Fixing MLB’s Playoff Structure Overhaul

The most recent playoff restructuring proposal from Major League Baseball has been widely panned, and while I would not favor those changes, I think some of the ideas could actually be used to create better playoffs while still maintaining or increasing the importance of regular-season games. I share the common sentiment that having teams “pick their opponents” is way too gimmicky, but that element could easily be nixed. The more serious concern is that the MLB proposal lowers the incentive to improve one’s team by spreading the possibility of being a postseason winner across too many mediocre teams.

Increasing the number of playoff teams is a welcome change. The standard deviation of team wins has grown rapidly. From 2007 to 2017, it consistently stayed between nine and 12 wins. Then suddenly it grew to 15 wins in 2018 and 16 wins in 2019. The spread of team talent level has risen dramatically even as the spread of payrolls has not—some teams are a lot more innovative than others nowadays. Limiting the playoff field to just one third of the league leads to a lot of non-competitive teams, lowering ticket sales, TV viewership, and salaries. Adding more playoff teams is an obvious way to combat this.

However, as many critics of MLB’s proposal have noted, adding playoff teams diminishes the attractiveness of winning more regular-season games. This has the same effect as a small playoff field—it makes regular-season games less important, which will also impact ticket sales and TV viewership, while stifling salary growth. Owners and players should certainly agree that baseball does best when the regular season matters most.

I will quantify the main problem with the current proposal—but it’s simple. The effect of improving by one win for teams finishing with 85 to 95 wins is far lower under the proposal than it is now. The value of winning the division as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed is now much lower with the extra playoff round, and the value of stretching to reach the No. 4 or No. 5 seed is far lower if No. 6 and No. 7 seeds can advance in the playoffs nearly as easily as you can.

How do you add playoff teams without diminishing the importance of the regular season? The answer necessarily relies on giving higher playoff seeds a better chance to make the World Series. And MLB’s proposal puts the two most obvious tools to do that in plain sight: (1) byes, (2) home field advantage. MLB could use those levers to add playoff teams while actually increasing the importance of regular-season wins.

Bye rounds are obvious—you roughly double a team’s championship odds by removing an obstacle to advancing. But MLB’s proposal also introduces a Wild Card round with one team having all three games at home. If a one-game home field advantage gives an equally matched team a 54% chance of winning, this alternative gives it a 56% chance of winning. At the extreme (and I do not recommend going this far), giving an equally matched team full home field advantage for seven games gives it a 59% chance of advancing—far higher than the 51% chance associated with seven-game series in the current playoff structure.

The range of possibilities is computed below:

Playoff Possibilities
Higher Seed Plays / Series Length 1 Game 3 Games 5 Games 7 Games
0 Away Games 54.0% 56.0% 57.5% 58.7%
1 Away Game 52.0% 54.5% 56.2%
2 Away Games 51.5% 53.8%
3 Away Games 51.3%

I have two examples of ideas that would use the two levers discussed above to produce a superior playoff structure. Each uses seven playoff teams—three division winners and four Wild Cards.

Main Proposal:

  1. Four Wild Card clubs in each league play in the two Wild Card Rounds. The Wild Card Rounds are composed of two consecutive three-game series to determine which one of the four Wild Card clubs advances to the League Division Series. The higher-seeded club gets home field advantage for all three games in each series.
  2. The LDS starts immediately after the Wild Card Rounds. The No. 1 seed division winner hosts the Wild Card winner in a five-game series, all at home. In the other LDS, the No. 3 seed division winner hosts the No. 2 seed division winner in Game One, but travels to face the #2 seed division winner for Games Two through Five.
  3. The two LDS winners play in the League Championship Series, with home field advantage going to the lower seed in Game One and the higher seed in Games Two through Seven.

