Column: MLB’s playoff format is penalizing top seeds with all that time off
The Baltimore Orioles won an AL-leading 101 games during the regular season. The Los Angeles Dodgers also reached triple digits in victories.
Those impressive accomplishments earned both teams a bye in the opening round of the playoffs.
Clearly, the time off did them no good.
Tossing in the 104-win Atlanta Braves and the defending World Series champion Houston Astros, baseball’s four top seeds went a combined 2-6 on their home fields to start the best-of-five division round.
Which begs the question: Is it time to say goodbye to the bye?
The Orioles lost their first two games at home to the Texas Rangers, who finished off the sweep with a 7-1 win at home Tuesday night. The Dodgers were on the verge of elimination after dropping two straight to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Astros split their first two games in Houston with the Twins before pulling ahead in the series with a 9-1 rout at Minnesota. The power-hitting Braves needed an improbable comeback to even their series with the Phillies after going scoreless over the first 14 innings at Truist Park.
“We came out slow. We had a good amount of off days,” Braves center fielder Michael Harris II said. “I guess it took some time to get the rust off.”
MLB’s relatively new playoff format — comprised of six division winners and six wild-card teams, with the top two teams in each league advancing straight to the second round while the others play best-of-three series — actually seems to penalize the best clubs by giving them five days off.
Yes, it’s a chance for stars like Mookie Betts and Ronald Acuña Jr. to recover after a long season. And nobody complains about lining up their ace for Game 1 on full rest.
But remember, this is a sport that leans heavily on a monotonous schedule centered around games that are played almost every day for six months straight. The bye is a jarring change to the order of things.
“The format is a unusual where you win a division and have this much time off,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “I don’t know if it’s a disadvantage, but it puts you in a different routine than you are during regular season and what you’re used to.”
A season ago — the first with the current format — top AL seeds Houston and the New York Yankees both won their division series after the bye. But in the senior circuit, Atlanta and the Dodgers were upset by division rivals that finished a cumulative 36 games behind them during the regular season.
This season, Los Angeles blew away the Diamondbacks by 16 games in the NL West standings.
That meant nothing in the first two games of the division series at Dodger Stadium. Riding the momentum from its wild-card victory at Milwaukee, Arizona rolled to an 11-2 win over well-rested Clayton Kershaw and listless LA in the opener, and held on for a 4-2 triumph in Game 2 to take a commanding lead back to Phoenix.
“I don’t think that five days is ideal, but that’s the playoff structure,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “The world’s not perfect. A couple-day break would have been nice. But five’s a little …”
He didn’t finish the thought, but it was clear what Roberts was thinking.
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” he added.
What could MLB do about it? Here are some options:
MORE PLAYOFF TEAMS
If the playoffs expanded with two more wild-card teams in each league, everyone would have to play in the opening round.
But this is the least attractive option, because it would dilute the playoffs even further by sending more than half of MLB’s teams — 16 of 30 — to the postseason.
Also, it would subject the top two seeds in each league to best-of-three series against teams that likely finished far behind them during the regular season.
Under such a format, for instance, the MLB-leading Braves would’ve opened the playoffs against the San Diego Padres, a team that barely eclipsed .500 (82-80) with 22 fewer wins than Atlanta.
Also, a 16-team format opens the door for a team with a losing record to qualify for the playoffs. It wouldn’t have happened this year. But if such a system had been in place two years ago, the 79-83 Padres would have earned a wild card.
FEWER DAYS OFF
The off days that are built into the schedule before and after the best-of-three wild-card series could be eliminated.
That would give the top seeds just a three-day break and penalize the teams that didn’t earn a bye with some potentially tiresome travel arrangements — especially if their first-round matchups go the full three games.
But this format could present troublesome scheduling issues for television. Teams that clinched a series in a late-night Game 3 couldn’t be asked to start the next round in another city early the next afternoon.
ONE-GAME WILD CARDS
When the wild card was first introduced by MLB in 2012, the opening round was a single-elimination game between the fourth and fifth seeds.
That certainly reduced the down time for the three division winners and produced plenty of drama. But one game to determine who advances and who goes home always seemed totally at odds with a sport that plays 162 games during the regular season.
Also, it would significantly reduce the number of games during the most profitable time of year for television revenues.
That ain’t happening.
THE KOREAN MODEL
The South Korean league has a unique ladder playoff system in which the top five teams qualify.
The element that might be incorporated into the MLB format is the best-of-three opening round between the fourth- and fifth-place clubs.
The higher seed starts at home with a 1-0 series lead, needing only one win to advance. The lower seed must win two straight games to move on.
If MLB used that system for the opening round, only two days would be needed to determine the first-round winners. That would reduce the break for the top seeds to four days, and starting the wild-card round the day after the regular season would cut it to three.
That might be an option worth considering.
For sure, some sort of tweaking is needed.
The best teams deserve to be at their best for the most important games of the season.
Paul Newberry is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
TOP PHOTO: FILE – Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts calls for a relief pitcher as starter Clayton Kershaw departs during the fifth inning of Game 1 of the World Series baseball game against the Boston Red Sox Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)