To Reseed or Not to Reseed? Improving the MLB Playoffs

Reseeding in the postseason could help and hurt certain teams. (via Erik Drost)

The season’s end for Cleveland, currently 18 games over .500 and 14½ games ahead of the second-place Minnesota Twins, has seemed inevitable for months. Cleveland was the overwhelming favorite to win the AL Central going into the year and, since May 26, has been the only team in the division with so much as a .500 record.

Besides the general cruddiness of divisional rivals, a key reason for Cleveland’s four-month cruise control — though granted, the team added two nice pieces in Brad Hand and Josh Donaldson along the way — is that there’s been very little to jockey for in terms of playoff positioning. Early in the season, it seemed likely the Red Sox and Astros would both finish with a better record, leaving Cleveland  essentially cemented in the third seed since spring. And despite a brief threat to the Astros from the upstart Oakland Athletics, Cleveland has also been reasonably sure of its first round opponent; bags have been packed for Houston since well before the All-Star break.

Besides being incredibly boring, a sound argument can be made that this team’s predetermined postseason positioning is unfair to another team: The Boston Red Sox. Here’s why.

Even if Cleveland finishes with a better record than the likely second Wild Card team, the A’s (though that’s doubtful, since the A’s are currently 87-57, six games better than Cleveland), it does so as the runaway winner of an historically bad division. Boston and New York have gotten to play the putrid Baltimore Orioles 19 times apiece, but Cleveland has grown fat by playing 76 games against the Twins, Tigers, White Sox and Royals, who are a combined 228-346 as of this writing.

Granted, when we examine Cleveland’s pythagorean and BaseRuns records, some of the differences begin to narrow. Its pythagorean record is actually two games better than the A’s, and just a game worse than the Yankees, with its BaseRuns records two off the A’s, and four off the Yankees. Still, those stats seem unlikely to move the MLB schedule makers, and combined with Cleveland’s relatively poor strength of schedule, it seems odd for the best team in the league to have to play harder but lower seeded competition.

Back East, the Red Sox are currently at 100 wins and are projected to win 110 games, while the Yankees, despite being without three of their best four players for long stretches of the second half, are flirting with 100. Out West, the steady Astros and surprising A’s are projected for 102 and 97 wins, respectively, and closing in fast, despite playing in a division that includes the 79-66 Seattle Mariners and only one team – the Texas Rangers – more than a few games under .500.

So the Red Sox will be the very deserving top seed, and they’ll be rewarded for it by playing the 100-win Yankees in the ALDS. Or the 97-win A’s.

Setting the allure of the rivalry aside, if you hooked up a lie detector to Boston Manager Alex Cora and asked “Who would you rather play, New York or Cleveland?” he’d either pick Cleveland or the polygraph would explode.

Boston has clearly earned the right to play the weakest opponent in the first round. This year, that almost certainly will not happen. This leads to one question, simultaneously simple and complex: After the dust settles following the Wild Card games, should the MLB playoff field be reseeded?

Solving a Headache with Brain Surgery: Over-Complicating the MLB Playoffs

The question of whether to reseed has surfaced before, notably in 2015 when the two National League Wild Card teams, the Pittsburgh Pirates (98 wins) and Chicago Cubs (97 wins) also had the second- and third-best records in the league. (The St. Louis Cardinals, the NL Central winner, had 100 wins.)

Some writers pointed out that the resulting NL postseason field was patently unfair – and they were right. However, seemingly no one posited a simple solution to a simple problem. Instead, pieces like this one accurately diagnosed the patient, but proceeded to prescribe overly elaborate suggestions for a postseason remedy.

Complex, sometimes even fantastical, suggestions persist to this day. So before I apply a Band-Aid to a paper cut, let me explain why stitches or amputation are neither necessary nor advisable.

Some of these recommendations aren’t practical, such as a complicated College World Series-style double-elimination, or a hokey, reality TV-esque scenario where the top seed selects its first-round opponent. The former suggestion replaces the ALDS entirely, the latter precedes it with a WWE-style smackdown challenge.

