FORGET ABOUT (GRADING ON) THE CURVE: HOW A STANDARD-BASED PLAYOFF QUALIFYING CRITERION (RATHER THAN THE CURRENT NORM-BASED CRITERION) WOULD INTRODUCE MORE FRANTIC PLAYOFF RACES AND DYNAMIC CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN-ADVENTURE PLAYOFF FORMATS

September 3, 2015 (updated September 1, 2016)
Nicholas Patrick

On the Scale of Self-Assuredness (where 0 = Just Spitballin’ and 10 = I’ve Got It!), writer rates this idea as a 5.

Leading up to the 1994 season, Major League Baseball increased its number of divisions (from four to six) and its number of postseason qualifiers (from four to eight) in an effort to increase the excitement of regular-season play. Leading up to the 2012 season, MLB further expanded the playoff field (from eight to ten teams, with only the six division champions earning automatic placement in the Division Series round of the playoffs) as a way to increase the value of a division championship (relative to wild card qualification).

I was excited about both revisions when they were initially announced. And while they have produced some positive effects (primarily, keeping more teams – those good and those mediocre – on the fringe of the playoff race), each has been seriously flawed. The 1994 revision wanted baseball fans to still care about division championships, but didn’t allow them to do so (because wild card teams were given virtually the same postseason treatment). The 2012 revision wants baseball fans to care so much about division championships that it prioritizes geography over performance, and wants us to fear wild card relegation so much (by being faced with a possible one-and-done postseason fate) that it extracts all the excitement out of pursuing and winning a wild card spot! (The wild card letdown has been felt most sharply by fans of the 2013 Reds and 2014 Athletics, who were eliminated from the playoffs without even hosting a single game. In the A’s case, they sported official “Always October” gear while suffering a heartbreaking season-ending loss…on September 30!) Furthermore, and more importantly, while the regular season has evolved slightly toward healthy unpredictability, the postseason has devolved greatly toward gimmicky randomness – to the point where a World Series championship represents…well…um…I’m not sure.

I propose a fresh approach to playoff qualifying criteria that will further enhance regular season unpredictability while restoring legitimacy to the postseason.

NORM-BASED VS. STANDARD-BASED PLAYOFF QUALIFYING CRITERION
As I understand it, a regular season is meant to identify a group of the best teams in a sport (and eliminate the riff raff) so they can engage in more direct competition for a championship during the postseason. And everywhere you turn, leagues use a norm-based criterion (in other words, the number of playoff teams is set before the regular season even starts) for playoff qualification. MLB welcomes 10 teams to the playoffs, the NFL 12, the NBA 16, NCAA FBS 4, NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball 68, and so on. I propose that MLB (and other sports) use a standard-based criterion, where a certain performance standard is set (rather than a certain number of teams) before the season starts to determine whether a team is worthy of postseason play. For MLB specifically, I suggest using a number already ingrained in the sport’s culture – 90 wins and you’re in the playoffs; any fewer and you’re out.

As I mentioned, MLB has worked hard to enhance regular-season unpredictability, and so for any proposed alternative to be considered sound, it must not undermine that effort. Fortunately, data suggest that a 90-wins-and-in format would actually further enhance unpredictability. We like to play the If-The-Playoffs-Started-Today game, but it’s only fun if the playoff field is relatively fluid. If we look from the morning of June 1, 2015 through the end of play on August 31, 2015, the current norm-based playoff format provided us with a different playoff field (not considering seeding arrangements, just the list of ten teams in the overall field) in 32 instances as compared to the preceding day. Under a standard-based format, we would project (on an ongoing basis) which teams will finish with a 90-72 record (a winning percentage of .555…) or better. With that in mind, the projected playoff field would have changed 56 times (and not just swapping out teams, but shrinking and expanding overall) as compared to the preceding day over the same span, with a number of teams ebbing and flowing back and forth over the .555… winning percentage line.

Under the current format, even the most compelling playoff races are watered down by days when teams simply spin their wheels. A fan’s excitement over a favorite team’s win is dampened if the closest rival also wins on the same day. A fan’s frustration over a favorite team’s loss is eased (and what’s the fun in that?!) if the closest rival also loses on the same day. Theoretically, about 50 percent of the season’s days are spent like this, with no change in relative standing between two teams in a head-to-head race. A standard-based format, with its stationary 90-win target, would eliminate such enthusiasm-curbed days. Every win is valuable (and everyone knows just how valuable) and every loss is costly (and everyone knows just how costly). In addition to enhancing late-season excitement, I believe this format would also add to early-season urgency.