Extreme Proposal:

  1. Four Wild Card clubs in each league play in the first Wild Card Round, a pair of three-game series to determine which two of the four Wild Card clubs advance to the LDS. The higher-seeded club gets home field advantage for all three games in each series.
  2. The No. 1 seed division winner gets a bye in the second Wild Card Round, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seed division winners host the two first-round Wild Card game winners. The entire second Wild Card round is played in the home parks of the division winners.
  3. The winners of the second Wild Card round play in the LDS, with home-field advantage going to the higher seeded club for the entire series.
  4. The No. 1 seed division winner plays the winner of the LDS in the LCS, with home-field advantage for the entire series.

Both proposals would increase the value of regular-season wins. The Main Proposal is certainly far more realistic, since the Extreme Proposal involves the No. 1 seed getting three byes. The Main Proposal also has a net positive effect on the value of regular-season wins, but I provide the Extreme Proposal to at least show how much more valuable regular-season wins could become.

Below I will calculate the impact of each of these proposals and show why they would improve the current structure. I will also tweak the home-field advantage in the Main Proposal and the playoff structure in the Extreme Proposal to show the effects that these can have on each.

To understand the impact of playoff structure, we first need to look at how often teams will get certain seeds based on their regular-season win totals. Looking back through the current division structure (2013-19), we see that no team under 75 wins would ever make even the expanded seven-team playoff and no team over 104 wins would ever fail to reach the No. 1 seed.

However, we see a couple of crucial things in between. Teams with 75 to 84 wins have never played in Wild Card games, but would occasionally in expanded playoffs. This increases the importance of their regular-season games and incentivizes them to win—this part is likely appealing to everyone. On the other hand, teams with 85 to 89 wins make the playoffs only about half the time under the current structure (usually as a Wild Card), and expanding the playoffs lowers their incentive to win by nearly guaranteeing it. The distinction between the No. 1 seed and No. 2 seed under MLB’s proposal does help make regular-season games matter between 95 and 104 wins, at least.

Below I review the odds of making the World Series based on playoff seed under different structures. You can see the problem in the second column, MLB’s proposal, right off the bat. The odds of a No. 2 seed or No. 3 seed making the World Series plummet for obvious reasons—they need to advance past three teams instead of two. By keeping those two seeds out of the Wild Card round in the Main Proposal, I restore the value associated with winning a division. In the Extreme Proposal, the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds technically do get a bye, but since they have to advance past three teams they have similarly small odds of making the World Series. All the extra value from being the #1 seed has to come from somewhere.

The first two Wild Cards (the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds) have a similar chance of making the World Series in the MLB Proposal as they do now, because they need to advance three times, but the latter two Wild Cards (the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds) have pretty similar chances as the first two. This flattens the incentive to win.

The home-field advantage adds some extra value to higher seeds in the Main Proposal, too. Notice that the No. 2 seed has a better chance than the No. 3 seed by a larger margin in the Main Proposal (4.4%) than the current scenario (1.5%). Also notice that the No. 1 seed has a distinctly higher chance of making the World Series because of all those home games (32% vs. 26%).

Another strength in both of my proposals is that they lower the odds of a Wild Card actually making the World Series. We want more non-elite teams to have more incentive to win games, but with those extra playoff games, the odds go down. The current structure leads to a Wild Card representing its league in the World Series roughly 24% of the time (again assuming equally talented teams), and MLB’s proposal blows that up to 45% of the time. The Main Proposal lowers this to 19% of the time and the Extreme Proposal to only 16%.

Applying actual win totals across their distribution of playoff seeds over the past seven years, we can translate the impact on playoff odds by seed (above) to the impact on playoff odds by win total (below). The black line represents the baseline scenario that teams currently play under. You can contrast that with MLB’s proposal in orange. The orange line is much flatter. It increases the odds of making the World Series for teams with less than 90 wins at the expense of teams with more than 90 wins across the board. The Main Proposal, in blue, steepens this line again. It still gives some chance of making the World Series for teams under 85 games, which achieves MLB’s goal of encouraging competition. But the odds of making the World Series for teams with more than 100 wins are now much better (and of course, they would be better yet assuming those teams are more talented than their opponents). The Extreme Proposal makes this even more pronounced, since the odds of being the No. 1 seed (and automatically advancing to the LCS) shoot up past 95 wins.