Two of the most common suggestions for making the major league postseason more “fair” deserve a deeper dive, if only to properly explain why they aren’t ideal.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Expanding the number of playoff teams per league from five to six

Often, this option is folded into discussions about MLB possibly expanding to 32 teams and, in the process, realigning to four divisions per league. Regardless, it’s unclear how a six-team playoff tournament would work without either making one or more division winners play a do-or-die pre-ALDS elimination game (and I think almost anyone would agree they’ve earned a better fate than that) or adding a three-game round before the ALDS (which I also don’t see as ideal; more on that to follow).

I’ve had enough with playoff expansion. We just added one per league six years ago, and that was partially to correct the deeply flawed single-Wild Card scenario that placed very little in the way of penalty on the non-division winner. Having 12 teams make the postseason from a field of 30, or even 32, is watering down the playoff field to a point approaching the NBA or NHL. If you aren’t in the top third of your sport, it is my belief, you shouldn’t go to the playoffs.

Making the Wild Card matchup a best-of-three series

This one comes up a lot, and it’s understandable why: whittling a 162-game season down to a sudden death game is a tough pill to swallow. But there are several reasons why extending to a three-game set isn’t ideal.

First, this notion often comes with the associated suggestion of shortening the regular season back to 154 games. Here, though, the business end of the game makes this scenario difficult, since shortening to 154 means subtracting the revenue from 120 regular-season games from the coffers. Baseball is a business, and businesses like money.

Next, the travel with a three-game playoff is tricky. If you give the top Wild Card team the first two home games, you’re setting up the deciding Game Three in the second team’s home park, which doesn’t feel right. A 1-1-1 setup is clunky and requires a lot of travel. What if the Wild Card teams are the Rays and the Mariners? 10,000 miles in flight in four days?

Most importantly – and this is my main issue – it isn’t fair to the higher seeded teams. Creating what’s basically a full round – complete with at least one intra-series off day and a gap day before the next round – makes it likely that the Wild Card winner has a rested ace ready to start Game One of the ALDS.

In other words, the three-game Wild Card Series solution, in my opinion, looks at the whole issue backwards by trying to provide added “fairness” for the Wild Card teams rather than the top seed and, less importantly, the other division winners. Once put in proper perspective, a clearer, simpler image emerges about what, if anything, should be changed about the playoff format.

Second Place, Second Fiddle

In April, I wrote in this space about how compelling the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry is now that both teams are, for the first time, true heavyweights in the two-Wild Card-team era. One of the piece’s key principles: The primary Opening Day goal of every single team in the major leagues is to win the division, making the scary do-or-die Wild Card Game an apt penalty for failing to do so.

From 1995-2011, the single-Wild Card-team era, that notion was significantly impaired by allowing a second place team to waltz into the tournament proper. Many baseball purists were incensed, and it’s hard to blame them when you break longstanding tradition without penalizing the new playoff entrant in the least.

The two-Wild Card setup has corrected for that admirably by simultaneously keeping more teams in the hunt for October deeper into the lengthy regular season and – crucially – imposing a true hardship on teams who qualify for the postseason without winning their division.

A Wild Card berth is Plan B at the start of the season. So why are we trying to make the playoffs fairer for the also-rans? Any tweaks made to the current format should continue to emphasize winning the division – and especially finishing with the best record in the league.

And yes, that 2015 NL Wild Card Game matchup was a tough pill to swallow. The 97-win Cubs had to go on the road for a one-game showdown with the 98-win Pirates, while the 92-win Los Angeles Dodgers and 90-win New York Mets twiddled their thumbs preparing for their NLDS matchup.

The Cubs won, then beat the 100-win Cardinals in the NLDS before getting swept by the Mets in the NLCS. But that was actually unfair to the Cardinals, not the Cubs. It also gave an unfair advantage to the Mets, who, after finishing with the worst record among the league’s playoff teams, were able to reach the World Series without having to face the team with the league’s best record.

Granted, nothing is perfect. There will always be teams like the 2018 Indians that win a weak division while better teams finish second fiddle to a top dog like the Red Sox. But unless MLB moves to seed playoff teams strictly by record before the do-or-die opening postseason game – and again, that’s a flawed idea since the Opening Day goal ought to be a division title – there’s really no solution to that. Stripping away the emphasis on winning your division is simply a bridge too far.