MLB’s newer formats have effectively strengthened the meaningfulness of the final day of the regular season. In nine of the last ten completed seasons, at least one playoff berth has been on the line during the final day of play. But a standard-based format would also enhance excitement in this regard. Over the same span, at least one team entered the final day of play with a chance to earn a playoff berth (in other words, they entered the final day with 89 wins) in six seasons. And while the frequency doesn’t quite match up, consider the power of a true win-and-you’re-in/lose-and-you’re-out game. The sharp finality sure beats the current win-and-you-might-be-in-but-you-might-have-to-play-a-tiebreaker-game/lose-and-you-might-be-out-but-you-might-get-to-play-a-tiebreaker-game scenario. And if we consider the final weeks of the season (not just the final day), every playoff team would clinch their postseason berth in the most enjoyable way possible – via their own victory (rather than via their closest competitor’s loss). Furthermore, a standard-based format could allow for more frequent and more meaningful leapfrogging among baseball’s best teams. The current format’s funky seeding rules often lock teams who have already clinched into a certain playoff slot, well before the regular season ends, and in ways that are completely illogical.

Consider that, theoretically, the current format should lead to MLB’s ten best teams being matched up in the Division Series round like so:

1 vs. 8/9 4 vs. 5 2 vs. 7/10 3 vs. 6

In reality, wacky seeding rules (and the antiquated fundamental concept of leagues and divisions) have led to the following match-ups (numbers represent overall regular-season rank in MLB; * represents eventual World Series champion):

2015:                   TBD (but sure to be a mess, considering the Pirates’/Cubs’ overall record rank)

2014: 1 vs. 7/10 2 vs. 6 3 vs. 8/9* 4 vs. 5
2013: 1* vs. 8/9 4 vs. 6 2 vs. 5/11 3 vs. 7
2012: 1 vs. 6/12 2 vs. 4* 3 vs. 7/8 5 vs. 11

The silliness extends back to the previous format, where you would expect the following Division Series match-ups…

1 vs. 8 4 vs. 5 2 vs. 7 3 vs. 6

…but instead got:

2011: 1 vs. 8* 4 vs. 6 2 vs. 5 3 vs. 7
2010: 1 vs. 6 5* vs. 7 2 vs. 8 4 vs. 3
2009: 1* vs. 11 2 vs. 4 3 vs. 7 5 vs. 6
2008: 1 vs. 4 3 vs. 9 2 vs. 15 5* vs. 6
2007: 1* vs. 3 2 vs. 4 5 vs. 12 7 vs. 6
2006: 2 vs. 4 3 vs. 5 1 vs. 9 8 vs. 13*
2005: 2* vs. 5 3 vs. 4 1 vs. 14 7 vs. 8

EMBRACING REGIONALITY
The popularity of each of America’s favorite sports continues to grow, but in different ways. The NFL (with its weekly smorgasbord of concurrent action) and NBA (with its transcendent superstars) capitalize on national appeal, while MLB (with unrivaled attendance figures and insanely lucrative regional cable television agreements) flourishes as a regional sport, where fans are exceedingly loyal to their home team, but not so captivated by other teams and players around the league. Baseball bashers criticize the sport’s diminished national appeal (all while revenues soar ever higher) and misguidedly insist MLB should shorten the regular season and promote superstars and blah blah blah to be more like the NFL and NBA.

Instead, MLB should further embrace its claim as a regional powerhouse by adopting a 90-wins-and-in playoff criterion. It’s the ultimate format conducive to a regional sport – you can follow other teams if you wish or ignore them if you wish. It just comes down to whether your team can reach the strikingly stable bar of 90 wins, not whether your team can outcompete others in a division or league. After all, there would be no more divisions or leagues* – just a clean, 30-team table. Through August 31, 2015, that table would look like this:

Team Record Percentage Games Back (of Overall Best Team) Games Back (of Next Best Team) Remaining Record Needed to Qualify
WOULD QUALIFY
Cardinals 85-46 0.649 5-26
Royals 80-50 0.615 4.5 4.5 10-22
Pirates 79-50 0.612 5 0.5 11-22
Cubs 74-56 0.569 10.5 5.5 16-16
Blue Jays 74-57 0.565 11 0.5 16-15
Dodgers 73-57 0.562 11.5 0.5 17-15
Mets 73-58 0.557 12 0.5 17-14
WOULD NOT QUALIFY
Yankees 72-58 0.554 12.5 0.5 18-14
Astros 73-59 0.553 12.5 17-13
Giants 69-62 0.527 16 3.5 21-10
Rangers 68-62 0.523 16.5 0.5 22-10
Twins 67-63 0.515 17.5 1 23-9
Nationals 66-64 0.508 18.5 1 24-8
Angels 65-66 0.496 20 1.5 25-6
Rays 65-66 0.496 20 25-6
Indians 64-66 0.492 20.5 0.5 26-6
Padres 64-67 0.489 21 0.5 26-5
Diamondbacks 63-68 0.481 22 1 27-4
Orioles 63-68 0.481 22 27-4
White Sox 61-68 0.473 23 1 29-4
Red Sox 61-70 0.466 24 1 29-2
Mariners 61-71 0.462 24.5 0.5 29-1
Tigers 60-70 0.462 24.5 30-2
Athletics 58-74 0.439 27.5 3 Eliminated
Brewers 55-75 0.423 29.5 2 Eliminated
Reds 54-76 0.415 30.5 1 Eliminated
Braves 54-77 0.412 31 0.5 Eliminated
Rockies 53-76 0.411 31 Eliminated
Marlins 53-79 0.402 32.5 1.5 Eliminated
Phillies 52-80 0.394 33.5 1 Eliminated

For those fans (like me) who happen to enjoy following baseball on a national scale, a 90-wins-and-in format can enhance that experience, too. For example, speaking only for myself, the Blue Jays/Yankees AL East race and Dodgers/Giants NL West race are exciting because I like one of the teams and don’t like the other (you’ll have to guess who they are). But the Mets/Nationals NL East race and all-inclusive AL second Wild Card race are relatively unexciting because I kinda like all the teams involved (wake me up in October after a winner emerges). A standard-based format would allow fans to simply root for all the teams they like (or adopt mid-season) and root against all the teams they don’t like, with the added excitement and unpredictability that all, some, one, or none of the teams they like (or don’t like) might reach the 90-win mark.

Most profoundly, a standard-based format would allow the postseason to appropriately adapt to the proceedings of the regular season. In seasons where relatively few teams separate themselves from an otherwise-mediocre pack (like 2014, 2008, 2007, 2006, etc.), the postseason would include relatively few teams (making for a September of heartbreak and an exclusive, VIP October). In seasons where a significant number of teams enjoy a strong season (like 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, etc.), the postseason would include a significant number of teams (making for a September of celebration and a wild October). Consider the number of playoff qualifiers and near-misses over the last ten completed seasons:

2015: 7 (STL, PIT, CHC, KCY, TOR, LAD, NYM) with 2 teams at 87-89 wins
2014: 6 (LAA, WSH, BAL, LAD, DET, STL) with 5 teams at 87-89 wins
2013: 11 (STL, BOS, ATL, OAK, PIT, DET, LAD, CLE, TBY, TEX, CIN) with 0 teams at 87-89 wins
2012: 9 (WSH, CIN, NYY, OAK, SFG, ATL, TEX, BAL, TBY) with 3 teams at 87-89 wins
2011: 9 (PHI, NYY, MIL, TEX, DET, ARZ, TBY, STL, BOS) with 1 team at 87-89 wins
2010: 9 (PHI, TBY, NYY, MIN, SFG, CIN, ATL, TEX, SDP) with 2 teams at 87-89 wins
2009: 7 (NYY, LAA, LAD, BOS, PHI, COL, STL) with 4 teams at 87-89 wins
2008: 6 (LAA, CHC, TBY, BOS, PHI, MIL) with 4 teams at 87-89 wins
2007: 6 (BOS, CLE, LAA, NYY, ARZ, COL) with 5 teams at 87-89 wins
2006: 6 (NYM, NYY, MIN, DET, OAK, CHW) with 4 teams at 87-89 wins
2005: 7 (STL, CHW, LAA, NYY, BOS, CLE, ATL) with 3 teams at 87-89 wins

Of course, the possibility exists – however unlikely – that an especially small number of teams (say, three or fewer) reach 90 wins in a given season; in such cases, I would support taking the top four teams (and ties) to the playoffs, but other approaches could be considered.

CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN-ADVENTURE PLAYOFFS
Such a format would lead to a playoff bracket that looks different from year to year, including the likelihood of byes. But this concept isn’t so foreign – MLB’s current ten-team playoff format includes four first-round (Wild Card) participants and six byes. Many of baseball’s decision-makers believe (and they might be right) that long layoffs are detrimental to teams with byes, hence the gimmicky-quick one-game first round. But MLB could improve the legitimacy of this playoff round by lengthening it slightly and letting the best teams decide whether they wish to take part in it, through a playoff draft.

Before I explain how a playoff draft would work in MLB’s 90-wins-and-in format, let me first proclaim that PLAYOFF DRAFTS SHOULD ALREADY BE HAPPENING NOW IN VIRTUALLY EVERY SPORT. The concept of seeds is good, but leagues take it too far by directly placing teams into a postseason slot based on seed. Instead, seeds should represent a playoff draft order, where the #1 team handpicks its first-round opponent (or, if applicable, opts for a bye), then the #2 team (if it hasn’t already been picked by a superior team) does the same, and so on; and then the #1 team handpicks its potential second-round match-up, the #2 team does the same, and so on, all before the playoffs begin. (Here, I explain how the 2015 NCAA Tournament bracket might have looked if it were constructed through a draft, rather than entirely through committee deliberations.) Playoff drafts would make for fascinating viewing, juicy you-wanted-to-play-us?! postseason storylines, and would eliminate (the sometimes justified) whining about placement within the postseason bracket.

Anyway, back to MLB’s 90-wins-and-in format. Most playoff rounds would remain the same length as currently – the round that narrows the field from two teams to one (which would still be known as the World Series) would remain best-of-seven; the round that narrows the field from four teams to two (currently known as the League Championship Series) would remain best-of-seven; the round that narrows the field to four teams (if necessary, and currently known as the League Division Series) could remain best-of-five (I wouldn’t mind extending it to best-of-seven); but the round that narrows the field to eight teams (if necessary, and currently known as the Wild Card Playoff) would be extended to at least best-of-three (possibly even best-of-five or best-of-seven).

With no leagues or divisions, playoff draft order would simply be determined by number of regular-season wins. The best teams would be allowed to choose whether they want to play in the first round or opt for a bye (I imagine most would opt for a bye – but no crying about the layoff if they lose!); they might also be allowed to choose (within reason) how they want the games (or home games specifically) distributed within the series, something we saw for a number of years when a top seed could choose between a compact LDS schedule and a more-dispersed LDS schedule that granted a day off after Game 1 AND Game 2. And by eliminating the requirement that an American League team play a National League team in the World Series (necessarily, because there would be no more distinct leagues; as a side note, the designated hitter rule would need to be unified, but this seems to be on the horizon anyway), this format would add a freshness to the Fall Classic by offering 870 possible match-ups as compared to the current 225 possibilities.

THE (POTENTIAL) FLAW
Oh, but wait. One pesky consideration brings this whole beautiful idea down a few notches on the Scale of Self-Assuredness: TV. Fox, Turner Sports, and ESPN would probably object to a format where the size of the postseason field, and the postseason schedule itself, are so uncertain (no matter how likely this format is to rejuvenate interest in postseason play). And while criticism of MLB postseason TV ratings compels me to say “Hey, who cares? Ratings are low anyway,” I don’t think I could say the same if I were in Commissioner Rob Manfred’s position, negotiating deals worth millions and billions of dollars.

Ahhh, I guess we’ll just have to continue making the best of MLB’s imperfect playoff ten.

APPENDIX

SCHEDULING AND LEAGUE CONFIGURATION
*Sports use divisions primarily for scheduling purposes, not as an aid to identify the best teams (divisions directly undermine that effort). But I propose that the 90-wins-and-in format coincide with the complete elimination of leagues and divisions. This can be done while incorporating a more balanced (in other words, competitively fair) schedule, and maintaining or even reducing overall travel throughout the season.