Perhaps more importantly, we see the impact below on the value of a win—the increased probability of making the World Series if a team wins an additional game. This hits on my goal of making the regular season important, which is probably MLB’s secondary goal as well.

But it also hits on the players’ goal of encouraging teams to spend more money. Much of the public commentary about the current state of major league baseball laments that too few teams are trying. This does make it challenging for agents to get enough bidders to push up player salaries. But equally important—maybe more important—is increasing the actual value that teams can be persuaded to push these salaries up to. The more value added from a team win, the higher price it will pay for player WAR (if the bidding forces it to).

You can see the problem with MLB’s proposal even more clearly by comparing the orange line to the black line below. The black line is way above the orange line between 85 and 94 wins. But fortunately, the Main Proposal is above the black line in all ranges other than 85 to 89 wins. The Extreme Proposal actually suggests that elite teams may be willing to pay very hefty sums for free agents because of the chance that it places them in the No. 1 seed and therefore the LCS.

On average the value of a win is as follows:

Current: one win adds 0.62% to odds of making the World Series

MLB Proposal: one win adds 0.53% to odds of making the World Series

Main Proposal: one win adds 0.66% to odds of making the World Series

Extreme Proposal: one win adds 0.91% to odds of making the World Series

Less tangible but beneficial impacts emerge from the Main Proposal. The winner of the Wild Card round is less likely to be able to use its ace in LDS Game One. And having the No. 1 seed have all games at home facilitates eliminating off-days, which can also help the No. 1 seed.

The Players Association should prefer my scenario for two main reasons: (1) Higher marginal impact of a win on potential playoff revenue increases team incentives to pay for free agents, (2) More teams have potential value to adding wins, increasing the competition for teams to pay up to that value.

The owners should like my scenario as well: (1) More meaningful regular-season games for more teams will increase ticket sales, (2) More playoff games lead to higher revenue, and (3) All seeds have the potential for a home game prior to the World Series, and in fact the underdogs have the potential to get a Game One home game and all the associated pomp and circumstance contained within.

These structures can be tweaked. The range of possible home field advantage scenarios could sway the average value of a win in the Main Proposal down to 0.59% if home field advantage comes into play only in tiebreakers, or up to 0.69% if the higher seed always gets home field advantage. There are other ways to model the Extreme Proposal, but as long as the No. 1 seed automatically advances to the LCS, the value of a win is going to be far higher (albeit only at very high win totals).

Byes and home field advantage are important levers that could augment the importance of the regular season and offset the dilution caused by adding playoff teams. If you agree that the playoffs should be expanded, the Main Proposal above (or something like it) is probably the least disruptive way to do so that benefits all parties.


Matt writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and models arbitration salaries for MLB Trade Rumors. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Swa.
19 Comments
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tz
2 years ago

Matt – I really like how your main proposal lowers the odds of a Wild Card entrant into the World Series, and I’m a big fan of skewing home-field advantage to reward the higher-seeded teams. I also like the fact that it limits the number of travel days during the LDS and LCS to one per series.

The main problem I see is the long wait for the division winners between the end of the regular season and the LDS. I have come up with a proposal that works well with 6 playoff teams per league (3 wild cards each):

Knockout round – WC2 and WC3 travel to WC1’s park to play an afternoon game on the first Tuesday after the regular season. The winner of that game then plays WC1 that same evening, wrapping up a day of “Baseball Madness” much like the first Thursday of the NCAA basketball tournament.

Division series – reseed based upon regular season standings. The #2 and #3 seeds play in a “biased best-of-six” series, where the higher seed gets to begin with a 1-0 series lead. The #3 seed hosts games 1-3, and the #2 seed hosts games 4-6 (as necessary). Seeds #1 and #4 also play a biased best-of-six, with seed #4 only hosting games 1 and 2.

League championship series – traditional best-of-seven, with the lower seed hosting games 1 and 2 and the higher seed hosting games 3-7.

