Less than one week remains in the 2022 MLB regular season and next Friday the postseason will begin with the best-of-three Wild Card Series. Baseball has a new 12-team postseason format and it remains to be seen whether it improves the product. I was skeptical of the Wild Card Game at first, but I quickly grew to love it. Maybe the same will happen with the 12-team format.
Anyway, five of the six division titles have been clinched, with only the NL East undecided. Five of the six wild-card spots are up for grabs as well, though we know who the three wild-card teams will be in the American League, and the National League wild-card race is down to three teams for two spots. With less than a week to play, there's not that much on the line around the league.
For posterity's sake, this is what the postseason bracket would look like if the season ended Thursday, which of course it does not:
- Byes: No. 1 Astros and No. 2 Yankees
- WC: No. 6 Mariners at No. 3 Guardians (winner plays No. 2 in ALDS)
- WC: No. 5 Rays vs. No. 4 Blue Jays (winner plays No. 1 in ALDS)
- Byes: No. 1 Dodgers and No. 2 Mets
- WC: No. 6 Phillies at No. 3 Cardinals (winner plays No. 2 in NLDS)
- WC: No. 5 Padres at No. 4 Braves (winner plays No. 1 in NLDS)
. It's a bit unusual (off-days are scattered throughout each series rather than the usual 2-2-1 LDS and 2-3-2 LCS formats) but it works just as well. How is the new 12-team format impacting the postseason races? A few ways, really. Let's break 'em down.
1. The No. 6 seed may be more desirable than the No. 5 seed
Teams will not be reseeded after the Wild Card Series. The winner of the No. 3 vs. No. 6 Wild Card Series will play the No. 2 seed in the LDS no matter what, and the winner of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 Wild Card Series will play the No. 1 seed in the LDS no matter what. In the LDS the team with the league's best record will face a wild-card team, not a division winner, period.
That sounds great in theory, but in practice it doesn't always work out so neatly. Some wild-card teams are better than some division winners every season, and this year's NL East is the great example. The NL East runner-up will have a much better record and run differential than the NL Central winner. Because of that, the No. 6 seed might be more desirable than the No. 5 seed.
Consider the possibilities in the National League using the standings as of this moment:
No. 5 seed: Goes on the road to face the No. 4 seed (Braves) in the Wild Card Series, and if they win, they then have to face the No. 1 seed (Dodgers) in the NLDS.
No. 6 seed: Goes on the road to face the No. 3 seed (Cardinals) in the Wild Card Series, and if they win, they then have to face the No. 2 seed (Mets) in the NLDS.
With all due respect to St. Louis, give me the No. 6 seed over the No. 5 seed. I want no part of having to go through the Braves and Dodgers in a single postseason. I am fully aware that any team can beat any other team on any given night (or in any given series) in this game, and that you're facing good teams no matter what in October, but sheesh, that No. 5 seed is a tough draw.
There's a flip side to this too. The Dodgers could run into a 100-win Braves team in the NLDS while the Mets face the Cardinals or a sub-90 win wild-card team. Why should the Dodgers, owner of baseball's best record and a historically great run differential, have a tougher road to the NLCS than the No. 2 seed? That's what happens when you don't reseed.
Now here are the wild-card possibilities in the American League, again using the current standings:
No. 5 seed: Goes on the road to face the No. 4 seed (Blue Jays) in the Wild Card Series, and if they win, they then have to face the No. 1 seed (Astros) in the ALDS.
No. 6 seed: Goes on the road to face the No. 3 seed (Guardians) in the Wild Card Series, and if they win, they then have to face the No. 2 seed (Yankees in the ALDS).
The AL is not as clear-cut as the NL, especially with the way Cleveland and the Yankees have played this month, but I can buy the No. 6 seed being more desirable than the No. 5 seed in the AL too. At minimum, you have to think about. It's not obvious being the higher seed is preferable, and that's a bit of a problem, no? The postseason format should incentivize teams to finish with the best possible record, and that isn't really the case with the No. 5 and No. 6 seeds this year.
