[Note: this is a long Friday baseball post, and I'll warn everyone right away that there's no political content.]
We're about to leave the dog days of August and enter into the pennant race homestretch...but there's little excitement remaining, thanks to the lousy playoff structure baseball has set up. If you look at Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report, you'll see that three of the four spots in the National League are locked in already; the AL isn't quite as bad, but there's not too much going on there, either. The best teams are playing for nothing in September, and then after taking the month off they often get eliminated quickly in the postseason tournament. In fact, in the first fourteen years of the current setup, ten wild card teams have advanced to the World Series (that's 36%, against the 25% of all playoff teams that are WCs).
MLB was quite right to expand the playoffs from a single World Series (1905-1968), to a two-tiered playoff (1969-1993) and then to the current system beginning in 1995. This expansion matched the expansion of teams from the "original" sixteen to the current thirty; it also took advantage of the clear demand for baseball -- there's been no shortage of TV buyers for the baseball postseason product. I'll take it as a given that MLB should have a structure that produces eight postseason teams.
What I've supported for years now is the following system: return each league to two divisions. First place teams advance. Second place teams advance. First round crosses 2nd place vs. 1st place (i.e. NL West 1st place vs. NL East 2nd place). First place team needs fewer wins than second place teams to advance -- I'd probably go with two wins for the first place team compared with three for the second place team. Also, I'd give more home games to the first place team; if it were really up to me, I'd consider letting the first place team host the entire series.
What do we want in a playoff system? It should maximize exciting Septembers, including lots of match-ups between contenders. It should promote rivalries in the long run. It should reward better teams. It should be fair.
The current system does a lousy job of those things. Small divisions yield fewer close races than larger divisions. The Wild Card system makes it impossible to schedule games between contenders, since teams from different divisions are often playing for a playoff spot. The system doesn't really reward good teams, because the very best teams have no meaningful seeding advantage in the postseason. Given unbalanced schedules (and interleague play), competing teams often play very different schedules, which can be very unfair.
I've heard complaints that a second place team in one division may well be "better" than the division winner it plays in the first round, and yet the better team is penalized, basically for being in the better division. Of course, if unbalanced schedules are retained (as they should be), then it won't be clear which team is actually better. And this type of unfairness for the second best team isn't nearly as big a problem, in my view, as the unfairness to a great team which must pass through two rounds of playoffs without any seeding advantages. More importantly, for fans, it's unfair that we don't get to see the very best teams in the World Series.
A more serious complaint, I think, is that this system would eliminate .500 teams from serious competition a lot earlier in the season. I think that's right; in fact, in the current setup, sub-.500 teams are often on the fringes of the race far into the season. I'm sure that management likes marketing a 35-40 team as a contender...but I don't think it's very good for baseball that teams have little reason to strive for greatness. And the flip side of this is that currently there's a real chance that one of the small divisions could easily produce a sub-.500 winner, and that team would have an almost equal chance of becoming World Series Champion. The reform proposal would eliminate the chances of that disaster (it's highly unlikely that a seven team division would produce a sub-.500 second place team, and even more unlikely that such a team would make it to the World Series). Mediocre teams that did advance in the reformed system would have done so by doing something really exciting, which would make them interesting to follow in the subsequent rounds, instead of just another mediocre team that snuck through.
The best part of the reform, to me, is that it could revive the possibility of a true pennant race between two great teams. Right now, the Yankees are safely ahead of the Red Sox with a month to go. But if the Sox suddenly won ten in a row and moved from six to, say, two games back, all it would do would be to lock up the Wild Card for the Sox. The Yankees wouldn't care that they were threatened, because they wouldn't be threatened -- no one cares who finishes first or second in the current system. And that's why reform is really needed; at least in baseball, where teams play every day for six months, you really need to care who finishes first.