That leaves us with one simple potential playoff tweak: reseeding by regular-season record after the Wild Card Game. A reasonable case can be made for both sides – i.e. reseeding or simply standing pat with the current format. Let’s explore both arguments.

It’s Simple… But It’s Complicated

Returning to the 2018 American League, if things remain on course the Yankees or Oakland will go to Boston while Cleveland goes to Houston, with the Astros and Yankees having roughly the same record but seeded 2 and 4, respectively. Oakland, despite likely finishing with a better record than Cleveland, will be the permanent bottom seed.

In this scenario, not only do the Red Sox not get the luxury of opening their playoff run against the team with the worst qualifying record, they likely won’t get to play that team at all, as Houston will certainly be favored to vanquish Cleveland in the ALDS. In fact, if the Yankees win the Wild Card Game, the top-seeded Red Sox will have to eliminate the teams with the next two highest win totals in order to reach the World Series.

Not only is that unfair but – and this is a new wrinkle to the case for reseeding – it’s likely to be an ongoing problem, especially in the American League. Recalling again my piece from April, we’ve seen what happens when the Yankees and Red Sox get young and good: each perennially posts top-tier win totals.

Following its top-heavy 2015 season, the NL Central didn’t have any Wild Card teams in 2016, with the Cardinals posting 86 wins while the Pirates won 78. But the smart money is that the 2019 AL East will, once again, likely have two teams in 100-win territory. That means, of course, that one will be a Wild Card team. Making the league’s best team potentially play a 100-win team in the ALDS seems unfair when, again, the third-best division winner usually has a win total well south of that.

Of course, the “stand pat” argument can counter that the 100-win team, let’s say the Yankees for simplicity’s sake, could very well lose the Wild Card Game. And while, per the aforementioned polygraph, the Red Sox would probably rather face Cleveland than even Oakland this year, it’s fair to assume that the second Wild Card team will usually (but far from always) be a lesser opponent than the worst division winner, forced to spend its best starter just to advance. Still, those in favor of reseeding can rebut that argument by pointing out how reseeding after the Wild Card Game assures that the top seed plays the lesser team in the ALDS.

Another “keep it as-is” argument says that the Wild Card winner will have burned resources – particularly its ace – to advance to the ALDS. This holds some weight to it but, again, let’s look at the likely top AL Wild Card team this year, the Yankees. Who, pray tell, is their ace? (And before you say “Severino,” look at his past 10 starts.)

No, the Yankees, like much of baseball, are increasingly bullpen-oriented. And as that trend continues, the advantage gained by the top seed in facing the Wild Card winner diminishes exponentially. Besides, the limited ranks of true aces like Chris Sale would find a way to leave their mark on the ALDS anyway, whether that means starting Games Two or Five on short rest or randomly pitching several innings in relief during close games.

A semi-hypothetical: imagine Oakland closes the season nearly perfect and surpasses Houston to win the AL West. The Astros head to New York, and Justin Verlander shuts the Yankees down for the zillionth time in his career. If you’re Boston, would you rather play a Verlander-less-for-Game One Astros, or a full-strength Cleveland? (Hint: the Red Sox would rather play Cleveland.)

Back within the more workable confines of the one-game Wild Card, the question of how important the (semi) burning of the Wild Card winner’s best starting pitcher is should definitely be a key aspect of the “to reseed or not to reseed” debate. This is because the value of each team’s best starting pitcher varies by team; it’s a roaming X factor impossible to quantify in any attempt to arrive at a one-format-fits-all answer.

A more concrete recommendation may come by analyzing the postseasons since the inception of the two-Wild Card team format, which began in 2012.

Of the 12 Wild Card teams to play in a Division Series to date – each of whom faced their league’s top-seeded team, per the current rules – a full half, six, advanced to the LCS. But surprisingly, only one of these six ALDS-winning Wild Card teams – the aforementioned 2015 Cubs – finished the regular season with a better record than the worst division winner. That means that five of the six Wild Card teams that beat the top seed would have played the top seed regardless of a post-Wild Card Game reseeding.

