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Thoughts on and ideas for MLB playoff expansion

The rumored proposal

In the comments for February 10th's Moose Tracks, Arthur Jensen shared the following tweet:

The full article is worth a read, but here's the tl;dr:

  • Expansion from 5 teams (per league) to 7.
  • The 1 seed would get a bye for the first round.
  • The 2, 3, and 4 seeds would host the 5, 6, and 7 seeds in best-of-3 series, with all games held at the higher-seeded team's stadium (the 2 and 3 seeds would be the division winners).
  • The winners from that first round would then join the 1 seed in the next round, which presumably would be much the same as the existing Division Series, which would then lead to the Championship Series, and then finally the World Series.
  • There is also something about teams getting to pick their opponents for the first round, which I'm not personally too keen on, but which isn't the point of this post.

Comparing paths to the World Series to how the are today: (to simplify things, I am assuming teams always pick the weakest team by seeding wherever choice is allowed in the proposed format)

Current Format Proposed Format
Opponents Faced Home Games Wins Needed Max Games Opponents Faced Home Games Wins Needed Max Games
1-seed 2 4-7 7 12 2 4-7 7 12
2-seed 2 4-7 7 12 3 7-10 9 15
3-seed 2 3-6 7 12 3 6-10 9 15
4-seed 3 4-6 8 13 3 6-10 9 15
5-seed 3 3-5 8 13 3 3-7 9 15
6-seed N/A N/A N/A N/A 3 3-6 9 15
7-seed N/A N/A N/A N/A 3 3-5 9 15

Breaking down the above table:

  • The 1-seed would have a slight advantage compared to now, because its opponent will have played at least one more game, if not two, prior to the Divisional Series.
  • The 2-seed and 3-seeds have it much worse than now, since they can be eliminated before the Divisional Series even starts. They'll have at least two, if not three more games played by the time they reach the Championship Series, giving them a bigger disadvantage compared to now if they end up playing the 1-seed in that Series.
  • The 4-seed and 5-seeds get some extra leeway: they can afford to lose one more game than now. But at the same time, they also need to play at least one more game.
  • The 6-seed and 7-seed get to make it to the playoffs. Anything would be better than the status quo for them.

While I'm in favor of playoff expansion, I'd rather it happen in a way that maintains or raises the importance of the the regular season. With this new plan, the difference between the 2-, 3-, and 4-seeds; and 5-, 6-, and 7-seeds is greatly reduced. We end up with three tiers. Coming into the final weeks of the season, if it seems impossible to move up or down a tier, then it might not be worth it to go all out to finish 2nd rather than 3rd. A team might instead elect to play it safe to maximize player readiness for the playoffs.

Playoffs in Nippon Professional Baseball

Living in Japan and following the NPB, expanding and updating the format of the MLB playoffs is something that has been on my mind for the past couple of years. Here is how the playoffs work over here in a nutshell:

  • Each league has six teams (no divisions)
  • The 1-seed gets a bye for the first round
  • The 2-seed hosts the 3-seed for a best-of-3, with all games played at the 2-seed's stadium
  • The 1-seed then hosts the winner of that series for a best-of-7, which it begins with a 1-0 lead (i.e., Game 1 isn't played), and all games are likewise played at the 1-seed's stadium.

Whether intentionally or coincidentally, MLB is proposing a couple of things already present in NPB: lower seeds not having any home games (to start anyways), and the top-seed getting a bye. Inspiring myself directly from NPB's system, here are a couple of different playoff proposals I've come up with. Both expand the playoffs to 7 teams, and both attempt to make each individual seed markedly better than the next one below. I'm also trying to balance maximizing the importance of byes and minimizing the risk of a team "going cold" by not playing for too long while waiting for the lower seeds to finish their games.

Division-less Format

First round: one-game playoff series

In short: four one-game playoffs in three days. How would that work? Day 1 would be a double-header, held at the 5-seed's stadium. The day game would be the 7-seed "at" the 6-seed, and the winner of that would then take on the 5-seed that night. Now, you might be wondering what the point of playing a playoff game in neither team's stadium might be. Consider that, as it stands right now, neither team makes the playoffs. As I said above, for them and their fans, anything is better than the status quo. The 6-seed only has a marginal advantage in that it gets to bat last in this first game. The 5-seed's advantage will be twofold: playing at home, and rested, against a tired opponent.

Day 2 and 3 would be more traditional: the winner of the previous night's game would fly to play, first at the 4-seed on Day 2, and then at the 3-seed on Day 3. The advantage is similar with each rank up: one less game to play, one less flight to take, and home advantage for the one-game playoff.

