Will competitive balance continue its downward spiral as the MLB increasingly embraces a playoff system?

Major League Baseball is significantly changing its playoff format for just the fourth time in 54 years. However, that happens frequently enough to elicit emotions ranging from skepticism to terror in a sport that prides itself on the sanctity of 162-game regular seasons.

Baseball’s postseason will be completely different come October, even from the last change, which occurred in 2012. With three wild-card teams from each league joining the three division champions, the gates will be pushed open wider than they have ever been.

After a ten-year run, the wild-card games have been replaced by best-of-three series, in which the higher seed hosts each game. The top two division champions in each league will also receive byes in the first round as a reward for their success during the regular season and will face the Division Series’ victor of the top two wild-card qualifiers.

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With seeds and byes and the realization of commissioner Rob Manfred’s ambition to marry a playoff system with the modern fan’s love of brackets, it is all quite unlike baseball as we know it. Prior to the expansion from 10 to 12 teams as a result of collective bargaining agreements with the players, Manfred and the owners actually desired 14-team fields.

Little wonder, really. While the game’s unwritten rules may change, players’ unwavering reverence for the grind and concern that a too-loose playoff system may compromise its meaning will never go away.

Mark Melancon, the closer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, has made the postseason with three different teams. “I’m always scared it becomes watered down and becomes like the other sports, where the playoffs is such a protracted struggle,” he says. When you truly, really have to work for something, I think it’s really unique. That makes the 162 all the more significant.

It’s worthwhile to pause as the baseball postseason develops and consider if the playoffs have served and will continue to serve their intended purpose.

Do the best baseball club win the World Series, to put it briefly? The best clubs or the hottest ones are rewarded by expanded playoffs?

Should we reconsider the apparent legacies of franchises we’ve labeled October failures after nearly three decades of the wild-card format?

MLB playoffs are poised to grow in size, but will they be better? NEW FORMAT

Kevin Kiermaier is getting close to the end after outlasting greater players in FOREVER A RAY.

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Holy cow, we did well.

When you won the pennant, you automatically advanced to the World Series.

Oh, there were no divisions, many fewer teams, and there was no West Coast travel for a very long time. However, the major leagues appeared ready to reward regular season machines and emerging dynasties in the post-World War II era, which saw integration and expansion broaden the game’s reach.

From 1947 to 1951, the club with the greatest regular season record also won the World Series four times, with the most recent Cleveland victory coming in 1948.

And from 1966 to 1968, this era was brought to a stop by the 97-win Orioles, 101-win Cardinals, and 103-win Tigers, who followed up their domination in the regular season with World Series victories.

The Commissioner’s Trophy then became far less certain as divisional play got underway.

There is less of a correlation between regular season excellence and a World Series ring now, even though no one is calling for the reintroduction of two, 10-team leagues (which would now be 15 apiece).

With only two teams competing from 1946 to 1968, the team with the greatest record won 12 of 23 games, or 52 percent of the time, which is somewhat better than a coin toss. This percentage dropped to 28 percent when divisional play was implemented in 1969 and the field doubled to four teams (7 of 25).

Surprisingly, the probabilities stayed essentially unchanged after the wild card was implemented in time for the 1995 postseason, since the regular season wins king won the World Series in just seven of the previous 27 postseasons, or 26% of the time. This includes the previous 10 seasons, which included two wild cards per league and a play-in game in nine of those years, as well as the expanded 16-team field for the 2020 season, which was plagued by the pandemic.

Great teams along the way failed to win a championship.

With 103 victories, the 1980 Yankees were tied with the ’98 and ’09 Yankees and had more games won than their champions from ’77, ’78, ’96, and ’99, but they fell to Kansas City in the ALCS. In 1997 and 2003, the Braves had 101-win teams that were defeated by Marlins teams that won the wild card and went on to win the championship.

With 116 victories in 2001, the Seattle Mariners tied a record, but they were unable to defeat the 95-win Yankee squad in the postseason. The 93-win Nationals entered the 2019 tournament thanks to the wild card, and they defeated the 106-win Dodgers in the NLDS and the 107-win Astros in a seven-game World Series.

Whoever has the best team wins. Depending on how you define it.

Daniel Hudson, now a Dodgers reliever, was a member of a six-man Nationals pitching staff that absorbed nearly all of the high-leverage positions in those playoffs. “If you look at 2019, our Nationals club, I don’t think, was better than the 2019 Dodgers team,” Hudson says. “However, that year, something went well for us. We were hitting exceptionally good at the proper times while our entire starting rotation was pitching great.

“I bet you a lot of people would argue that the 2019 Dodgers were superior to the 2019 Nationals if win-loss records and actual roster construction were taken into consideration. They can claim that the Astros of 2019 were superior to the Nationals of 2019. It’s just the beauty of the game, in my opinion. Regardless of record, we ended up being the best baseball club that year because we were doing well at the correct time.

The 38-year-old starting pitcher for the Braves, Charlie Morton, has experienced the postseason in the modern era from almost every angle, starting with three consecutive trips to the wild card round with the Pirates, winning Game 7 of the 2017 World Series with the Astros, and making it to the 2020 Series with Tampa Bay following the pandemic-shortened, expanded-playoff 2020 season.

After Morton fractured his foot midway through Game 1 of the World Series, his 88-win Braves found new life late in the season, stormed into the championship game, and, almost as astonishingly, won it.

Morton’s varied experience has only distorted how he views postseason justice.

He repeats a question he had asked a few minutes earlier, “Does the best team win the World Series?” “I’m not sure how to respond to that inquiry. It’s incredibly arbitrary.

“Most problems are resolved by the World Series. It all comes down to will as you watch two teams battle it out. far more than it does in April. We were able to work out a number of things because of what was going on in the (2021 NL East). It developed naturally.

