Have MLB’s revamped playoffs made the baseball season an unfair mockery?

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Photograph: Orlando Ramirez/USA Today Sports

Do you accept the results of the 2022 playoffs? This is not some obtuse political metaphor, it’s a conversation being had in some circles after three teams that won more than 100 games in the regular season fell to theoretically inferior squads in the first two rounds of the playoffs. It’s one heck of a debut for baseball’s brand-new postseason format that strikes many fans, particular of those eliminated teams, as essentially unfair.

It started with the 101-win New York Mets, who didn’t even make the National League Division Series. Forced to play the San Diego Padres in a newly established three-game Wild Card series, the Mets managed to win just a single playoff game. The Atlanta Braves, despite earning a bye after just beating the Mets to the NL East title, didn’t fare much better. They managed to eke out the same number of postseason victories as the Mets, losing 3-1 in the NLDS to the Philadelphia Phillies, who finished 14 games below both teams in the NL East standings.

Yet even these flameouts don’t compare against the plight of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who wrapped up a 111-51 regular season (the fourth-highest total in MLB history) that placed them as the top seed in the National League. On a rare rain-drenched Saturday night in San Diego, the Padres pulled off a stunning come-from-behind victory over their heavily-favored foes to complete a 3-1 NLDS win. That’s the same Padres who finished 22 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. In just four playoffs games, the Padres made a huge regular-season gap meaningless.

Given these results, what exactly is the point of the regular season if three of its four best teams (on paper) didn’t even get close to the World Series? (The Houston Astros, for the record, easily handled the just-happy-to-be-there Seattle Mariners.) The first complaints were aimed straight at the expanded MLB postseason format, which now includes three Wild Card teams in each league, two of whom – the Phillies and Padres – will now play for a place in the World Series.

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Of course, those who remember the plight of the 2001 Seattle Mariners know that such unjust outcomes also happened in the “three division winners and a single Wild Card team” format of the recent past. Those Mariners, led by Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro Suzuki, tied the MLB single-season win record after going 116-46. By losing to the New York Yankees in the ALCS, they became the only MLB team to win 110+ games and not play in a World Series until, of course, the Dodgers failed to even make the Championship Series this year.

So, there is precedent here. Not counting the Covid-shortened year of 2020, the last MLB team with the best regular season record to win the World Series was the 2018 Boston Red Sox. Before that, it had happened only 12 times since 1969, the start of the Divisional Era.

Let’s compare this to the NFL and NBA, leagues where a single player – whether an elite quarterback in football or a Michael Jordan/LeBron James type in basketball – can be a deciding factor in the way a dominant starting pitcher (who usually only plays every five games) or a Barry Bonds (who famously never won a ring) never can. Since 1975, the top seed in the NFC or the AFC has won 25 out of 46 Super Bowls, although it’s hard to compare the single-elimination NFL playoffs with the MLB postseason. In the NBA, which is a closer comparison, the results are less decisive: since the 1999-00 season, just seven No 1 overall seeds have won championships.

Maybe the bigger controversy shouldn’t be about who was eliminated but who moved on. Before Saturday, two teams that had won fewer than 90 games in a non-shortened regular season had never gone on to face each other in an LCS. It feels like this happening immediately after MLB expanded the playoffs is not a complete coincidence.

This may account for the criticism: the Padres and Phillies, seen from one angle, appear unworthy of advancing. They are, on paper, teams that beat more qualified candidates but only within the context of a relatively minuscule five-game sample size. To quote the Defector’s David J Roth, this does not make sense, “in a way that would be likely to satisfy someone who wanted to see the Most Deserving Teams move through the postseason in an orderly fashion.”

The playoffs, he notes, do not operate like this. They haven’t since the World Series was decided between the team with the best record in the American League and its counterpart in the National League. MLB is never going back to that format: it would mean too many fanbases with nothing to root for by midsummer and – more importantly as far as owners are concerned –too much money left on the table thanks to all those unplayed postseason games.

So, the MLB playoffs, no matter how they are constructed, will be like life: messy, chaotic and profoundly unfair for most of us. If there is a solution, the answer might be for us to rethink the winner-take-all mentality that has sucked much of the fun from sports. It is us, ultimately, who have devalued the regular season by prioritizing championships above all else. Those 111 Dodgers wins don’t just vanish because they failed to win the World Series, even if their fans feel that way in the immediate aftermath of the NLDS.

Playoff success, perhaps, should not be treated as the only way to measure the worth of a team’s year. There is no objective reason to treat the 2001 Mariners season as a lesser accomplishment than the 2006 St Louis Cardinals who went 83-78 in the regular season before stumbling their way to an inexplicable World Series win. To think that only rings matter is to argue that 29 out of 30 MLB teams fail every year, that’s a depressing outlook to have on anything, let alone games people play.

It’s time to break out of that pattern. Unless, of course, the team you happen to be rooting for wins a title. Then obviously they are the greatest team ever assembled and no has the right to tell you otherwise.

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