Major League Baseball’s expanded postseason bracket takes center stage for the first time this October. Even without the Nationals involved for the third straight season, it should be an interesting month of playoff baseball.
Instead of two teams playing in each of the Wild Card Games that were used in nine of the last 10 seasons (the shortened 2020 season had eight teams each from the National and American leagues make the playoffs), there are now three wild card teams in each league to complete in the 12-team field.
The 12 teams are placed in a bracket similar to the National Football League’s old 12-team playoff field, with the top two seeds in each league receiving a first-round bye while the Wild Card Series are played. The difference being there is no reseeding after the first round.
Without reseeding in the Division Series, the matchups in the first round are the No. 3 seed hosting the No. 6 seed (winner to play the No. 2 seed) and the No. 4 seed hosting the No. 5 seed (winner to play the No. 1 seed). This is so the No. 3 seed, the third division winner, cannot match up with the No. 1 seed, the league’s best record, in the second round.
But is this format more beneficial for the lower seeds?
Here is how the matchups break down:
NL Wild Card Series (best-of-three, all games at higher seed)
Phillies (6) at Cardinals (3)
Padres (5) at Mets (4)
Dodgers (1) and Braves (2) have byes
NL Division Series (best-of-five)
Padres/Mets at Dodgers
Phillies/Cardinals at Braves
AL Wild Card Series (best-of-three, all games at higher seed)
Rays (6) at Guardians (3)
Mariners (5) at Blue Jays (4)
Astros (1) and Yankees (2) have byes
AL Division Series (best-of-five)
Mariners/Blue Jays at Astros
Rays/Guardians at Yankees
This may be difficult to follow along, so here’s a visual aid if you need it. (It certainly helps me.)
Let’s start in the National League.
The Phillies avoided an epic late-season collapse to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2011. Their reward? The No. 6 seed as the final wild card spot with 87 wins and a weekend in St. Louis against the 93-win Cardinals, who won the not-so-competitive NL Central by seven games.
Now before you count out the Phillies as the lowest seed, consider this: They won the season series against the Cardinals 4-3, including the first two of a four-game set at Busch Stadium in July.
If the Phillies had caught the Padres for the fifth seed (the two were only separated by one game heading into the penultimate day of the regular season), they would have had to go to New York to face the 101-win Mets, who they went 5-14 against this year.
And if the Phillies win two games in St. Louis, they will then head to Atlanta to face the defending world champion, 101-win and No. 2 seed Braves. The Phillies went 8-11 against the Braves, but only 3-6 at Truist Park (inflated by a three-game sweep in September during the Braves’ late-season tear). The two teams split the 10 games played in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the Mets, who had a chance to win the NL East during the season’s last week, will now face the Padres, who have a lot of star power themselves. If the Mets get past them, their reward would be to fly across the country to face the 111-win Dodgers. Although again, that is their own fault for not clinching the division and No. 2 seed when they had the chance.
In the American League, the Rays are the No. 6 seed after finishing four games behind the Mariners. The 86-win Rays - who play in the AL East, one of the toughest divisions in baseball - face the 92-win Guardians, who won the AL Central. That division didn’t have another team finish above .500 (the White Sox finished 81-81).
The Rays, however, did struggle against the Guardians, losing the season series 4-2. Meanwhile, they won their series against the Blue Jays and Mariners 10-9 and 5-2, respectively, so they might have been in better shape had they played their way out of the lowest seed.
The Astros and Yankees provide no easy task for whichever teams make it to the Division Series. But the Rays are on the Yankees’ side of the bracket and went 8-11 against their division rivals while just going 1-5 against the Astros this year. One could assume the more familiar foe would be the more desirable matchup.
On the other side, the Mariners might prefer to be in the Yankees’ bracket as the No. 6 seed rather than the Astros’ as the No. 5 seed, even though Houston is the more familiar opponent as an AL West rival. The M’s won their season series against the Blue Jays 5-2 (even though both losses came in Toronto) and the Yankees 4-2. But they were roughed up by the Astros, losing the season series 12-7.
Of course, this is just the matchups on paper. Everything changes in October baseball, which is famously unpredictable. It’s why we play postseason games and don’t crown a champion at the end of the regular season.
I was always a fan of the Wild Card Game. I thought the intensity and drama of the game were great. I’m sure the Nationals and their fans would agree.
But I also understand that it wasn’t necessarily fair for a 162-game season to come down to one game, when anything can happen. (Like a routine single getting past a right fielder for a go-ahead bases-clearing double with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, for example.)
So I’m a fan of the expanded bracket and the three-game Wild Card Series, instead of a single game. It also rewards teams for having successful campaigns through the grind of the regular season. (Not to mention it makes the league more money in television rights fees.)
Is it a perfect system? No.
But it gives us more playoff baseball, and that’s never a bad thing in my mind.