Proposing a Major Change to M.L.B. Schedule, Playoff Structure

In the midst of recording a podcast about the problems with the current M.L.B. playoff structure and schedule, I stumbled upon what I think is a great solution to those issues. As I mention in the podcast, a lot of the credit goes to my mother, Susan Termohlen, who helped me think of the idea after we had just watched the Pittsburgh Pirates get eliminated from the playoffs after just one game, despite winning 98 games in the regular season, good for second best in all of baseball. The New York Mets (90 wins) and Los Angeles Dodgers (92 wins), meanwhile, were guaranteed best-of-five series’ because they won their respective divisions.

A brief summary of the current playoff structure:

There are 30 Major League Baseball teams: 15 in the National League and 15 in the American League. Within each league, there are three divisions (West, Central, and East), each consisting of five teams. So there are six divisions overall (three in each league).

Here’s the important part: if a team finishes in first place in its division, that team is guaranteed a spot in a best-of-five division series, no matter their record. Six of the 10 playoff teams earn their spot in the postseason by winning their division.

The other four teams are the two best non-first place teams in each league, regardless of division. They are known as “wild card teams,” and the two from each league must play one another in a one-game playoff for the right to play the top team in the league.

Here’s an example from CBS Sports of what the playoff structure looked like last season:

bracket

The Cubs and Pirates (far left) were the two National League wild card teams, and the Astros and Yankees (far right) were the two American League wild card teams. The Cubs and Pirates played a one-game playoff, the winner of which (the Cubs) went on to play a best of five series with the Cardinals. The Astros and Yankees also played a one-game playoff, the winner of which (the Astros) went on to play the Royals in a best of five division series. The remaining teams (the Mets and Dodgers in the National League and the Rangers and Blue Jays in the American League) also played a division series, and the winner of each division series moves on to the league championship series, and eventually the World Series.

The major flaw:

The problem with this format is that a division winner can have a worse record than one or both of the wild card teams, and the wild card teams are severely penalized by having to play one game to save their season.

To illustrate: last year the Pittsburgh Pirates won 98 games, the second most in all of M.L.B. They happened to play in the same division (the National League Central) as a team that won 100 games (the St. Louis Cardinals), so the Pirates technically “lost” the division. What’s more, the Chicago Cubs (also in the N.L. Central) finished the regular season with 97 wins, the third-best record in all of baseball. One division literally had the three best teams (by record) in all of the sport.

By the current rules, the Cardinals secured a spot in the division series by winning the division, and the Pirates and Cubs were the National League’s two Wild Card teams. They were forced to play a one-game playoff and one of them was guaranteed to go home after one playoff game despite having one of the top three records in the entire sport.

As it turned out, Pittsburgh—the team with the second best record in the game—was bounced from the postseason after just one game. Bear in mind that baseball’s regular season is 162 games—by the far the most of any major professional sport. Remember, too, that the Mets (90 wins) and the Dodgers (92 wins) secured a comfy spot in the best-of-five round because they finished in “first place” in weaker divisions.

Possible solution?

It might seem like the simple solution would be to have a seeding system in which the two worst playoff teams (by record) play each other in the Wild Card game, and the winner of that game (thus the No. 4 seed) would play the No. 1 seed, and the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds would play each other. This is the right solution, but it has its own major flaws because of the unbalanced M.L.B. schedule.

How the schedule is now:

As it is now, teams play the other four teams in their division 19 times per season (76 games), and they usually play the remaining teams in their league 6-7 times a season (~65 games). The rest (~20 games) is made up of interleague games (in which National League teams play American League teams).

The schedule is wildly unbalanced. It’s become even more unbalanced in recent years with the increased number of interleague games.

Why not just balance the schedule?

You may be correctly thinking that the best solution to the playoff structure problem is a more balanced schedule, but there are major problems with that, too. The biggest issue is travel. The M.L.B. travel schedule is brutal enough as it is. Adding more games against non-division teams (divisions are set up according to geography) would make an already bad travel schedule even worse.

