This is one of those posts that’s as much of a “what if?” mental exercise as much as it is anything else. These ideas are roughly applicable to all major American sports leagues, but I’m thinking particularly as they apply to baseball. So without further ado…
Idea 1: Don’t Have a Set Number of Playoff Teams
In baseball, five teams make it into the playoffs from each league (if you want to count that dinky wild card game). Doesn’t matter if the first place team won 110 games and the wild card is barely over .500. Theoretically, the team that won the 110 games should demolish an 85 win team. But as we all know, that doesn’t always happen. The question should be asked, though, should they even be playing? Has not the 110 win team earned the right to bypass their vastly inferior competitors?
What if the playoffs consisted of all the teams that were no more than, say, five games behind the first place team? So, for example, last year the New York Yankees finished in first place in the American League with 95 wins. The American League playoffs would consist of all teams who won at least 90 games. Basically, nothing would have changed – Tampa Bay would have made the playoffs instead of Detroit. The same is true in the National League, except that St. Louis wouldn’t have made the playoffs.
So you can argue that there’s little point to implementing such a change. Maybe Detroit played in a tougher division (thus their lower record), but they should have been rewarded for winning that division. That argument can be made and it’s legitimate.
But lets go back to 2002, a year in which three teams won at least 100 games. In the American League, New York, Oakland, and Anaheim would have still made the playoffs with Minnesota, at just 94 wins as opposed to the league leading 103, being cut out. On the National league side, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Arizona would’ve been playoff bound. The San Francisco Giants, who ended up losing the World Series in seven games, would not have made the playoffs because they won just 95 games compared to Atlanta’s 101.
So while this idea wouldn’t normally have significant influence on the number of teams in the playoffs in any given year, it would have a meaningful effect. Really what I like the most about this idea is that it means every team has to play every game as though it matters. If you’re way out in front, you want to keep trying hard because it makes the playoff path that much easier. It makes sure that regular season record is very significant.
Idea 2: Have Separate Regular Season and Playoff Champions
In English football (soccer), there are multiple competitions that a team can win every year. The team who finishes the season with the most points (more or less the best record; three points are awarded for a win, one for a tie) is said to have won the league. There’s a trophy associated with that and the team are considered champions. There are also tournaments which teams can win, primarily the FA Cup (which is only contested within Great Britain) and the UEFA Champions League (which is contested across Europe). Teams have to finish high in the league to qualify for these tournaments, so in some ways they function similarly to playoffs.
What if baseball (or football, or basketball, or hockey, etc.) had separate but equally prestigious awards for the winner of the best record in the league and the winner of the playoffs? I mean, there sort of is something like this already with division winners, but with six total winners and three higher honors (AL, NL, and World Series champions) division titles have limited gravitas. What might be interesting is that if the AL and NL pennants were wholly divorced from the playoffs. The team with the best record in each league would win the pennant, and then the playoffs would commence to decide the world series champion.
Anyways, I don’t necessarily think the playoff systems we have are necessarily broken, but that doesn’t mean we can’t always be thinking of ways to improve them. This was kind of fun just to think about. If you have any other ideas, post them in the comments!