A Proposal to Change the Baseball Playoffs

Baseball needs to make a significant change in the format of its playoffs.  MLB should consider moving away from the traditional best of five, best of seven games format to round-robin tournament to determine the pennant winner for each league.  Changing the playoff format will likely increase fairness of the playoffs, improve television ratings, increase revenue, and more importantly reward the fans of the game.

The new format, which we can call the “Pennant Chase”, will have each team play a slate of games against all the other teams in the league playoff. The team at the end of the round robin with the best record will be awarded the league pennant and move onto the World Series which will still be the best of seven.  The number of games each team plays could be anywhere from nine to fifteen.  I favor an additional 12 games or three, four game series with two home and away for each team each series.  For example: This year the Nationals would have played the Giants, Cardinals, and Dodgers in three successive four game series.  This eliminates the home field advantage unless you want to reward the best record with an additional home game against the wild card team

The 12 game series allows MLB to wrap up the post season pennant tournament in two weeks with a couple off days thrown in.  That schedule will also have each team match up with the other team’s top 4 pitchers, staff vs. staff.  Basically, we are talking about two solid weeks of the four best teams in each league matching up against each other to determine the World Series matchup

Fairness:

Does the current format result in the “best” team winning or does it hinge on chance?  The more games played, the more likely the best team from each league will make the World Series by creating a larger sample size of games. A longer playoff better resembles the rhythm of the baseball season, where even the best teams only win 3 out of 5 games.   As it stands, half the teams are eliminated after a five game series.  In a league that plays 162 a five game series is similar to a coin toss.  The 2014 World Series was a matchup of the #4 National League and #5 American League Wild Card Teams.  The whole “anybody and win” vibe is interesting, but tends to invalidate a 162 game season when top seeds are bounced early in the playoffs.  The sudden and brutal losses the Tigers and Angels fans felt this year isn’t particularly good for the game as each team was swept in 3 games.

Due to the structure of the MLB schedule, even teams in the same league only have one home and away series over the course of the season.  The best teams in the league rarely face off against each other unless they share a division.  A twelve game slate allows the each team to match up head to head to determine the class of the league.  By the end of the two weeks, there is no way any team can feel like they got cheated out of an opportunity.

Fan Interest:

Baseball popularity is very different from many of the other major sports.  Individual teams have intense local followings.  We see this with 24 team’s attendance topping 2 million and 11 team’s local television ratings leading their markets in viewership.    National ratings tell us a different story, fewer and fewer of the intense local fans care about teams that play in other markets.  If they did we would see a doubling of viewership as teams were eliminated.  Many fans “check out” on the sport after their team loses.  Ensuring that all four teams get an additional 2 weeks of games, the “Pennant Chase” also ensures that MLB doesn’t lose top markets like Los Angeles or Washington/Baltimore in the first three or four days of the playoffs like happened this year.

Under the current format, game times and schedule are decided well after the tickets are sold.  Fans purchase tickets for all playoff games not knowing if a game 5 or 7 will even be played or if they can attend the game.  If a series ends early, teams have extended off days and playoffs lose momentum.  A full slate of games will provide a more predictable schedule for fans and a gradual build to the climatic games.

Financial:

The “Pennant Chase” format would also ensure a guarantee of playoff games for each team. In the current format each league plays a maximum of 18 games assuming that each series goes the maximum distance.  Each team would be guaranteed 6 home playoff games, a number that doesn’t dilute the value of the ticket, but will still allow teams to charge a premium price.

This year, the NL only had 14 total games and the AL had the minimum number, 11.  Under the new format, each league would likely have 25 total games in the above 12 game 4×3 format; each game is television commercials/content sold.  Assuming each game broadcast is four hours, this results an increase of 28 hours of broadcast content and 50 hour increase over this year.

A slate of playoff games would also ensure that the more and the biggest markets will stay active in the playoffs for its duration.  More markets, more interest, higher ratings.  Teams like the Red Sox and Yankees or even the Cubs have huge national fan bases that automatically increase the profile in ratings of any series they are in.

Problems

So what are the problems with this new proposal?  This is a very different way to look at and view playoffs for professional sports in this country.  All pro leagues have sequential playoffs where teams are eliminated as the rounds progress.  There is some precedent for this type of format in college baseball which uses pool play for the first round of the NCAA tournament.  This type of format is also used in international soccer competitions such as the World Cup and the Champions League.

One concern is that theoretically a team can win the pennant in a game which they lose, as long as the 2nd place team also loses, a concept that many Americans had trouble grasping in the World Cup this year.  Similar to the way soccer deals with this MLB can have the final games play concurrently, which would most likely lead to some pretty thrilling split screen broadcasts as the pennant winner is crowned.

Another concern is that one team might simply go on a prolonged losing streak and get eliminated by the 2nd four game series.  We see this type of scenario play out all the time at the end of the regular season where eliminated teams are playing competing teams.  I tend to think that playoff teams would relish playing the role of spoiler as well as avoiding embarrassment.  If it turns out that in one of the final series both teams are eliminated then just like a game 6 or 7 now those games would not be played.

The best part of this idea is that it doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of baseball like the current playoff format does, it just extends the season for the best teams.   I would argue that this format is actually closer the format baseball used for decades before the expansion era.  Before 1960, MLB had 8 teams in each league compared to the 15 we have now.  Those 8 teams played each other 22 times each over 154 games with the each league winner advancing directly to the World Series.   I see great opportunity in this new format.  What am I missing?

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