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OTM Roundtable: The ideal playoff format

With expanded playoffs likely on the way, what would we prefer?

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Division Series - Atlanta Braves v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Two Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

There are a lot of pieces of the collective bargaining agreement that are being negotiated (well, theoretically anyway), with many of them having to do with the economic structure and which players get paid how much and when. That side is where most of the heavy negotiating (again, theoretically) comes into play and is the crux of why this process is taking so long. The sides are far apart, and it doesn’t help that one of the sides put the lockout into place with the stated goal of speeding up negotiations only to, well, not negotiate.

But anyway, I digress. Beyond the economic questions that need to be answered before the league gets going again, there are some more practical and on-the-field types of changes that need to be made as well. For example, it is basically a foregone conclusion that the universal DH will be part of the new agreement. Likewise, most are expecting to see some form of an expanded postseason come to fruition in these negotiations, though specifics are still up in the air. With that in mind, for this week’s roundtable I asked the staff what their ideal postseason format looks like.

Scott Neville

My answer is lame but I like the current playoff format. The two wild card teams add some spice, and 2021 proved that the current format can still lead to meaningful games for almost half of the league right up to the final week. I will say, the idea of adding another slot and allowing teams to publicly pick their opponent is awesome. That idea would create some drama that I think fans would really buy into. If we are going to change, throw in the least amount of teams possible where teams can pick opponents and create drama before the first pitch is thrown.

Brendan Campbell

My ideal playoff format looks like the one that is already in place. I had no problem with expanded playoffs after the pandemic-shortened regular season in 2020, but under normal circumstances, I’m all for the one we have now where each division winner and two wild card teams from each league make the cut.

If anything, I would be for making the wild card game into an actual series, which we saw in 2020. A best-of-three there would definitely be appealing, though I see the downside given the travel and quick turnarounds that would involve. Also, why not make the division series a best-of-seven like the two series that follow it? It’s only up to two additional games and would add a little more drama in the early going of the postseason.

Bayleigh Von Schneider

I’m in no way a fan of the playoffs being expanded. Heck, I’m not even a fan of the second wild card. I know, I know, it’s mostly about revenue and MLB is making hand over fist with the Wwild card Game, and I know how much energy was at Fenway for the 2021 Wild Card Game. It was fun, yes, but it was also stressful. My ideal playoff format is how it used to be prior to the 2012 season. From 1995 to 2011, there were six division winners and two wild card teams. Eight teams, one champion. I know we’ll never get that format back, but it’s what I want. It looks as if MLB is trending to allow more than the current ten teams, and if you ask me, that’ll allow more mediocrity into the playoffs. The 2020 Houston Astros were a sub .500 baseball team, and with the expanded playoffs they made it not only into the playoffs but took the ride all the way to Game Seven of the ALCS. Allowing sub .500 teams into the playoffs just muddies the idea of what constitutes a good and a mediocre baseball team. For me, I want to see the best teams playing in the playoffs.

Mike Carlucci

At the risk of bringing the baseball deities upon me my playoff scenario flips a few things around. While I would personally like to see the “play-in” game go away I’ll admit those can be exciting, if not as quite as much as Game 163s. In Playoffs Remastered there would still be five teams from each league. However, the seeding would not be division winners and then wild card. It would be the top three teams by record and then the bottom two teams would have the play-in to determine which team moves on to the Division Series. I’d also cut the off days out of the series. This serves two purposes: limits bullpen use and keeps the flow going.

The baseball season is long. And let’s face it, people are watching football. Playing every game keeps the action up and has the playoffs play like the regular season. Ideally I’d also make changes during the regular season to schedule a few double headers, end the season earlier, and aim for the play-in games to be held on October 1st every year. But that’s mostly outside the scope for today.

Bryan Joiner

I’m sick of the expanded playoffs. I consider myself a progressive baseball fan — not, like, politically, though I am that too — but one who doesn’t carp about the old days being better than the new ones just for the sake of doing it. BUT... I will do it now. The playoff setup is at the breaking point, and making it any larger will just encourage teams to do the bare minimum to make the show and hope to get lucky and win it all. The Braves are a perfect example of this, not to take too much away from them or anything, but any further diluting of the playoffs will just lower the bar teams are trying to get over, and the quality of the game will suffer.

So all that whining aside, my ideal playoff scenario is the pre-play-in game system, but with best of sevens all the way down. One wild card team, no play-in games or tears. Division races will return to prominence and teams that get bounced in round one will be out of excuses. I know it won’t happen, but what are you gonna do?

AL wildcard game Red Sox vs Yankees Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Phil Neuffer

I really enjoy the do-or-die adrenaline of the play-in games, so I’d like to see more of that. For extra play-in games, I’d want it to work like a mini-tournament (similar to the NBA), with four teams whittling down to one to take on the team with the best record in the league in the divisional series. That would mean there would be three division winners and four wild cards. Using this format, the play-in tournament for the American League alone would have included the Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays and Mariners last year. That would have been fun. I’d then cut the divisional round to best-of-five series and keep the Championship Series and World Series the same.