MLB’s 30 teams would be split into six different scheduling groups based on region (again, these are NOT divisions or conferences or anything like that; these would only be used for scheduling purposes) as follows:

EAST/NORTH A
Boston
New York
New York
Philadelphia
Toronto

EAST/NORTH B
Baltimore
Cleveland
Detroit
Pittsburgh
Washington

EAST/NORTH C
Chicago
Chicago
Cincinnati
Milwaukee
St. Louis

WEST/SOUTH D
Atlanta
Houston
Miami
Tampa Bay
Texas

WEST/SOUTH E
Arizona
Colorado
Kansas City
Minnesota
Seattle

WEST/SOUTH F
Los Angeles
Los Angeles
Oakland
San Diego
San Francisco

Each team would play each of the other four teams in its immediate group ten times (40 games, likely facing each opponent twice in a three-game series and once in a four-game series); each team would play each of the remaining ten teams on its half of the map (East/North or West/South) six times (60 games, likely facing each opponent twice in a three-game series); each team would play each of the 15 teams on the other half of the map four times (60 games, facing 14 such opponents once in a four-game series, and one such opponent in two separate two-game series). That leaves two games left to be played over the course of the season. To round out the schedule, each team would be randomly placed in a sub-cluster with two other teams from the same half of the map. It would play one additional game against each of those teams, and those games would be tacked on to a series already scheduled.

WOULD STANDARD-BASED PLAYOFF QUALIFYING CRITERION AND PLAYOFF DRAFTS WORK IN OTHER SPORTS?
Absolutely, and maybe even more so in the NFL (where playoff byes are always regarded favorably by the teams granted them) than in MLB.

For context, here are some possible standards with corresponding number of playoff qualifiers from recent years:

NFL (10-wins-and-in)
2015: 11
2014: 12
2013: 11
2012: 13
2011: 9
2010: 13
2009: 10
2008: 10 or 11 (Eagles finished 9-6-1; under this format, no games would end in a tie, so Eagles might have finished 9-7 or 10-6)
2007: 11
2006: 8
2005: 13

NBA (45-wins-and-in)
2016: 11
2015: 14
2014: 13
2013: 13
2012: 12 (based on equivalent winning percentage through 66 games)
2011: 12
2010: 14
2009: 13
2008: 13
2007: 10
2006: 10

2016 UPDATE
Through August 31, 2016, the MLB standings table would look like this:

Team Record Percentage Games Back (of Overall Best Team) Games Back (of Next Best Team) Remaining Record Needed to Qualify
WOULD QUALIFY
Cubs 85-47 0.644 5-25
Rangers 80-54 0.597 6 6 10-18
Nationals 78-55 0.586 7.5 1.5 12-17
Indians 76-56 0.576 9 1.5 14-16
Blue Jays 76-57 0.571 9.5 0.5 14-15
Dodgers 74-59 0.556 11.5 2 16-13
Red Sox 74-59 0.556 11.5 16-13
WOULD NOT QUALIFY
Giants 72-60 0.545 13 1.5 18-12
Orioles 72-61 0.541 13.5 0.5 18-11
Tigers 72-61 0.541 13.5 18-11
Astros 71-62 0.534 14.5 1 19-10
Cardinals 70-62 0.530 15 0.5 20-10
Yankees 69-63 0.523 16 1 21-9
Mets 69-64 0.519 16.5 0.5 21-8
Royals 69-64 0.519 16.5 21-8
Pirates 67-64 0.511 17.5 1 23-8
Mariners 68-65 0.511 17.5 22-7
Marlins 67-66 0.504 18.5 1 23-6
Rockies 64-69 0.481 21.5 3 26-3
White Sox 63-69 0.477 22 0.5 27-3
Phillies 60-73 0.451 25.5 3.5 Eliminated
Angels 59-74 0.444 26.5 1 Eliminated
Brewers 57-76 0.429 28.5 2 Eliminated
Athletics 57-76 0.429 28.5 Eliminated
Rays 56-76 0.424 29 0.5 Eliminated
Diamondbacks 56-77 0.421 29.5 0.5 Eliminated
Padres 55-77 0.417 30 0.5 Eliminated
Reds 55-77 0.417 30 Eliminated
Braves 50-83 0.376 35.5 5.5 Eliminated
Twins 49-84 0.368 36.5 1 Eliminated

RETURN TO BASEBALL

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