched. It is a game that has defined a country through thick and thin, and it is a game people turned to when they needed more than help. It is the only game in which its legends will be forever immortalized for what they did on the field, and often times, for what they did off of it. Perhaps the postseason format that baseball decides upon will never again change, and maybe it doesn’t even make a difference. Whatever happens, we will always know that the game’s history is written with every pitch, and, we hope that the game will be there for us when we face darker times; we hope it is there for us just as it has been for the last 150 years. We hope when we do have trouble in life there will be something we can turn to, and we hope that answer will be the game of baseball.

Baseball may just be a game, but it’s a game that has held a special place in the hearts of billions of people ever since its creation. Baseball is unlike anything else we know of. For that reason, the game’s significance will never be compared to anything else, ever.