Surprisingly, since 2012 only four third-seeded division winners have finished with a record worse than at least one of their league’s two Wild Card teams: the 2012 Tigers, the 2013 Dodgers, the 2015 Mets and the 2017 Cubs. All four advanced to the LCS and, importantly, all four would have been downgraded to the fourth (and lowest) seed had reseeding occurred following the Wild Card Game, meaning the eventual Wild Card Game winners had better records than the third-seeded division winners in each of the four cases. Of note, it’s likely that this will occur again in this year’s American League postseason, and possible it will happen in the National League as well.

All told, the analysis tilts the scale in favor of reseeding. As infrequently as scenarios when reseeding actually would have changed the playoff matchups occur, it’s reasonable to say that the only top seed to be affected by it – the 2015 Cardinals – was truly shortchanged, while the four third-seeded division winners who benefitted from it by avoiding top seeds in the LDS received an unfair leg up.

And again, the type of unfairness thus far faced by the 2015 Cardinals alone is likely to grow less infrequent given the renewed Red Sox/Yankees rivalry – and we all know how vociferous those two fan bases are.

But even if this didn’t immediately involve the game’s most heated rivalry, the case for reseeding after the Wild Card Game is rooted in simplicity, ease of implication and, above all, fairness. It’s a simple tweak that further rewards each league’s top seed while making it more difficult for the least of the division winners to avoid the best of them.

Baseball’s postseason doesn’t need reconstructive surgery, just a simple nip and tuck. Sometimes the simplest change is the best one.

Christopher Dale has been published in New York Newsday, The Daily Beast and Salon, among other outlets, and is a regular contributor to The Fix, a sober lifestyle website. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter
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5 years ago

The approach you’re suggesting seems fine, but the problem with this type of fretting about postseason fairness is that it’s always tailored to the particular “injustices” of the current season. Sure, in 2018, there will be a big difference in team strength between the WC winner and the Indians. But what if Cleveland were only slightly worse than NYY/OAK, and Kluber were pitching like he did in 2017? Then it wouldn’t be so easy to dismiss the argument about facing a rested ace in game 1, and people would be wondering why the team with the best record doesn’t get to play the tired WC winner instead of the fresh team with the Cy Young winner.

The problems people try to solve with these proposals can even change within a season. Not too long ago, the most unfair thing in the AL race was that the almost-as-good-as-the-Red-Sox Yankees were going to have to play a much-inferior Mariners team in a do-or-die game to advance to the ALDS. Now that Oakland is a viable challenger for the top WC spot, that’s not as much of a concern anymore.

5 years ago
Reply to  jcc

The other issue is that Cleveland doesn’t have anything to play for and hasn’t for a while. So we don’t know how hard they’re trying to win games. Not that they’re trying to deliberately lose games but they’re likely resting players more often, experimenting with players in different roles, not rushing players back from injury, etc.

For Cleveland there’s no difference between winning 80 or 85 or 90 games.

5 years ago
Reply to  jcc

Exactly this. Whatever system you come up with will never be completely “fair” to everybody involved every single year. Every once in a while a team right around .500 will sneak in, or have a ton of travel, or encounter especially bad late October weather in a northern city without a dome. Any problem you “fix” will create a new one down the road.

I’m not saying you should not try to reward the best teams with the easiest path, you just need to understand that whatever “best” system you come up with won’t always do that no matter how hard you try.

5 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

System does not need to be “completely” fair. However, reseeding does reward the teams with the better regular season record, right? It thereby reemphasizes the significance of the 162 game regular season. Put another way, while winning the Division race also should be considered important, romanticizing that while downplaying the overall record actually places less weight on true excellence relative to the rest of the League. Of course, I also think MLB should do away with the unbalanced schedule…but that’s another fight.

5 years ago
Reply to  jcc

Exactly. MLB playoffs were most fair to begin with but in search of more revenue, we kept adding team, games to already long season, expanding playoffs. Season is already long enough. Just go back to each team facing other league teams equally and at the end top team gets awarded said league pennant. have the long season mean something.

5 years ago

The solution to this is so, so easy: get rid of divisions and just have two leagues. Best 5 teams in each league make the postseason. Top 3 avoid the Wild Card game, which is played by #4 and #5. That way you’re always assured of fair seeding. You have the same race for the top seed that you do now and that top seed would have more of an advantage than currently because they’d be ensured of playing the actual 4th or 5th best team. You’d also have a race for the 3rd seed, to avoid the Wild Card round, so you’re really not losing anything except the right to sell those pointless “Division Champs” t-shirts at the end of the year. It would also allow for a balanced schedule, which MLB desperately needs.