World Series – same as now, traditional best-of-seven, with the better team hosting games 1, 2, 6, and 7.

This proposal would keep the wait time for the division winners the same as it is now, while keeping rewards for better teams and reduced travel time from your proposal.

Jetsy Extrano
2 years ago

The basic question is: is spreading out the incentive better than concentrating it at the top? The MLB plan is more spready than the status quo and you seem largely to be saying this is a negative because it takes incentive away from the top teams. But I don’t understand the criterion you’re using to weight one over the other.

Do we want the most total incentive across all teams? Do we value it more for teams with money to spend? Or do we want the most teams with any significant chance to get fans invested?

You go on to talk about “on average the value of a win” — is that averaged over win numbers? Averaging over teams by their expected win count (preseason! which smears things out), or weighted by spending power, or another weighting, could answer whichever question of your choice.

(Most discussion of this doesn’t grasp the underlying fact that we have a fixed amount of WS% to reallocate in a zero-sum way, so appreciate your starting from that!)

Jetsy Extrano
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Swartz

Thanks for describing the method.

MLB is no doubt looking to enhance revenue and not push team spending. I think they estimate that a shot at “playoffs”, with however small a chance to advance, sells tickets and gets attention. And spending is obviously the Devil.

I would bet in the short term MLB is correct, by stripmining the past significance of “playoffs”, until that’s gone.

byarin
2 years ago

Great points raised in this article. I love the idea of 4 teams playing tournament style for one DS spot. I agree w/ tz that an issue with the Main Proposal is the length of lay-off for top 3 seeds during the Wild Card Round. I also don’t think a WC team that wins 95 games should be forced into this tournament while a division winner with 87 wins is automatically in the DS.

I’d propose the following minor changes to the regular season standings:
-Each division winner is guaranteed a playoff spot
-The next 3 best records in each league are guaranteed playoff spots
-Teams are seeded 1-6 based on overall record

The key to this format is it no longer prevents an excellent team that finishes in second place in its division from being the second overall seed in its league.

My playoff proposal with 6 teams per league:

Wild Card Round (Best of 3)
Seed 6 at Seed 3
Seed 5 at Seed 4
-All games played at Seed 3 and Seed 4 parks on Mon-Wed after end of regular season on Sun
-No roster changes allowed by Wild Card winners when entering Divisional Series, except injured players can be replaced. An player replaced due to injury is ineligible until the World Series.

Division Series (Best of 5)
Lowest Remaining WC Seed at Seed 1
-All games played at Seed 1 park Fri-Sat-Sun, Tue-Wed if necessary
Highest Remaining WC Seed vs Seed 2
-Standard 2-2-1 format. At Seed 2 park Fri-Sat; WC Seed park Mon, Tue if necessary; At Seed 2 park Thu if necessary.

Championship Series and World Series
Same as current format: Best of 7, 2-3-2 travel schedule, clubs can change rosters from previous series.
———

Pros:
-Adds one additional playoff team per league
-Keeps playoff calendar in its current form
-Avoids long lay-off for top seeds
-Gives advantage (bye) to teams with best records, and an extra advantage (5 DS games at home) to top seeds

Cons:
-Places heavy emphasis on seeds 2 vs 3, which could be a small difference over a 162 game season
-Requires postponed games early in season to be made up to ensure all teams play 162 games
-Leaves little margin for error if weather forces postponements in Wild Card round

chapo090
2 years ago

But I don’t understand the criterion you’re using to weight one over the other. Do we want the most total incentive across all teams? Do we value it more for teams with money to spend? Or do we want the most teams with any significant chance to get fans invested? Is that really it? Then I am sorry.

Antonio Bananasmember
2 years ago

Add 2 expansion teams, realign to 4 divisions in each league. 2 wild card teams. Top 2 seeds get a bye in each league.

