Peter Schmuck: Baseball's new playoff format apparently is the great equalizer -
2023 Postseason

Peter Schmuck: Baseball’s new playoff format apparently is the great equalizer

Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan USA TODAY Sports

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It appears that the decision two seasons ago to expand the wild-card round of the playoffs has had an unintended consequence.

Just ask the Dodgers and Braves.

I know, I know, the Orioles should be on that list, but it is those other 100-win division champs and Division Series losers who provide the best evidence that the long layoff that they “won” at the end of the regular season is more of an advantage for the teams that get through the four first-round series.

Both the Dodgers and Braves also were eliminated short of the league championship round last year and only one of the four byes this year survived, which means that five of the eight winningest teams in the sport weren’t around to play for a pennant in 2022 and 2023.

We’ll find out in the coming years whether this is a sustaining trend or just a coincidence, but it seems pretty obvious that something is causing so many great teams to go to sleep during their first playoff action. It’s been enough of a concern that the managers of those teams all spent time during the layoff trying to find ways to keep their pitchers and hitters sharp, but there really is no way to simulate real competition.

So, did the Texas Rangers actually catch a break when they lost their divisional tie-breaker to the Houston Astros and got a two-game tuneup against the severely wounded Tampa Bay Rays ahead of their three-game sweep of the Orioles?

The case can be made that the reason they have won five straight games (and four of them on the road) is because they had to grind right to the end of the regular season and keep grinding a couple days later.

“It’s interesting,’’ said Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias when asked about that during his post-playoff press conference on Thursday. “I’m following it. I’m aware of what’s going on with the other teams like you [the media] are.

“First of all, I don’t want to make that as an excuse. I do not believe that was the difference between us winning or getting swept in the ALDS the way we did. I don’t have a big opinion on it.”

Well, I do. The other reason I didn’t list the Orioles with the Dodgers and Braves was because the Orioles had stopped hitting a week before they walked off the field after their final game of the regular season. And they had a couple of very green pitchers struggle in their playoff debuts, which isn’t exactly an unusual occurrence.

Still, it seems clear that the new format is creating more parity in the latter stages of the postseason, and the only question about that is whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

There already was some evidence before the recent changes that the wild-card teams arrived in the postseason sharper because they had to battle the better teams in all three divisions to get those final playoff spots – often right up to the last day of the season while the biggest winners were looking at prospects and resting starters for the final week or so.

The Astros, the only division winner to advance to the LCS round, also had to battle to the final day to win the AL West title on that tie-breaker with the Rangers. The other playoff-layoff teams went a combined 1-9 in the divisional round.

Not sure there’s anything to be done about that, since no team is going to pull up at the end of the regular season and choose to take the extra playoff round, but if the whole point of having all these wild-card teams is to keep more teams in contention, have more playoff games and generate more national television revenue, why not add two more wild-card teams and play an eight-team seeded draw in each league.

That way, everybody ends the regular season on Sunday and everybody has either a one-day or two-day break before starting the playoffs.

That would reward the winningest teams with lesser competition in the first round and – theoretically – lead to more intense competition throughout and maybe even a few more network paydays.

It certainly didn’t break my heart to see the mighty fall in the NLDS, but I can’t imagine the TV execs enjoyed watching two big-market teams with national followings fall by the wayside (for the second year in a row) with the biggest ratings rounds still ahead.


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