OPINION: Stern: MLB should return to older playoff format


While instant replay enhancements and the pitch clock are among the popular ideas that Major League Baseball has tested and successfully implemented in 2023, its 12-team playoff format has seemingly been ineffective from the get-go. The league's yawner of a slate this fall, which has done very little to garner national attention and compete with NFL headlines, should prompt a return to the familiar four-team format in each league.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred had the right idea in making the postseason more inclusive, but the lack of competition in the wild-card round, paired with the exclusion of teams that could've made deeper runs, should leave the fans wondering if it's time to go back to the old way of business. All four wild-card series were sweeps, and three of its four losing teams didn't even appear too interested in playing. The combined average margin of victory during the wild-card round was 7.2 runs. Not awful, but it speaks to a glaring skill difference.

Fans will point to the two upsets that occurred -- the Diamondbacks won two against the Brewers and the Rangers won a pair against the Rays -- as reason why shortening the playoffs is foolish, but that's beside the point. If Baseball is going to add an additional round of the postseason, let’s at least make the series a best-of-five, instead of a best-of-three. It's too easy for teams to pick up momentum off one win and ride it into a second. It made postseason trips for the Marlins, Rays, Blue Jays, and Brewers over before they even started.

While watching the Phillies beat up the Marlins and the Twins outlast the Blue Jays, it was difficult not to wonder how the Cubs, Reds, or Mariners would've fared if they were playing instead. Seattle won four more games (88) than the Diamondbacks or Marlins, and both Cincinnati and Chicago looked electric at times in a competitive NL Central division. However, speculating about those left on the outside looking in isn't part of the rationale to expand the playoffs even further, but rather reason to condense the pool, making regular season games more important.

At this point, the regular season has become a glorified pacer exam for most clubs. Win just enough games to make the playoffs, and worry about the rest at a later date. But this isn't the baseball's supposed to work. Each game and series is supposed to have more juice -- the final tally in the win column then defines a team.

Unfortunately, the current system for incentivizing winning is extremely faulty. Considering the rhythm associated with a 162-game season, first-round byes for the top two teams in each league have appeared to provide a competitive disadvantage for teams that win the most games during the marathon grind.

The five-team playoff structure that featured a winner-take-all Wild Card game wasn't a viable alternative to the four-team structure either. Allowing the ticky- tack nature of a nine-inning game to determine if a team that won significantly fewer regular season games got to reach the playoffs over another team also devalued the league's six-month campaign.

Perhaps the point of having a postseason in the first place is to give all teams that qualified a fair shake at winning the big prize. However there needs to be some consistency involved. Teams that win a significant portion of its games during the regular season deserve to be rewarded -- as do those that outlast an opponent during a head-to-head series. Therefore, if the exclusive nature of a four-team format wasn't satisfactory, then teams that missed out should construct rosters that can win more games during the regular season.

The pitch clock, juiced balls, and larger bases were all considered welcome additions to MLB because of the enhanced entertainment value. But, after a few years of trial-and-error with the current playoff structure, it's time to stop giving out participation trophies, in hopes of not hurting anybody's feelings.

The negative impacts have only hurt MLB's attempt to gain popularity among stark competition, plus the wild-card round has felt like a glorified extension of the 162-game regular season. Reverting back to the four-team-per-league setup wouldn't solve all of MLB's playoff problems, but it'd put the capital 'P' back in the word "postseason."

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