We were lucky to be in a division where the competition was fierce. As the race heated up, we realized we were just as strong as we thought.

Since the 2014 Giants used a wild card berth to win their third championship in five years, Atlanta’s 88 wins were the fewest by a Series champion. The NL East title, though, felt more like a breakthrough than an accident as the Braves won it for the fourth year in a row.

The more inclusive style is hoped to prevent too many lightweights from crashing the gates, which would be detrimental to high-achieving teams.

whatever it takes, please

Aberrations can occur in any arrangement, that much is true. Only 83 games were won by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006, but they managed to surprise the Detroit Tigers by taking the World Series. They also finished first in the NL Central. The Oakland A’s only had 90 wins in 1974, but in October they defeated the Dodgers, who had 102 wins. The Reds, who had 90 wins, swept their 103-win squad in 1990 to win the championship despite being one of the best teams in franchise history.

And just last season, the Giants won 107 games but fell in five agonizing games to the Dodgers, who had 106 wins.

An 80-82 club would have made the playoffs as recently as 2017, which is always a negative look. Opening up the playoffs to 12 teams is a Pandora’s box.

However, the first season of this dirty dozen shootout should go as smoothly as possible.

Even though there are still roughly 100 games left, 2022 ought to deliver well-earned byes for dominant teams like the 50-18 Yankees. Five NL non-division leaders are now playing at or above.529 while four AL wild card contenders are already at or above.537. Parity might result in a playoff club that loses one year, but not this one.

However, there are still issues with unfairness, particularly for the third division champion who does not get a bye.

Justin Turner of the Dodgers, whose team does not have the luxury of beating up on NL Central also-rans Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, wonders: “If we win 100 games in our division and the Padres win 98 games and the Giants win 95 games, and the Cardinals or Brewers run away with the Central and win 101 or 102 games, are they really the better team to get the bye?”

“That’s the most difficult aspect about it. It goes without saying that the National League’s finest division is the West, and it will likely take all year to catch up to that. And if you take a look at certain other categories, the runway might be a little bit longer. I believe that winning your division should be rewarded, not depriving you of a bye week if you compete against superior teams the entire season.

Many of those worries will be allayed by 2023, when the imbalanced schedule will be eliminated, along with the quirk that every team will play every other team at least once. Even yet, teams will be contending for the same spots after playing different opponents, which will continue to be a problem in the absence of a strength-of-schedule factor like RPI.

No matter what, the playoffs will frequently be more cruel than kind, especially with more participants to thwart would-be dynasties’ best set schemes.

Circle of fire

You can get enough reading material for a nonstop travel to Europe if you Google “Atlanta Braves and Buffalo Bills.”

Both teams were dominant in the 1990s and gained a reputation for embarrassing playoff meltdowns, but those Braves did win a championship in the 1995 World Series. Nevertheless, despite winning 14 straight division championships, that Atlanta group came to be recognized almost as much for playoff failure as for regular season success.

In hindsight, perhaps the judgment is a little harsh.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in nearly three decades of baseball’s wild card era of playoffs, it’s that titles are elusive and October increasingly impetuous. After all, there’s now a modern team getting close to Atlanta’s division haul, with similar jewelry to show for it.

Turner’s Dodgers team won seven consecutive NL West titles and made the playoffs an eighth year as a wild card only because their 106 wins were one shy of the Giants’ 107. Their lone championship came in 2020’s shortened season, largely amid a playoff “bubble” in San Diego and suburban Dallas.

Are the Braves of Glavine-Maddux-Smoltz and the Kershaw Dodgers choking disappointments? Or does the latter’s existence – and championship frustration – justify the late October struggle of the former?

© Mark Lennihan, AP Braves players file out of the dugout after the Yankees won game 4 to sweep the World Series in 1999.

And does the “how many rings?” lens through which we now view sports ring hollower thanks to the randomness of baseball compared to, say, another odious LeBron vs. Michael debate?

“There’s a lot to be said for the Braves winning their division 14 years in a row,” says Turner, whose current Dodgers team boasts former MVPs in Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. “We did it seven years in a row and obviously won 106 games last year and didn’t win the division.

“You just can’t compare baseball to basketball. Basketball, you get these superteams, you recruit three players and those three players can dominate games. You can have three or five of the best players here, but still have to rely on the other 20 to do their part, or you’re not going to win a lot of games.”

Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud, like many baseball fans of a certain age, grew up on the ‘90s Braves, coming home from school in suburban Los Angeles to catch Atlanta games on TBS, watching more innings of Skip Caray than he did Vin Scully since bedtime would arrive by the time the Dodgers game ended.

He’s seen both ends of playoff cruelty, his 2015 Mets stunning perhaps the best Dodgers team of this vintage in the NLDS on their way to the World Series, while splitting NL pennants with the Dodgers the past two years.

He drilled two home runs in the 2021 World Series and suddenly, finds himself with as many rings as Chipper Jones or Tom Glavine – not that he’d besmirch their accomplishments.

“To win the division that many years in a row is crazy,” says d’Arnaud. “I’ve only been a part of two in a row here and it seems like a lot already. They did 14? It blows my mind.”

“You’d think they would’ve won more,” Melancon says of those Braves and these Dodgers. “But it’s really hard to do.”

It may only get harder. More opponents, more rounds, a stunning upset – there’s simply more outcomes on the table when more games are played. That’s about all we can take from history both modern and well-worn: The bigger the dance, the greater chance that hearts will be broken.

“I think that’s what makes our sport so great,” says Hudson, “and why we love it so much. How much randomness there actually is to our sport and how beautiful that is.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB’s expanded playoffs: Who gets in? Will randomness prevail? And does best team win the World Series?