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New format isn’t to blame for chaotic opening week of 2023 MLB playoffs

Several road upsets have some corners criticizing the recent changes to baseball’s postseason. But this has always been the bargain inherent in capping a 162-game marathon with a short-series sprint.

Kyle Tucker of the Houston Astros reacts after striking out against the Minnesota Twins during the eighth inning in Game Two of the Division Series at Minute Maid Park on October 08, 2023 in Houston, Texas. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

To call the first week of the 2023 MLB playoffs chaotic is an understatement. After two road teams (the Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers) pulled off upsets in the Wild Card round, all four home favorites now find themselves tied or behind in the Divisional round: The Orioles lost the first two games of their ALDS to the Rangers, the Astros split their first two with the Twins, and both the Braves and Dodgers find themselves in a 1-0 hole entering their respective Game 2s on Monday night.

As you might imagine, 100-win juggernauts being pushed immediately to the brink by inferior teams — or teams that were inferior in the regular season, at least — has caused some consternation about baseball’s new expanded postseason format, and whether or not said format is “fair”. (Perhaps not coincidentally, said consternation has been particularly concentrated in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston and Baltimore.) The argument goes that the advent of two more Wild Card teams last year, and the creation of an extra Wild Card round, doesn’t adequately reward regular-season greatness, with the extended schedule and built-in off-days allowing teams to advance without straining their pitching staffs. No less than Ken Rosenthal has entered the fray, suggesting on Monday morning that the extended layoff for teams that earn a first-round bye might have put them at a disadvantage in their Division Series.

But while the details may be updated, this debate isn’t actually about rule changes, or Wild Card rounds, or days off, or any of that. It’s about something far more fundamental, something we’ve been arguing about for literally decades now: the tension inherent in capping a marathon regular season — the longest and most meritocratic of any major American sport, by far — with a month full of short series in which anything can happen, and the incentive structure shifts from a war of attrition to a bullpen-heavy sprint.

Again, none of this is new, and none of it is actually about the changes MLB made to the playoffs prior to the 2022 season. Consider: In 2022, the first season of this new format, the top-seeded Astros won 106 games during the regular season, then swept through the AL playoffs before defeating the Phillies to win it all. In 2021, the last season of the old format, the Atlanta Braves had the worst record of any of the NL’s five playoff teams ... then got hot and streaked all the way to a World Series title.

One, two, three Wild Card teams, it doesn’t actually matter; once you introduce the chaos of multiple short series, you’re going to produce outcomes that aren’t necessarily “fair”, or that don’t sit well with teams that feel as though they just proved their superior worth over the last six months. And I don’t begrudge that frustration: We tell ourselves that championships are the ultimate reward for being the best, but clearly if that were the only consideration we wouldn’t then ask the team that just proved it was the best to play a month-long tournament that involves an entirely separate strategy — and at times feels like an entirely different game. (Just look at the Phillies, who just used an army of nasty bullpen arms to silence the Braves in Game 1 — an army that manager Rob Thomson can use far more aggressively in October because he knows he has a built-in off day around the corner.)

We would, instead, be something more akin to the Premier League, where 38 matchweeks separate the wheat from the chaff and no one calls for an extra tournament to be tacked on to the end. (They have both the Champions League and FA Cup to scratch that itch, much to Pep Guardiola’s dismay.) We aren’t satisfied with that solution, though. We want the excitement and suspense of a postseason, because postseasons are ... exciting and suspenseful. They’ve given us a ton of the most iconic moments in the history of American sports, and it’s hard to imagine fandom without them.

We just need to be honest about the tradeoff that we’re making: If the Orioles or Astros or Braves or Dodgers get sent home by a team they were categorically better than over a far larger sample size, it’s not because of any format tweaks, and it won’t be solved by any successive format tweaks. The modern era of baseball’s playoffs, no matter the rules, have been defined by upsets — the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series after going 83-78 in the regular season, for crying out loud. Instead, it will be because we made a choice for our own viewing pleasure (and for TV ratings, and for more ticket revenue). Unless we’re willing to totally wind that choice back, great teams will continue to get sent home early, no matter what rewards or obstacles are put into place.