The revolutionary idea that addresses all of the above problems:

In the regular season, all 30 teams should play the other 14 teams in their league (A.L. or N.L.) a total of ten times each year—five at home and five on the road. They should play five-game series, instead of the traditional three- or four-game series. This would equal 140 games played (14 teams x 10 games per team).

Twenty of the remaining 22 games should come from interleague play. Each team should play a total of 20 interleague games per season, playing five teams four times—two at home and two on the road. The five teams that any given team would play should be based on the way divisions are currently structured, and they would rotate every year so every team sees all 15 teams in their opposite league every three years.

For example, the San Francisco Giants would play all five A.L. East teams in 2016, twice on the road and twice at home. In 2017 the Giants would play all five A.L. Central teams, and in 2018 the Giants would play all five A.L. West teams. 

The interleague games should be scheduled to occur at a time when the road team is in the area for a five-game series against a nearby team in their own league. For example, if the Giants were in Washington, D.C. to play the Nationals for a five-game series, their next series should be two games against the Baltimore Orioles, since those two cities are close geographically.

Problems:

There are two obvious issues with this proposal:

1) Because there are an odd number of teams in each league, there always has to be an interleague series, and the fact that I propose all intraleague series should be five games whereas all interleague series should be two games creates a timing problem. To be frank, the math is complicated and I haven’t yet figured out exactly how the schedule would work. I believe, however, that any issues would be solved by some teams occasionally having a few days off in a row. A way to create space for these added off days would be to shorten Spring Training—something virtually everyone in baseball, from players to managers to fans—thinks is a good idea.

2) There are two games left over (140 intraleague games + 20 interleague games = 160 games. There are 162 games in a baseball season). The solution to this would be having either two six-game intraleague series per season or two three-game interleague series per season.

Travel benefit:

Five-game series mean less frequent travel. Take the following example:

The Giants will have traveled six times after their first 23 games of 2016. Assuming that their order of opponents is the same, but the Giants were playing five-game series, this would be their schedule:

  • Fly to Milwaukee for five games (5 total)
  • Fly home to play the Dodgers for five games (10 total)
  • Fly to Colorado to face the Rockies for five games (15 total)
  • Fly to L.A. to play the Dodgers five games (20 total)
  • Fly to San Francisco to play five against he Diamondbacks and five against the Marlins (30 total).

That’s 30 games played and only five flights, compared to 23 games and six flights on the real 2016 schedule.

The above example is not even the best way to illustrate the point. Under the proposed change, a typical schedule would look something like this:

  • 10 home games
  • Travel
  • Five road games
  • Travel
  • Five road games
  • Travel home (for 10 games)
  • Repeat

That comes out to three or four flights per 30 games. Baseball travel schedules currently look something like this:

  • Nine home games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  •  Travel
  • Seven home games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  • Travel
  • Three road games
  • Travel
  • 10 home games

It takes six flights to get to 30 games. No matter how you look at it, longer series would cut back on travel in a major way. Players would be able to relax and enjoy road cities instead of packing up and leaving every three days. The M.L.B. travel schedule is notoriously one of the sport’s worst and most challenging attributes.

Other benefits:

A balanced schedule would be much better than divisions at determining the best teams in each league. As it is now, a bad team can make the playoffs because they play in a weak division, and a great team can miss the postseason or have to put their season on the line in the wild card game because they play in a great division.

Five game series would also allow teams and fans to see other teams’ complete arsenal in each series, home and away. Five games is one time through the pitching rotation.

Fans would also get to see more of intriguing teams outside their division that they normally only get to see for three and maybe four games per season. They would also see less of those teams within their division, who come to town an annoyingly high number of times per year.

Conclusion

Baseball is a great and beautiful sport, and M.L.B. is one of the finest organizations the world has to offer. However, M.L.B.’s playoff structure, unbalanced schedule, and travel schedule are among its most objectionable attributes. To date, we haven’t heard of any solutions that would tackle these issues as effectively as the ideas in this proposal.

A balanced schedule with five-game series would make the playoffs much more fair, reduce frequency of travel, and create a better experience for fans and teams alike. There are no major drawbacks.

Thank you for reading and for your interest in improving our great game.

Please share this document and feel free to critique and/or expand upon any and all ideas.

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