Marty Niland: The folly of baseball’s new playoff system

First the good news: By virtue of the best record in baseball, the Nationals have the home field advantage in a best-of-five series against Friday’s wild card winner. Now the bad news: By virtue of the best record in baseball, the Nationals have the home field advantage in a best-of-five series against Friday’s wild card winner.

How’s that?

The half-baked playoff system that Major League Baseball came up with this year means the Nats will take to the road for two games in either Atlanta or St. Louis before coming home for only one guaranteed game. That’s hardly an advantage befitting the team with the best record in the major leagues.

A team playing its first two games on the road actually has little advantage, especially if it loses those games. The 2-3 format is so bad that that baseball dropped it 27 years ago in favor of a seven game, 2-3-2 format, after seeing the team with the supposed home field advantage lose 21 of 32 series from 1969-1985.

In many of those cases, the losing team dropped its first two games on the road and never recovered. The only saving grace was that each division champion hosted the first games in alternate years, and records had no bearing. Even after bringing back the best-of-five in the division series 10 years later, baseball had the good sense to switch to a 2-2-1 format, giving the higher-seeded team two guaranteed home games.

This is, of course, supposed to be a one-year solution to a problem that was created when the new postseason format featuring a second wild card team was hastily instituted. But the sad part about it is, at least in this year’s scenarios, the second wild card was largely unnecessary and actually removed some drama from the final week of the regular season, rather than adding more.

With all due respect to the Cardinals, let’s pretend that last year’s playoff rules were in effect and reset the final few days of the season. The National League doesn’t look any different, except that the Cards are eliminated when the Braves clinch the wild card spot.
But in the American League, two division races went down to the wire. The Orioles, Yankees, A’s and Rangers are all playing for division titles. The O’s and Rangers would wind still up tied for the lone wild card spot, so what would happen? They would play a one-game playoff, just as they are doing now.

Now, let’s imagine the scenarios under the older format, where only two division champions made the playoffs. The Nats and Reds would roll to their respective titles in the National League. But in the AL, rather than playing for seeding, the two contenders in each division would be playing for their lives in the first week of October, with only two surviving. That’s real excitement!

Finally, let’s pretend the rules never changed in 1969, and there are no divisions: The Nats and the Reds would go down to the last game of the season for the NL pennant. The four-team AL race would also go down to the wire, with only one team emerging. Had two teams tied, the AL rules would have called for a one-game playoff. The NL’s pre-division rules called for a best-of-three. Many people don’t realize that Bobby Thompson’s famous “shot heard ‘round the world” homer came in Game 3 of the Dodgers-Giants playoff series, and was actually Thompson’s second home run of the series. Both came off Ralph Branca. I’ve been unable to get a definitive answer on how a three-way tie would have been resolved. It apparently never happened, though there must have been some kind of contingency.

Baseball tried to gin up some drama in the final week of the season by adding an extra wild card team, but it only watered down an already classic finish. Now the postseason is upon us. The 2-3 format is fraught with peril for the higher-seeded teams, but for fans who have never seen postseason baseball in person, it will have to be good enough.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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