Major League Baseball is Undermining Itself

As the sun-drenched days of summer bring with them the familiar crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd, Major League Baseball’s regular season continues to unfold across the country. The daily ritual of following the ebbs and flows of a team’s fortunes, the individual battles within the larger war, is what sets baseball apart as America’s National Pastime. Yet, in recent years, MLB has seemingly lost sight of the importance of this six-month journey, instead focusing on the final destination: the postseason.

The evolution of MLB’s postseason format has been a gradual but significant shift. From the early days of the World Series, pitting the champions of the American and National Leagues against each other, to the introduction of the League Championship Series in 1969 and then the Wild Card Game in 2012, the playoffs have expanded and changed over time. While the stated intention behind these changes may have been to increase excitement and competitiveness, the real purpose of the expansion has been profit, which comes as the consequence of the devaluation of its lengthy regular season.

In 2022, MLB announced its current expanded format — going from 10 teams to 12, meaning 40-percent of Major League Baseball makes the playoffs after a 162-game schedule. Now, two extra “Wild Card” teams enter the postseason, one from each league. The addition of a sixth team into the mix in each league gives one of those teams the potential to play and knock out the top two-seeded teams. Not only will they have that opportunity, but it will come in a shorter five-game series, and it will happen after the top seeds have almost a week off from baseball — the supposed “advantage” they get for finishing a 162-game season as the league’s two best teams.

Unlike sports such as football, ballplayers need constant competitive repetition to stay sharp and ready to play. When they are given too many days off, they become stale and unready to face Major League pitching at the most critical time of the year. As a result, in last season’s postseason, the long layoff affected three of the four top seeds. The Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers won a combined 41 more games than their playoff opponents did, and yet between all three of those top-seeded teams, only one, the Braves, won even one game in their Wild Card best-of-five playoff series.

This failure is certainly not indicative of the season these teams had, but MLB doesn’t seem to care. They’ve diminished the importance of the 162-game grind by enforcing a week-long layoff before the start of the series while the Wild Card teams continue to play. It’s proven to be a momentum killer for teams that have fought hard to secure the best record in their league and first place in their respective divisions.

The impact of the television-induced layoff cannot be overstated. The Braves, who had the best record in the National League, found themselves facing an uphill battle against division rival Philadelphia in the Division Series. A Phillies team that only had one day off after the regular season ended before their Wild Card series began — keeping them fresh — was then afforded three days off after the end of that series to re-structure their playoff pitching rotation. The Dodgers, despite finishing with the third-best record in baseball, did not have the benefit of playing in the Wild Card round to keep momentum into the Division Series as their opponent (Arizona) did. Similarly, the Orioles, who had defied expectations to win the American League East, were left to cool their heels before facing the eventual World Series Champion Texas Rangers in their Division Series.

Critics of the current playoff format argue that it is fundamentally unfair to the teams that have proven themselves throughout the regular season. The long layoff between the regular season’s end and the start of the Division Series is seen as a significant factor in the unpredictability of the playoffs. While some may argue that this unpredictability adds to the excitement of the postseason, it comes at the cost of undermining the value of a long, taxing regular season. In the end, one has to wonder what the point is of finishing in first-place when the postseason format not only fails to give a deserved advantage but actually penalizes them by giving them another obstacle to overcome.

To address these issues, several proposals have been put forward. One suggestion is to return to a more streamlined postseason format, allowing only the top four teams from each league to reach the playoffs. Another proposal is to create two divisions of eight teams in each league, ensuring that the best teams have a fair chance to compete in the postseason. These proposals, while not perfect, offer a glimmer of hope for a more fair and balanced playoff system, but MLB has yet to signal that they are even considering changes that will restore the integrity and value of the regular season.