Has MLB's parity party gone too far? A case for striking a better balance
There's never been a meeting of lower combined seeds in a World Series than the one that begins Friday between the No. 5-seeded Texas Rangers and No. 6-seeded Arizona Diamondbacks. The previous lowest was in 2014 when the No. 4 seed Kansas City Royals fell to the No. 5 seed San Francisco Giants.
Yes, this is only the second year in which it's possible to be a No. 6 seed after Major League Baseball expanded the field again. But it's also the second straight year in which the No. 6 seed has won the National League pennant.
In some ways, this October is an extreme example of the randomness that's possible, if not likely, when baseball meets small sample sizes.
After finishing 16 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, the Diamondbacks are attempting to become the second team to ever win the World Series after posting a negative run differential in the regular season, joining the 1987 Minnesota Twins. Three 100-win teams were sent packing after their opening round of play this year.
While the Diamondbacks have capitalized on the opportunity provided by the expanded field, October does consistently produce variety. This year's series will give us a ninth different World Series champion in 10 years. The Houston Astros are the only repeat winner (2017, '22).
A debate in baseball, at least on social media, entering this World Series is whether such postseason parity is a good development for the sport.
On one hand, more playoff spots give more fanbases hope and create more September games that have playoff implications. In a sport without a salary cap, an expanded playoff field is one of the primary drivers of parity.
Yet there's a case to be made that the parity party has gone too far and that there needs to be a better balance between unpredictability (upsets) and adequately rewarding elite regular-season performances in the postseason.
Having more playoff spots also creates weaker championship matchups that some argue make for less compelling television.
The expanded field shields baseball from deeper underlying issues, a major one being that too many owners aren't interested in spending money to compete. MLB sorely lacks a salary floor. That'd force more ownership groups to be involved in the offseason market, which is a driver of fan interest in other major sports. Since the barrier to entry into the playoff field is lower than ever, the incentive isn't to build great teams but merely ones good enough to earn a postseason ticket.
I thought the two first-round byes in each league would add more incentive for good teams to try and improve themselves to secure those berths, but we haven't really seen that play out at the trade deadline.
Finally, there's the nature of the sport itself.
Unlike the NFL and NBA, baseball isn't designed to have the best teams march through the regular season and postseason a majority of the time.
Consider that No. 1 seeds have won 53% of Super Bowl titles.
In NBA playoff history, No. 1 seeds account for 66.2% of Finals champions.
In MLB's wild-card era, only 41% of World Series titles have been won by No. 1 seeds, a total of 12 since 1995. Seven teams seeded No. 4 or lower have won a World Series in this era, and that rate will likely increase now that there are six seeds in each league.
(The NHL is the greatest outlier, with just 15.5% of No. 1 seeds winning Stanley Cups since expanding to a 16-team playoff in 1979-80.)
The way NFL and NBA games are played translates more naturally to the postseason.
For starters, the margin between good baseball teams and poor ones is slimmer. Few teams win 60% of games in the regular season. Bryce Harper can bat only once every nine team plate appearances. In the NBA last season, 16 players had usage rates during their teams' possessions of 30% or more.
Postseason series in baseball are almost coin flips. Baseball is a sport that needs larger samples to reflect the true talent of players and teams.
The schedule in postseason baseball, with additional days off for travel, allows teams to shorten their pitching staffs. Top arms take on a greater percentage of innings in the playoffs, but a nine-man batting lineup doesn't change.
This explains, in part, why the Philadelphia Phillies have been a better playoff team than a regular-season team in the last two years.
For the Diamondbacks, their top six pitchers (Zac Gallen, Merrill Kelly, Brandon Pfaadt, Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel, and Paul Sewald) covered 40% of the regular-season innings but accounted for 79% of the postseason innings.
In the NFL, Patrick Mahomes takes every snap in the regular season and the postseason. And in the NBA, Nikola Jokic's usage rate only went up four percentage points between the 2022-23 regular season (27.2%) and playoffs (31.1%).
It's all made the baseball playoffs incredibly unpredictable. It comes down to who gets hot or can exploit the right matchups over the span of a month.
The issue isn't that there are upsets, it's that there are so many upsets that they lose their meaning. It's tough to be a Cinderella story if almost everyone left at the ball is also wearing glass slippers.
So instead of 40% of top seeds winning the World Series, perhaps baseball should tweak its postseason-randomizing machine to try and improve success rates to 50%. That would mark a true balance and restore more weight to the regular season while also preserving October drama.
How would one tweak a system that's unlikely to ever shrink? One method would be to make it more difficult for the weakest seeds to advance out of the wild card. This would also incentivize better regular-season performance. I've advocated for a best-of-two or ghost-win wild-card round - one in which the lesser seed must beat the better seed twice to advance while the top seed must only win once. The MLBPA proposed this in the last CBA.
Such a round could be played in a single day - a split doubleheader if necessary - to address other issues that might plague the best teams in October: rust from rest days.
Three 100-win teams lost in the division series round this year, and history shows teams with more rust do struggle in the postseason.
Eliminating off days throughout the postseason would force teams to employ their rosters more like they do in the regular season. They wouldn't be able to avoid deploying the weakest starting pitcher and bullpen arms as easily.
Since there's only one trophy to award at the end of the year, it's tough to reconcile that it goes to the team that survives the one-month sprint while maybe being the 12th-best team in the marathon.
In the wild-card era, MLB and its television partners are creating more uncertain Octobers. That's good for business, at least in terms of national TV deals. But there's also a risk in watering down the product. Perhaps there's a way to bring about a better balance. No one wants to lose all unpredictability in a tournament, but performance from April through September seems long forgotten by the middle of October.
Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.
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