If you want to make a prediction that’s sure to be right, here are two simple rules: DON’T forecast the results of MLB playoff series, no matter how good or bad the teams are. DO expect a certain subset of baseball fans with very large megaphones to be reflexively hostile to change.
Three of baseball’s four 100-win teams have been bounced from the playoffs in the first two rounds, two by the 89-win San Diego Padres and one by the 87-win Philadelphia Phillies. Before the two conquering underdogs could meet to begin their National League Championship Series, though, the menace known as anecdotal evidence forced the baseball world to pause and debate whether their invigorating victories were Actually Bad.
The confusion seems to stem from the confluence of two events: A new playoff format taking effect this season and the Los Angeles Dodgers – winners of 111 regular season games and the mightiest of the fallen favorites – losing before they even got to the NLCS. Those, as you’ll see, are unrelated events, but when two Twitter users with a combined 3.8 million followers rub them together they can start quite the fire.
In short, a lot of people suddenly summoned indignation over the idea that the World Series doesn’t necessarily crown the very best baseball team as champion. And it’s true, the World Series doesn’t crown the best team. MLB’s playoffs – especially since the introduction of the wild card in 1995 – aren’t designed to find the best baseball team. They’re designed to send a collection of the best baseball teams crashing into each other for dramatic effect.
That isn’t a product of the new playoff format, though. It’s a product of playoffs in general.
What the new MLB playoff format actually changed
Since there seems to be some confusion, here’s what actually changed about the MLB playoffs this season: Where each league had admitted two wild-card teams in addition to the three division winners, there are now three. Instead of a one-game, winner-take-all battle between the two wild cards, there is now a round known as the wild-card series. On each side of the bracket, three-game series pit the weakest division winner against the weakest wild-card team, and then the top two wild-card teams against each other.
The top two division winners in each league get a bye into the Division Series, which is where they would have begun their playoff runs under the old format, anyway. They had a longer layoff between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs than usual, but that would generally be considered an advantage and we don’t have enough information or enough of a pattern to say otherwise.
Let’s run down how the NL field would have looked if we retrofit this season’s results into the format that ruled from 2012 to 2021:
The Braves and Mets would have played a Game 163 to determine who won the division.
The loser of that game would have faced the Padres in a wild-card game for the right to face the Dodgers.
The winner of the NL East tiebreaker would have advanced to the best-of-five NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, who themselves would have reached that stage automatically instead of playing a best-of-three wild-card series.
The only thing that would have definitely altered the result? The Phillies wouldn’t have made the playoffs at all, and therefore wouldn’t have wiped out the Cardinals and the Braves.
What the numbers say about MLB playoff upsets
The consternation over the changes would lead you to believe that they introduced the chaos that toppled the titans. But that’s just not the case. The best teams lose in October all the time.
Since 1995, when a fourth team was added to each league’s playoff field, 40 teams have won 100 games. Of the 39 whose seasons have concluded (this season’s Astros are plugging right along, unfazed by the supposed favorite-killing new format), here’s how far they got:
Lost in World Series: 6
Lost in Championship Series: 8
Lost in Division Series: 19
Lost in wild-card round: 1 (Sorry, Mets fans)
Almost half of them have gone down in the ALDS or NLDS! Out of those, 17 lost to teams with worse records – the vanquishing upstarts came in with 8.47 fewer regular season wins, on average.
We can also expand the focus to look at teams with the best record in their leagues, since not every season features a 100-win team, and recently a lot of seasons have featured multiple 100-win teams who couldn’t all be the best . (If you want to raise an issue with the playoff setup, maybe pour one out for the relatively recent phenomenon of 100-win teams forced to play other 100-win teams in this early round. That includes the 2021 Giants-Dodgers series, as well as Yankees-Twins in 2019 and Yankees-Red Sox in 2018.)
Among the 57 teams since 1995 that finished the regular season atop the AL or NL heap (including teams that tied for the honor), it’s a similar story.
The Padres, winners of 89 games, are not even particularly notable as underdogs go. Last year’s Braves – remember them? – eliminated a 106-win Dodgers team en route to their World Series title after winning 88 games. The 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners famously lost to a 95-win Yankees team in the ALCS.
Remember, under the 2012-2021 format, the Padres could have easily won a wild-card game against the Mets and wound up in the exact same matchup against the Dodgers.
It’s decidedly not the extra teams creating problems for the favorites. The top teams fared better from 2012 to 2021 – when two wild-card teams had to play each other instead of the top wild-card team advancing directly to a Division Series. From 1995 to 2011, only 30.6% of the top regular season teams reached the World Series. From 2012 to 2021, 45% got there.
The best teams, if anything, are getting better. But there’s nothing anyone can do about the whims of a short series. The margins between a bad MLB teams, OK MLB teams and good MLB teams are small enough that we require, you know, 162 games to sort it out. Over three to five games? Between two good teams? There basically isn’t a margin.
Some on Twitter called for extending the Division Series to best-of-seven, a la the final two rounds of the playoffs, but it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. As NFL analyst Michael Lopez pointed out on Twitterto match the NBA’s rate of the better team advancing through a playoff round, baseball would need to play best-of-75 (!!!) series.
Actually doing that would be ridiculous. The answer, if the league’s entire object was to find and crown the best team, would be a Premier League-style system where the regular season is the whole kit and caboodle. But that’s not the league’s goal, and never has been.
As an entertainment product – competing with the NFL, the NBA and countless other options – MLB needs the pressurized tension and release that into what we saw in San Diego and Philadelphia this weekend. It needs to sell hope to a couple dozen fan bases, offering up the more realistic possibility of being better than the Dodgers for four days when outracing them for four months verges on impossible. It needs playoff baseball, a super-dense version of the game that conjures up extreme states of play – the lilting summer game sucked into a black hole and reconstituted as a cage match.
There are fair arguments to be had about how high the playoff threshold should be set to encourage maximum competitiveness, and about whether the sport should do more to recognize regular season excellence before dumping everyone onto a basically level playing field. There are PLENTY of arguments that wouldn’t happen at all if we could acknowledge what three losses really say about a 111-win team. But there’s no argument about this: The sport would be less entertaining and less popular without the playoffs.
Upsets, at this point, are just part of the tradition.