With about a week and a half until the playoffs begin, and the playoff teams all but determined already, Major League Baseball has to accept the truth.
Its new postseason format didn’t do much at all to increase end-of-season intrigue.
This is the first year that the league is letting 12 teams into the dance, and it’s easy to recognize who at least 11 of those teams will be. The race for the final National League wild card spot is the only do or die scenario left, and even that’s not as juicy as fans would hope. The so-so Milwaukee Brewers come into Monday — which kicks off the last full week of the regular season — 1.5 games behind the Phillies for the final postseason spot.
The San Diego Padres are only 1.5 games up on the Phillies, so it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility for them to miss the playoffs. But there’s no question that the final two NL wild card berths (the Braves or Mets will get the first one) will go to two teams from the San Diego, Philadelphia and Milwaukee group. After the Brewers, the next team in the standings is the San Francisco Giants, who are under .500. In terms of talent, the Brewers are much closer to those Giants than they are to the NL’s legitimate contenders.
In the American League, there’s an even bigger gap. The Seattle Mariners currently occupy the final seat on the ship, with the Baltimore Orioles four games out. Seattle owns the tiebreaker over the Orioles too — if two teams finish with the same record, their head-to-head regular season matchups determine who would get in the playoffs, not a tiebreaker game — so that lead is more like five games. Again, the next team in line is under .500, the floundering Chicago White Sox at 76-77.
Rather than the expanded playoffs keeping more teams in the hunt, it’s shown that less is more when sending out postseason invitations. It is both increasingly obvious that there are not 12 truly good MLB teams, and that limiting the wild card berths to two or one makes for a better finish. Under last year’s format, which granted playoff entry to two wild card teams in each league instead of three, the battle for the last NL spot would be a bloodbath right now. San Diego, Philadelphia and Milwaukee are separated by just three total games in the loss column, giving each team a realistic shot of swapping places with one another down the stretch, whether that means climbing the standings or plummeting down them.
If those three teams were fighting for one spot rather than two, all of their remaining games would be that much more tense, creating the exact situation that MLB wants. Instead, the Phillies have gone 3-7 in their last ten games and not lost their place in the playoff picture. Last year, San Diego passing them would mean the Padres get in while the Phillies stay home. This year, it’s just the difference between the fifth and the sixth seed, and you can make a very compelling case that the sixth seed is better anyway.
The Mariners have also had the newfound luxury of playing very poorly for most of September without it hurting their playoff chances. The M’s are 11-11 this month, having recently lost series to the Angels, Athletics and Royals. That would typically be a code red disaster at this point of the schedule. But with the extra wild card team now, the Mariners’ odds of making the playoffs, per FanGraphs, have gone from 97.3% on Sept. 1 to…99.9% on Sept. 26.
In other words, treading water has proven just as effective as actually winning games. By virtue of there simply being fewer games left on the schedule now than there were at the beginning of the month, plus the teams behind them not being particularly playoff-worthy either, both the Mariners and Phillies have been able to play subpar baseball for weeks without having to fret too much about it costing them their shot at the postseason. Philadelphia is 10-11 in September, a month that’s seen them put together a three-game losing streak and a five-game losing streak. No big deal, as nestling into the sixth seed means avoiding the Mets or Braves in the first round and not seeing the Dodgers until a potential National League Championship Series.
Same thing goes for the Mariners, who, if they end up in the sixth seed, would play Cleveland in the first round instead of Tampa Bay or Toronto. Beating Cleveland, who they went 6-1 against this year, would then earn the Mariners a date with the much more beatable Yankees rather than the death machine in Houston.
So, for those keeping score at home, the new format will let mediocre teams into the playoffs, has done nothing to increase late-September drama, and in some ways has incentivized being a lower seed. The team with the worst record among its league’s division winners is no longer even guaranteed a Division Series. This year, that means the Guardians and Cardinals could both be going home in the wild card round rather than getting the five-game series they deserve for winning their division. The fifth seed in the National League gets a bit of a punishment, too, as they’ll get matched up in the wild card round against either the Mets or Braves, who might both end up with 100 wins.
That Mets-Braves power struggle is one of the best things going right now, but a tug of war for the NL East crown would have been possible last year, the year before that, and 20 years before that. The new playoff bracket had no impact on division races, which MLB knew. But it also, tragically, seems to have had no impact on the wild card races either. While Milwaukee is still technically very much in it, for weeks now it’s felt like we’ve known exactly who’d be in the playoffs, the only question is what order they’ll finish in.
Maybe next year will bring some more spice to the end of the season, but this year can go down as a definitive whiff.