David Ducksworth
5 years ago
Reply to  LoafyTrophy

Welcome to your new Coastal Baseball League, then.

The concept of divisions is twofold. The first is for the fans, to promote local rivalries and competition. The second is for the teams and the league as a whole, to make baseball in more medium-sized markets competitively feasible.

The AL Central is what is getting hit here, but it’s the best example. By revenue (from Forbes), the top team in the division is the Cleveland Indians, with the 15th-highest income in the Majors. The Tigers are 16th, the White Sox and Twins 20th and 21st, and the Royals 26th.

The 4th-highest earning team in the AL West, the Mariners, makes more than the top earner in the AL Central. The Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East alone make nearly as much as the top four AL Central teams combined.

By actually having an AL Central, a Midwestern team actually gets a fairer shot at making it into the playoffs proper. Setting aside the actual legitimate and exciting rivalries within divisions, well beyond your “t-shirt” example, having West, Central, and East, each competing amongst each other to send their best to the playoffs, with the dual Wild Card format making sure that the best teams make their way in as well, and keeps baseball in a much healthier position as a sport that can truly be both national in its spread and regional in its rivalries and competition in a way that a divisionless muddle can’t match.

5 years ago

Focusing on the division called the American League Central misses the point. I don’t think you can make a reasonable case that the Rangers or even the Blue Jays are more “coastal” than any team in the Central. (And, while Houston is technically on a coast, it’s also pretty firmly in the longitudinal middle of the continent and is not a city I think of when I hear the word “coastal.”)

Yes, four of the six highest-revenue teams in the sport, per Forbes, are “coastal” (if you count the Astros it’s five of six)–but so are four of the six LOWEST-revenue teams. And as we know, revenue may correlate with team quality, but it doesn’t define it–the Rays are 28th in revenue, and the A’s are dead-last.

Also, it doesn’t help your argument that of the teams with the five best records in the National League right now, only one of them (the Braves) represents a city that’s even arguably coastal.

5 years ago

The problem with that central division argument is that you’re freely stating you’re sacrificing Tampa and Baltimore to help the midwest teams on the basis of geography.

5 years ago

Nice piece. FYI, another reason not to adopt 3-game Wild Card series: it really doesn’t improve the likelihood the better team wins. The affect of two extra games is largely offset by reducing stronger team’s home field edge to 67% of games rather than the current 100%. Assume a 55% favorite who is 59% at home and 51% on the road. Probability of winning 1-game format is .590, and probability of winning 3-game series is .595. Clearly not worth the trouble.

5 years ago

I’ve been attempting to drive this point home for months now. If Bauer returns then Cleveland with a rotation of Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco, and Clevinger will be a much tougher postseason opponent than Oakland or the Yankees. Those 4 are all in the top 13 pitchers by fWAR this season, they would be one of the greatest postseason rotations ever assembled. Meanwhile the Yankees/As winner will be using a rotation (after using their ace in the WC game) of either Tanaka, Sabathia, Severino, Happ, Tanaka or Anderson, Cahill, Fiers, Jackson, Anderson. Oakland and New York have amazing bullpens that they can and will lean heavily on in the playoffs, but the Indians rotation is so strong they realistically may only need to use Hand and Miller most games who are both elite relievers. I don’t see any scenario where you would choose to play the Indians over the Yankees/As winner if Bauer is healthy by the playoffs.

5 years ago

Or just let the top seed choose who they play in the ALDS. Maybe a couple of grown men will have their feelings hurt but this happens all the time in baseball over very trivial matters.

5 years ago

Eliminate divisions and balance the schedule, problem solved

Jason Bmember
5 years ago

Part of the issue that causes a shutdown or mental block is that the sudden fretting can be interpreted as “poor, poor Yankees”.

If their payroll higher than some countries’ GDP can’t save them from the indignity of a WC game, you won’t find many shedding tears for them…

5 years ago

How did the 2015 Cubs win the ALDS?

