As the division series baseball world recovers from a week so wild that three 100-win teams were eliminated from the postseason, one question continues to burn: Is baseball’s new playoff format broken?
In this current playoff structure, which has only been in place since the 2022 season, the top two seeds get about six days off from the last day of the regular season to the first game of the Division Series. Meanwhile, seeds three through six get one day off before playing the Wild Card series, which nearly takes them to the start of the Division Series.
In theory, this would give an advantage to the top seeds, as the playoffs are designed to do. These teams don’t have to worry about playing a short three-game wild card series to decide their season, so players get a week of rest after a grueling 162-game regular season to line up their pitching staffs for the division series.
On the other hand, some argue this bye week is a disadvantage due to the nature of baseball, a sport heavily dependent on rhythm and momentum.
These teams play almost every day for six months during the regular season, so giving the best teams a week off can throw them out of their routine. In recent years, the San Francisco Giants, Saint Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals and the Atlanta Braves have all come out of nowhere to win the World Series based mostly off momentum from not having a bye week.
So, people who lean on practical factors like health, rest and the ability to skip a series would say that this off week is an advantage for the teams. But those who lean on things like rhythm and momentum would say this structure is unfair for the teams that were the best all year.
The results from the first two years of this playoff structure seem to support the latter. Despite these one and two seeds being favored to win these division series matchups with home field and resting advantages on their side, it hasn’t played out that way on the field.
One and two seeds are just 3-5 in the Division Series the past two years, suggesting an advantage for the wild card teams and a disadvantage to the best teams.
But I think it’s more complicated than that.
First of all, this is just two years of data and eight total series. In the grand scheme of things, this is a very small sample size, and we need to see more years of this playoff structure to assuredly say it’s deeply flawed.
These recent results could be more of a result of the teams themselves than the structure as a whole.
For example, let’s look at the three upsets this year: the 101-win Baltimore Orioles, 100-win Los Angeles Dodgers and 104-win Atlanta Braves.
In all three upsets, the team that came out on top had stronger starting pitching and was led by players who gave peak performances when it mattered most.
The 90-win Rangers dominated the Orioles in a three-game sweep where Baltimore only led for the first inning of the second game of the series. This shouldn’t have been that surprising, given that the Orioles are one of the youngest teams in baseball. With a shaky pitching staff and bullpen, the Orioles weren’t ready for the moment. On the other hand, the Rangers have a great starting pitching duo as well as a former World Series MVP leading them in.
The 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks were also able to dominate the Dodgers, mostly because of LA’s pitching troubles. They were missing two of their top starters, forcing them to rely on other starters. The Diamondbacks have a great pitching duo. Although they have no playoff experience, the Dodgers are a consistently playoff-underperforming team — outside of a lone World Series win in 2020.
The Braves, despite possessing arguably the best offense in the history of baseball, also fell victim to lackluster starter pitching in their defeat at the hands of the 90-win Philadelphia Phillies. They have a bonafide ace, but after that, they turned to two starters who both haven’t looked very strong since the All-Star break in July. Meanwhile, the Phillies have an elite pitching duo as well with Bryce Harper leading them, who has arguably been the best player in the postseason over the past two Octobers.
So, when digging into these “upsets,” they’re not much of upsets in a playoff environment.
In the two postseasons prior to the new structure being implemented (excluding 2020) one and two seeds were also 3-5 in the Division Series, even though there was no long break in place at the time. Even more fitting is that the Astros once again went 2-0 in the division series in that span, making non-Astros one and two seeds 1-5, just like in 2022 and 2023.
So, maybe the failure of the regular season juggernauts in the MLB over the past few years isn’t the bye weeks’ fault. Maybe these teams should be more like the Astros and not let the moment get to them.
And maybe, we as MLB fans should give this playoff format a few years before declaring it the downfall of October baseball.