Will Baseball’s New Playoff Format Lead To Late-Season Tanking?

Teams seeded sixth instead of fifth could have better odds of advancing
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It all used to be so simple.

From the outset of the 20th century until 1968, the best team in the American League played the best team in the National League in the World Series. And that was the extent of Major League Baseball’s postseason.

Things got a little more complicated in 1969, as each league split into two divisions. Still, expanding the playoffs from two to four teams was straightforward enough. 

This format held until 1994, which marked the dawn of three divisions and a wild card team in each league. But after a long period of relative postseason stability, the last few years have been like a game of blindfolded darts.

“We’ve seen like three different [playoff] formats in three years,” Sam Panayotovich, a sports betting analyst for FOX Sports and NESN, accurately noted. “The Major League Baseball postseason is kind of having an identity crisis right now.”

This year’s playoff format will include a total of 12 entrants, with the top two division winners in each league earning the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds and a first-round bye. The remaining eight teams — four in each division — will play in a wild card round featuring best-of-three series, with the higher-seeded team hosting every game. 

The worst division winner in each league will be awarded the No. 3 seed regardless of whether it has a better record than the top wild card team. In the National League, this means — using their records as of Monday afternoon — the 85-68 Padres would have to play up to three games at 95-58 Atlanta, while the 83-69 Phillies would play the 89-65 Cardinals in St. Louis.

“In the National League, for sure you’re trying to avoid Atlanta,” said Panayotovich.

Which raises an interesting question: Might this MLB postseason be the first in which certain wild card teams do a little late-season tanking to tumble into a more advantageous first-round matchup?

“I never thought even about the remote possibility of this happening, but this actually could happen,” said Robert Kowalski, ZenSports’ general manager of sports betting and the sportsbook director at Baldini’s Casino in Sparks, Nevada. “I’d much rather play St. Louis than Atlanta.”

“You definitely don’t want to get too cute with it,” cautioned WynnBET trader Andy Morrissey. “If you’re at six [games up] with a week left, that should be enough. They’re probably just trying to win the games, but once you’ve clinched, it opens up another can of worms.”

The perils of pumping the brakes

Listed by WynnBET at 9/1 to win the NL pennant, the Cardinals are a longer shot than either the Braves (+375) or the Mets (+275). The latter two teams are engaged in a tight divisional race with a first-round bye at stake, while Milwaukee still has a decent chance of knocking either Philadelphia or San Diego out of the playoffs.

“If you’re Philly right now, it’s tough because you don’t exactly want to be the [fifth seed],” said Panayotovich. “You don’t want to go to Atlanta, but you can’t exactly tank. I think if you’re Philly, you’ve just got to get in. You could potentially blow a tire and not make it at all.”

In the American League, red-hot Cleveland has clinched the Central, and as of Monday it had the same record (86-67) as the top wild card team, Toronto. But sportsbooks are giving the Blue Jays a lot more respect than the Guardians, who play in MLB’s worst division, when it comes to their potential to win the pennant. Here, Toronto’s odds range from 6/1 at PointsBet and WynnBET to 8/1 at FanDuel and the SuperBook, while Cleveland’s odds range from 10/1 at the SuperBook to 15/1 at WynnBET.

While the Orioles aren’t mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, they trailed the Mariners by four games Monday and would need something of a miracle to leapfrog Seattle or Tampa Bay. 

“Seattle or Tampa could both sort of pick their respective positions,” said Panayotovich. “There’s wiggle room there.”

Hence, should the Mariners clinch a wild card berth heading into their final four regular-season games against the lowly Tigers, they may prefer facing Cleveland, a team they’ve beaten six out of seven times this season. Should Seattle find itself in this position, it could get creative in terms of which personnel it chooses to trot out against Detroit.

“If Seattle clinched and there’s one game left against the Tigers and it’s meaningless, you’d better believe I’d be all over Twitter to see who’s in the lineup. And I’m probably not offering as much liquidity on that game until I see what that lineup is going to look like,” said Kowalski.

Another format change in the offing?

Pro basketball offers some parallels to MLB’s current playoff situation. The NBA used to guarantee its division winners home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but it began basing its seeding exclusively on won-loss records in 2015 after some funky regular-season outcomes.

As for the WNBA, the women’s league shifted from a win-or-go-home first round to a best-of-three series this past season. This gave the squad with the better record the first two games at home, but it forced that team to go on the road for a decisive third game. Two of the four first-round series went to a third game, and despite the fact that the higher seeds won on the road, it did little to silence critics.

“I don’t think you’re ever gonna have an ideal situation in a three-game format,” Robert Walker, director of sportsbook operations for USBookmaking, told US Bets last month. “They can’t have a 1-1-1. That’s insanity.”

Major League Baseball, of course, has chosen not to have anyone travel at all during its wild card round. But while home field may not mean as much in baseball as it does in other sports, Kowalski observed, “You’ve got three games and all of them are going to be road games. That’s a bad beat.”

That being said, Kowalski added, “I understand not wanting to extend the series [with a travel day] because I guess you’re punishing the 1 and 2 [seeds] — rest versus rust.”

The rust factor is crucial to Panayotovich, who said, “For the first time ever, the two best teams in each league, they’re going to take four or five days off. Baseball is all about momentum, and they’re not going to have momentum.”

He then added, “I’m most curious to see how the 3 seeds perform. I think their path is easier than it’s ever been. They’re gonna play the worst team in their respective leagues. All three games are at home. Cleveland’s probably going to be -180 at home, then they get the Yankees, who haven’t played in five days. I love [Cleveland’s] pitching, I love their bullpen, and they pressure the hell out of you on the base paths.”

Panayotovich concluded, “I don’t know that this format is long in the tooth,” while Morrissey essentially concurred.

“I feel like they’re trying to add even more and more teams, but it kind of diminishes winning your division if you wind up in the wild card round,” he said. “They have some more tinkering to do, but you can’t keep tinkering every year.”

Photo: Dale Zanine/USA TODAY

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