Second round: the winner of the first round plays a best-of-3 at the 2-seed

Similar to the first round of NPB's playoffs and MLB's proposed playoffs, this series would be held entirely at the 2-seed. No travel in between games, and a noticeable advantage for the 2-seed.

Third round: the final boss

Unlike what NPB currently does, I think that any team that makes it this far should get to host at least a playoff game or two. One thing to keep in mind is that is is much easier to travel within Japan than it is within the US. Going to Hiroshima from Tokyo to see your team play three games over the weekend is much easier than going from New York to Houston. I'm debating whether to use the NPB-style 1-0 starting advantage or not. If so, home field-advantage would be split 2/2/2 for the six games. If not, rather than the 2-2-1-1-1 or 2-3-2 common in North American sports, I would suggest 3-2-2. In either case, the advantage of finishing 1st rather than 2nd is obvious.

Comparing to both formats from above (figures are using a full 7 games for the third round):

Division-less Proposed Format Current Format MLB Proposed Format
Opponents Faced Home Games Wins Needed Max Games Opponents Faced Home Games Wins Needed Max Games Opponents Faced Home Games Wins Needed Max Games
1-seed 1 3-4 4 7 2 4-7 7 12 2 4-7 7 12
2-seed 2 3-6 6 10 2 4-7 7 12 3 7-10 9 15
3-seed 3 2-4 7 11 2 3-6 7 12 3 6-10 9 15
4-seed 4 2-4 8 12 3 4-6 8 13 3 6-10 9 15
5-seed 5 2-4 9 13 3 3-5 8 13 3 3-7 9 15
6-seed 6 1-3 * 10 14 N/A N/A N/A N/A 3 3-6 9 15
7-seed 6 1-3 10 14 N/A N/A N/A N/A 3 3-5 9 15

One advantage of this model, compared to the MLB proposed format, is that it doesn't increase the number of games any of the top 5 seeds need to play to reach the World Series. Needing to move away from divisions is a big disadvantage however. Having no divisions makes sense in small (both in terms of team count and geographic spread) leagues like Japan's Central and Pacific Leagues, but less so in the American and National Leagues. No divisions also means no Division Series, which means less total games for MLB to market to fans and TV networks. With no skipped Game 1 in the third round, this format would have a minimum of 10 games played (per league), just below the current minimum of 11. But it would max out at 14, compared to the current figure of 18. This brings us to my second proposal:

Proposal II (with divisions)

First round: one-game playoff series

This would be the same as in my first proposal, but without the final game on Day 3 held at the 3-seed.

Second round: divisional series

First, I would like to introduce a change to how the divisional winners are seeded. Rather than by overall record, the three teams would be seeded according to their records in games against the other two division winners. A team in a weaker division wouldn't get seeded higher just because they padded their wins total against a 100-loss team.

The divisional round would be, similarly to today, a pair of best-of-5 series. However, both series would be held at the top-seed's stadium. Addtionally, the 1-seed would get to start their series with a 1-0 lead. Thus the advantage for being 1st rather than 2nd, and 2nd rather than 3rd, is quite consequential.

Third round: championship series

This would be a best-of-7 series similar to today, but sequenced 3-2-2 rather than 2-3-2. I thought of once again giving the 1-seed a 1-0 series advantage, but there is no longer a guarantee that the 1-seed makes it to this round.

With that, the final table:

Proposal II Current Format MLB Proposed Format Division-less Proposed Format
Opponents Faced Home Games Wins Needed Max Games Opponents Faced Home Games Wins Needed Max Games Opponents Faced Home Games Wins Needed Max Games Opponents Faced Home Games Wins Needed Max Games
1-seed 2 5-8 6 11 2 4-7 7 12 2 4-7 7 12 1 3-4 4 7
2-seed 2 6-9 7 12 2 4-7 7 12 3 7-10 9 15 2 3-6 6 10
3-seed 2 1-3 7 12 2 3-6 7 12 3 6-10 9 15 3 2-4 7 11
4-seed 3 2-4 8 12 3 4-6 8 13 3 6-10 9 15 4 2-4 8 12
5-seed 4 2-4 9 13 3 3-5 8 13 3 3-7 9 15 5 2-4 9 13
6-seed 5 2-4 * 10 14 N/A N/A N/A N/A 3 3-6 9 15 6 1-3 * 10 14
7-seed 5 1-3 10 14 N/A N/A N/A N/A 3 3-5 9 15 6 1-3 10 14

This format would maintain the large advantage between individual seeds without needing to do away with divisions, and therefore, without needing to lose any games. There would be between 12 and 19 games played per league, one more than with the current format.

Thanks for reading through this giant wall of text! I'm very curious as to what you all think of these crazy ideas. (Less crazy than "pick your opponent"...)