Outta my way, Gyorkass
5 years ago

Alright – one thing that bugs the hell out of me is that we’re discussing a premise where one of the Yankees or Red Sox could experience something remotely unfair, and the answer always seems to be that we need to think about changing the rules. Travis Sawchik, while still with FG, came up with a two-game wild card proposal as soon as it became apparent that the Yankees were going to possibly win 100 games and face a do or die wild card game. Nobody wept any tears for any of the 2006 White Sox, Angels, or Blue Jays, all teams who finished over 3 games better than the ’06 Cardinals, nor any of the whopping SIX teams who finished better than the ’05 NL West Champion San Diego Padres and stayed home. Just for reference on how far this sort of thing can swing from year to year, the 86 win Brewers would have qualified for the AL playoff field last year.

That being said though – I don’t know if I’d have a major problem with NBA-style playoff seeding: division winners still are guaranteed spots, but following the conclusion of the wild card game, the actual 1/2/3/4 seeds (in which the wild card game winner conceivably could be as high as #2) are determined strictly by record.

5 years ago

I think you dismiss too quickly the idea of the top team in the league choosing its opponent. If Oakland wins the WC game, there’s an argument to be made that the Red Sox should prefer to play them over the Indians (Cleveland has more playoff experience, is better built for October, etc). So why not let them choose? This allows the format more flexibility than reseeding does. For example, sometimes the team with the worst record in the Division Series acquired a big piece at the deadline, and isn’t really the weakest team. And sometimes some teams simply match up better with other teams, regardless of record. So let the top team choose – they will have earned it.

5 years ago

Just last year this situation basically was reversed. By going on the 22 game win streak the indians ended up with the best record in the AL instead of houston. Their reward? A matchup after the wc game with the red hot yankees who were a pathageryon 100 win team who but somehow managed only 91 wins. Instead of a much easier matchup with the red sox that now Houston got to take part in. An AL record setting winning streak hurt the indians last year. Let’s not cry any tears for the Yankees this time.

Tanned Tom
5 years ago

Do away with the divisions. Take the top 4 teams, screw the one game playoff nonsense, and be done with it. If that means Boston, NYY, Houston and Oakland, so what? I want to see the best teams in the post season. Fans that hate so much on NYY or Boston that they support subsidizing Cleveland (by playing in a crap division) should go watch hockey.

5 years ago

Sorry, but pretty much every reference to the Yankees is negative and just about every remark to the RS is favorable. Really?

5 years ago

Have a 30 team League, whoever wins the most games is the winner of the league 😉

Yours a baseball loving Brit.

5 years ago

Just make the best of three series all at the better teams home stadium which is real home field advantage.

kick me in the GO NATSmember
5 years ago

What a whiner. Rules are rules. Nobody writes this article if the 100 win team is the Rays, or if the Yankees or Red Sox are the team beating up on poor teams. Heck the Red Sox wouldn’t even have a 100 runs if they hadn’t ruined Baltimore and Toronto. Stop whining. Red Sox go to the playoffs nearly every year.

5 years ago

Nothing based on records can be fair when the schedules are unbalanced. That’s why the divisional champions are the only thing that is fair by that standard, since they play (almost) the same schedule. First balance the schedule, then reconsider the divisions entirely, then start seeding by record.

Oh and also we should determine homefield advantage in the World Series based on the league-wide records in interleague play. Whichever team played a harder league will get homefield.

5 years ago

The existence of wild cards is one of the most unfair thing in sports. Let’s go back to two divisions per league, and the division winners play to see who goes to the World Series.

Death to wild cards. Win your division or go home.

5 years ago

Ever notice that every year that the playoff structure doesn’t work to the benefit of the Yankees that some shill promptly starts screaming “Unfair!” and demands that we change the playoff system?

It’s as predictable as sunset.

Eric M. Vanmember
5 years ago

Of course any straightforward system would be unfair sometimes, so you have to go with whichever would be fairer more often. And that appears to be reseeding.

If you wanted to add some complexity to try to make it even fairer, you could give the WC team a penalty of a few wins (essentially to represent having burned their ace) before reseeding. IOW, you only reseed if the WC team is 3 or 5 games better than the weakest division winner.