3rd best div winner plays 3 home games vs 6 seed
4th best div winner play 3 home games vs 6 seed

Worst remaining seed plays best div winner. All 5 at div winner

Highest remaining seed plays best div winner. All 5 at div winner

LCS is 2-2-1-1-1
WS is 2-2-1-1-1 and hosted by the team with more wins.

Basically the NFLs format

Marc Schneider
2 years ago

The one issue I have with any such proposals-and this one makes a lot of sense-is that, in my opinion, seeding should be based solely on record, not on winning a division. It bothers me that teams from a weak division can get a higher seed with mediocre record by winning the division, while a stronger team in a better division is relegated to the Wild Card. I don’t really have a problem with a strong Wild Card team winning the World Series-my team, the Nats, obviously did that this year. In 2006, the Cardinals won the World Series after winning the division with 83 wins. That bothers me more than a Wild Card team with 95-100 wins winning. It just doesn’t seem fair to me to penalize a team for being in a stronger division.

AngelsLakersFan
2 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

You also need to consider the unbalanced schedule. Inter-division teams play roughly the same schedule, and that schedule differs from teams in other divisions. Teams in good divisions have tougher schedules than teams in bad divisions which impacts our ability to compare teams across divisions. Because of this I think its fair to weigh all division winners equally with other division winners and wild cards equally with other wild cards.

sbf21member
2 years ago

The unbalanced schedule doesn’t make it fair to rank all division winners equally but it does highlight the problem with offering byes based on regular season record.

sadtrombonemember
2 years ago

I would honestly be totally fine with just having two wild-card teams, and forcing them to play 4 games of a 5 game series on the road. I think that’s the most ingenious part of Matt’s proposal. That would put wild-card teams as a guaranteed ticket to the “real” playoffs but at a severe disadvantage.

If you expanded by two teams and you had four division winners, you could skip the bye entirely and have the wild card teams play the #1 and #2 seeded teams with the 1:4 proposal, and the #3 and #4 seeded teams playing a more traditional 2:2:1 format.

NL Rulesmember
2 years ago

I like the Wild Card proposal – but for the LDS and LCS I think that the current home field advantage (whether based on seeding by record or division winner & record) should stay in effect. If this scenario was ruled out due to length of postseason/weather concerns, then would have to re-think.

sbf21member
2 years ago

Interesting.

Rejected.

I said it before, I’ll say it again: I still haven’t forgiven MLB for devising a system that allowed the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals to win a World Series after a regular season in which they won 83 games and finished with a .516 winning percentage. And they were division winners! Baseball is unique among the major sports in that dominant teams will lose short series fairly often. A winning percentage of .617 is a 100 win superteam. Winning 2 of 3 for a .667 ranks you among the all-time greatest teams.

There are currently seven NBA clubs with a winning percentage of .667 or better. The elite teams are winning .727, .774, and .852 percent of their games, so the fact that they have cheapened their playoffs matters less. In baseball it won’t work. Not for me, anyway.

The expanded playoffs are a money grab by the owners and the TV networks. This is not a proposal made with the fans’ interests at heart.

One more thing. Without a balanced schedule best record is not a fair way to rank teams after the regular season.

sbf21member
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Swartz

Thanks for the reply, Matt. I prefer either of your options over the proposal outlined by Joel Sherman. It’s just that they all feel like bad choices to me. It’s “choose the lesser evil” because we’re going to throw a bone to TV regardless what you think or how it impacts the game.

Well, as a fan I don’t need to concern myself with the bottom line. I think Red Sox fans should be outraged over the Mookie trade. John Henry is crying poverty? Give me a break. I digress, forgive me. My choice when it comes to an expanded MLB playoff format is “none of the above.”

AngelsLakersFan
2 years ago

Just for fun. Let’s chop off the last two or so weeks of the season, seed all the teams, and reschedule the games into a round robin style tournament where all the games are worth triple! Division series and LCS still the same.

Imagine how epic it would be when Cleveland makes up a 10 game deficit and passes the Twins in the last week. Talk about keeping fans interested – your team might be 20 back with two weeks to go but there’s still a chance!