Analysis: The New Playoff Format Freakin' Sucks

The New York Yankees entered this season—much like they do every season—with their sights set on hoisting the Commissioner's Trophy at the end of October, staking claim to their 28th World Series championship. After a powerful offseason, which—in case you have been living under multiple, boulder-sized rocks—was highlighted by the signing of Gerrit Cole, the Yankees seemed primed to finally break through after having patched arguably their most glaring weakness.

By the time Spring Training rolled around, things were not looking great, with key players injured in both the lineup and in the rotation. Then, of course, COVID-19 struck, America shut down, and when we picked back up, everyone was ready to go, geared to take advantage of a sixty-game season and fight for a once-meaningful division crown before battling through a deep postseason that rewarded teams built for its trials.

The 2020 Yankees were certainly built for its trials.

But no one said we could have nice things. Hours before first pitch between the Nationals and Yankees on Opening Day, MLB announced a new postseason format that Manfred had been toying with this past offseason. I suppose that if there were ever a time to see how this system works, it's this wacky season, but the format is Terrible™️ for our New York Yankees.

If you're still confused about how the new format works, let's go over it real quick; the number of teams in playoffs was bumped from 10 to 16—8 per league. The first and second place teams in each division qualify for the playoffs, plus two additional wild card teams. These 16 teams all play in a three-game Wild Card Series, where the matchups are determined by straight seeding (1-8, 2-7, 3-6, 4-5), and the higher seeded team hosts all three games. The winner of the 1-8 matchup plays the winner of the 4-5 matchup in the Division Series (5-game format as we're familiar with) and the higher seed gets HFA. The same goes for the winners of the 2-7 and 3-6 games. The winners of those series go on to their respective LCS, and... you know how it goes from there.

If you're having trouble visualizing how this would play out, let's look back at the playoff fields in 2019.

Under the new rules, in the American League,

  • The 1-seed Astros would host the 8-seed Rangers.

  • The 2-seed Yankees would host the 7-seed Red Sox.

  • The 3-seed Twins would host the 6-seed Indians.

  • (THREE rivalries. Wow.)

  • The 4-seed A's would host the 5-seed Rays.

Under the new rules, in the National League,

  • The 1-seed Dodgers would host the 8-seed Cubs.

  • The 2-seed Braves would host the 7-seed Diamondbacks.

  • The 3-seed Nationals would host the 6-seed Mets.

  • The 4-seed Cardinals would host the 5-seed Brewers.

The new format solves a certain purpose—to keep players on fringe contenders from mailing it in for late-season games and to draw more fans to postseason games. In the grand scheme of things, I can see why MLB is eager to expand the postseason. But the scale at which it's being done currently does not sit well with me. 16 teams out of 30 in the playoffs?! More teams make the playoffs than don't. Playoffs are going to become a participation trophy. Additionally, since teams winning the division don't get any sort of bye, winning the division is heavily disincentivized—a concern that was recently expressed by multiple Yankees. Consequently, the value of regular-season games also decreases, considering apparently everyone and their grandma is going to have themselves a playoff spot.

And this is baseball, guys. In a three-game series, all bets are off. There are likely gonna be a ton of upsets in this first round—or at least room for those upsets to take place. The whole thing is a punch in a gut to teams like the Yankees and Dodgers who have built impressive top-to-bottom depth tailor-made to the challenges of five- and seven-game-series. This, of course, is not an excuse for top-seeded teams to roll over miserably and fail. But it is something to keep in mind. One unlucky break in the first game of the Wild Card series and a team has to win two straight games to keep their season alive. Moneyball revealed a statistical model that proved that the worst team in baseball will beat the best team in baseball about 15 percent of the time in a five-game series. Alter that model to predict how often a middle-of-the-road team beats the best team in baseball in a three-game series? The number probably isn't very confidence-inspiring.

Even besides this, I do have faith that the Yankees will find a way to muscle their way through the Wild Card round. It's almost a certainty that we end up anywhere between the 1-3 seeds. Hopefully, Cole puts us on his back for Game One, and we can beat up on the mediocre pitching of the White Sox/Angels/Blue Jays/Rangers.

It's a simple enough formula, but baseball isn't played on paper, so I guess the better strategy is a simpler one: pray. Hopefully then we'll get the New York/LA World Series we all wanted.

By which, of course, I mean Angels-Mets.

Just kidding.

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