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Stop whining about the MLB playoff format

It’s a different era of baseball, so stop whining and get on board.

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Division Series - Philadelphia Phillies v Atlanta Braves - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Bobby Thomson ain’t walking through those clubhouse doors.

The national media is very upset, guys. You see, things aren’t going according to plan. The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, the two National League teams that compiled the most victories during MLB’s grueling 162-game schedule (104 for Atlanta, 100 for L.A.), are in serious trouble after losing their respective Game 1s of the National League Division Series to the Phillies and Diamondbacks and, as a result, folks from many corners of the baseball community are using loud noises to call for CHANGES TO BE MADE!

Atlanta was shutout at home for the first time since August of 2021. Clayton Kershaw was blasted for six runs and didn’t make it out of the first inning of his game. Both teams are now faced with the prospect of a virtual must-win Game 2, and then taking at least one game in the hostile environments of Philadelphia and Arizona in order to get to a Game 5 in their home stadium.

This is not how it was supposed to be, you see. By racking up wins in the triple digits, these two teams were supposed to play each other for the National League championship, just like the old days. The fact that it’s not happening automatically is apparently unacceptable.

The days of playing a then-154 game schedule to “win the pennant” when there were just two leagues and two playoff teams, are long over. Even in the divisional era, when four teams made the postseason, regular season baseball was as important to determining a champion as it ever was. The ‘93 Phillies were among the final four beneficiaries of that scenario.

The wild card era has changed everything.

The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal is just the latest of many who are circulating ideas for format changes to the current system, noting the five-day layoff the top two seeds must endure between the end of the regular season and the start of the divisional round may be giving the wild card series winners a distinct advantage.

The five-day layoff between the end of the regular season and start of the Division Series is not the reason the Baltimore Orioles trail the Texas Rangers, two games to none. It is not the reason the Los Angeles Dodgers dropped Game 1 of their series to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Clayton Kershaw Saturday night. It might not be the reason any of the top seeds lose, if they even lose, in this round.

Still, a second straight elimination for the Atlanta Braves, in particular, would generate discussion about the fairness of the current postseason format, which began last season. There are no easy answers. There have been no easy answers since 1969, the start of the divisional era. From that moment on, the teams with the best regular-season records in each league no longer were assured of playing in the World Series.

Major League Baseball thought it accounted for everything with its new system — first-round byes for the two top division winners in each league, home games for only the higher-seeded teams in the wild-card round. But the addition of the best-of-three wild-card series created a five-day layoff for the teams with byes. A layoff of that length might — repeat, might — be too much.

I will concede that a five-day layoff is a lot, but it’s also true the Brewers and Rays probably wouldn’t have minded skipping the wild card round. It should also be noted that clinching a division with two weeks to go in the regular season, like Atlanta and Los Angeles did, likely played as large a role in their Game 1 stumbles as the five-day layoff would have.

Of course, Rosenthal also notes that Atlanta and L.A. are dealing with major question marks in their pitching staffs, and the layoff argument doesn’t take into account the Phillies’ relievers perhaps having a match-up advantage with their high velocity offerings vs. the Braves’ sluggers.

In short, there are any number of reasons why the Braves and Dodgers could lose their opening round series. Analysts were amazed L.A. was able to win 100 games with essentially two healthy and effective starting pitchers, and it’s fair to wonder if Atlanta’s historic offensive pace would continue in the meat grinder of a postseason series.

People don’t seem to understand that, here in the wild card era, the regular season is no longer a coronation and automatic trip to the NLCS/ALCS or World Series. Those days ended in 1994 when the league decided to add the wild card element to Major League Baseball, and became even more so last year with the addition of a third wild card in each league. Baseball was designed to more closely resemble the NBA or NHL playoffs as opposed to when the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers seemingly played in every World Series for two decades.

The Phillies seem to have grasped the concept that the 162-game regular season is simply a vehicle that can take you to MLB’s second season — October. It’s not really a continuation of the season, it is the start of something totally brand new. Teams no longer need to fret when they start 25-32 and fall 10 games behind the division leaders by the All-Star break. Their seasons are not over. Those wild cards allow teams like the Phils to find themselves and right the ship in time for the postseason tournament, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t look at these two teams entering their NLDS and see they were much closer in terms of talent than the 14-game gap in the standings would otherwise indicate.

Jason Foster’s Substack article on this today sums up the Atlanta side of things pretty well.

Despite the other two theories, I can’t help but think that MLB players would be able to adjust pretty quickly to new situations and new routines, even in the postseason. I’m not saying the extended time off will have zero effect on those teams, but the effect is probably overblown.

And while I’m not arguing that it’s possible to just flip the switch, I think the idea that teams can’t get back to their normal intensity doesn’t make much sense when you’ve got deafening crowds and the general energy of a postseason game. Maybe the hangover lasts an inning, maybe two. But not for a whole game and not for a whole series.

So it comes down to just playing better. Even if other factors are in play — losing the mental edge, getting out of routine or anything else — the teams still just have to play well enough to win, especially if their opponent is coming in hot.

Should the regular season mean more? You can argue that it should, and if there are sensible ways to do that, I’m not opposed. Rosenthal suggests re-seeding after the first round, meaning Arizona would have been in Atlanta and the Phils would have traveled to Los Angeles. If that’s the way they want to go next year, that’s fine. Not a big change. The Ringer’s Bill Simmons once suggested the higher seed get to choose who their opponent would be, which would be kind of fun.

Rosenthal notes John Smoltz suggested eliminating the off-day between Game 3 of the wild card series and the start of the divisional round, but that would only reduce the layoff from five days to four. If that is the issue (and I do think the layoff is a factor here), would it really do all that much to fix the problem?

And no, the higher seeds in the divisional round should NOT automatically start with a 1-0 lead in the series, like they do in Korea, and no, they should NOT get to play all their games at home. They also should NOT bring back the one-game playoff, though exciting, is exceedingly unfair to everyone involved. I also don’t think expanding the league to 32 teams and making four divisions in each league is a “fix,” although I do believe the league will inevitably expand at some point.

At the end of the day, Ken’s own final paragraphs summed up what I’m saying and seems to betray the idea that there is a “fix.”

The teams in the playoffs are closer in quality. The possibilities of upsets are even greater. No matter how baseball slices it, the postseason always will be a crapshoot. No format following a six-month regular season ever will be truly fair.

On that point, we can agree.