Stephen Thompson

My ideal playoff format is pretty similar to the one that currently exists. I think division games should matter — and matter a lot since those are the opponents that a team plays most every year — and I think that a five-game opening round series is a good way to balance the need for longer series in baseball without over-exerting the players at the end of an already arduous regular season. In the format that the MLB proposed at the end of last year, they outlined a first round consisting of three-game series, which gives an advantage to top-heavy teams and doesn’t provide a sufficient test of depth. Three-game series are intended to make more room for an increased number of teams, which I also think is unnecessary.

My one issue with the current format is the one-game wild card playoff. The season is long enough already and provides ample opportunity for teams to hash it out on the diamond. To that end, the wild card game punishes a team that played better during the regular season and gives the advantage to whoever has a better number one starter.

Avery Hamel

My personal ideal playoff format would be relatively similar to what the league employs now. I enjoy the number of teams that make the postseason, as I feel it is restrictive enough to ensure good competition, and I don’t think expanded playoffs should be added any time soon. There are two things that I would change about the current format, though, to create an ideal scenario. Although the adrenaline produced by a winner-take-all wild card Game is palpable and entertaining, I do believe the competition should be expanded to a three-game format. This upholds the intensity of the series, but I think it would be more entertaining, and fair, if the series was extended longer. The second change I would make is related to the Divisional Series round. I believe this round should be expanded to the standard seven-game format of which the other rounds consist. This would just give a more clean format to the playoffs since the five-game Divisional Round never really made sense to me in the first place.

Shelly Verougstraete

I’d like to expand the playoffs a bit more. I wouldn’t like to see more teams added but I would love to get rid of the one-and-done wild-card game. Sure, it is super tense and exciting but baseball isn’t a one-and-done type of sport.

Brady Childs

The best playoff format would be one we had from 1995 through 2011 with a best of seven division series and the exception that prevented divisional opponents from facing in the divisional round stripped from the books. Four teams captures the perfect balance for competitive harmony. You either need to win your division or win something around 90 games. No bad teams will be allowed in my playoffs unless you’re a historic fluke like the 2006 Cardinals. What people don’t understand about bad teams in the playoffs is that a bad divisional winner is charming. A bad fourth wild card team isn’t. One is a flash in the pan, a stroke of randomness that might not be seen again for twenty years. The other is rewarding mediocrity on purpose so the league can juice more money out of TBS. No coin-flip games, either. It’s criminal that these teams will play 162 games, can finish 16 games ahead of their competitors like the Dodgers did this year and have to fight further for their right to play in the tournament. The competitive integrity of the game should come before trying to pop a television rating. It saddens me that we’ll never have this perfect playoff format.

Jake Devereaux

My ideal playoff format looks exactly like it does now. Baseball is unlike any other sport, 162 games are played over the course of the year. This gauntlet tests teams for their overall roster construction and depth. To change that by allowing too many teams would change the DNA of baseball. Reward division winners by allowing them to wait for their opponents. Winning the division matters and should always matter. I do also enjoy that the one game wildcard play-in game is actually harsher on the Wildcard teams. Win or go home is a tremendously fun format that creates lasting memories. Adding more teams will only serve to disincentivize the creation of great baseball teams with deep rosters in favor of simply getting into the tournament.

Bob Osgood

I can’t help but think of other sports when the expanded playoffs topic comes up. Most recently, in the NFL 12 teams were expanded to 14 and all that did was create two additional playoff games with teams who were run off the field by halftime. Prior to that, the NBA’s opening-round series was expanded from an exciting five-game series to seven games, which just meant that the seventh and eighth seeds in each conference lost in a four-game sweep instead of three. An expanded playoff in baseball will diminish the regular season, the longest regular season in American professional sports by far which helps weed out the non-playoff teams. While a team, like the Dodgers in 2021, might have a gripe about playing in the one-game playoff while winning 106 games, they can’t say that they got hosed by missing a playoff spot when playing 162 games. It also puts more strain on the arms of pitchers throwing additional high-stress innings late in the season.

In an ideal world, if more playoff games are added, then the regular season would go back to 154 games like the pre-1960s but we all know that won’t happen for revenue purposes. The only reason the MLB increased the schedule in the first place was for “math reasons” when additional teams were added because apparently, the fairness of facing a team 17 times instead of 18 would’ve shifted the competitive balance on an annual basis. I would like to see the teams kept at ten teams, and if additional games need to be added then make the wild card game a three-game series and/or make the World Series a best-of-nine as they did from 1919 to 1921. Start the season during the last few days of March, as is done often times anyways, but play the first ten days of the season in warm weather ballparks and domes. I’d be happy to make the schedule, MLB.

Matt Collins

Count me in favor of the current playoff format, keeping the one-game playoff in but changing it so it’s seeded just by record rather than division to avoid things like what happened with the NL West last year. They would have to do something about the unbalanced schedules in that case, but that’s certainly not a bad thing either. I know people don’t like the one-game playoff, and really my only response to the criticism that it’s unfair is: Okay. I don’t disagree, but it’s fun as hell. I like things that are fun as hell.