I must note losing games to ensure you're the No. 6 seed instead of the No. 5 seed is not a thing that will happen. The wild-card races are too close to strategically lose games, plus players are not wired this way. They go out onto the field every night to win. They don't care about the better on paper matchup. Fans might, but that's not the way players think. Still, it looks like the No. 6 seed is the way to go this year. The No. 5 seed has a tougher road.
2. A lack of compelling races
This is a fair question: Would the postseason races be more exciting with the old 10-team format? I think the answer is yes. This is what the 10-team postseason bracket would look like using the current standings:
- Wild Card Game: No. 5 Rays at No. 4 Blue Jays
- ALDS: Wild Card Game winner at No. 1 Astros
- ALDS: No. 3 Guardians at No. 2 Yankees
- Wild Card Game: No. 5 Padres at No. 4 Braves
- NLDS: Wild Card Game winner at No. 1 Dodgers
- NLDS: No. 3 Cardinals at No. 2 Mets
In the AL, we'd have three teams (Blue Jays, Mariners, Rays) battling for two wild-card spots with the old 10-team format. Instead, we have three teams locked into three wild-card spots and battling for nothing more than seeding. That's not terribly exciting, is it?
Over in the NL, the NL East runner-up is locked into the top wild-card spot, and we have three teams (Brewers, Padres, Phillies) competing for the other two wild-card spots. With the old postseason format it would be three teams competing for one wild-card spot. I think we can all agree that would be much more compelling.
The postseason races are different every season and next year could be much more exciting with more wide open fields, but Year 1 of the 12-team format has given us dud races outside the NL East (a race that would exist no matter the postseason format) and the second and third NL wild-card spots. "More teams in the race" doesn't automatically equal better races.
Also, keep in mind MLB will likely push for a 14-team postseason format after 2026, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. The league wanted a 14-team format this time around but the MLBPA resisted, citing concerns about watered down competition. .
The 14-team format would have made the 2022 races even less compelling because the Brewers and Orioles, the first two teams on the outside of the postseason looking in, are far ahead of the next best teams (Giants and White Sox, respectively), and there would be no races for wild-card spots. The Brewers and Orioles would be in and the only wild-card races would be for seeding.
3. The importance of tiebreakers
MLB and the MLBPA agreed to do away with Game 163 tiebreakers as part of the new collective bargaining agreement and the fan in me finds that supremely lame. There have been some classic Game 163s (Bucky bleepin' Dent's home run in 1978, the extra innings chaos that was Twins vs. Tigers in 2009, etc.) and now all ties will be settled mathematically. Boring!
Here are the tiebreakers. Things get a bit messy with three- and four-team ties, though MLB has tiebreaker scenarios sketched out and at the ready.
- Head-to-head record.
- Record within the division.
- Record against teams in the same league but outside the division.
- Record in last 81 games against league opponents.
- Record in last 81 games against league opponents, plus one until the tie is broken.
To be clear, every single tie will be broken mathematically, even ties in which one team will make the postseason and the other will not. MLB used the same tiebreaker formula in 2020 and it cost the Giants a postseason berth. The Brewers and Giants both went 29-31, but the Brewers had the better intradivision record (19-21 vs. 18-22), so Milwaukee got the No. 8 seed and San Francisco went home (the two teams didn't play that year, so there was no head-to-head record).
Needless to say, holding the tiebreaker is now far more important than it was in the past, when all it did was determine home-field advantage. In the event of a tie, you always had a chance to play for your season, even if you had to go on the road. That is no longer the case. You better hold the tiebreaker with this new format. It could decide your season.
In the AL, the tiebreaker won't be all that important this year because we know who the six postseason teams will be, and the three division titles are already clinched. The tiebreaker could be used to decide which team is the No. 4 seed and which team is the No. 5 seed, or which team is the No. 5 seed and which team is the No. 6 seed, but that's it. The tiebreakers are relatively low stakes in the Junior Circuit.
But, in the NL, the tiebreaker could be extremely important. The Braves and Mets are fighting for the division title and, if they finish with identical records, the tiebreaker will determine the division winner. That means one team gets a Wild Card Series bye and the other has to play in the best-of-three Wild Card Series. That's a huge, World Series odds changing difference!
The Mets currently lead the season series 9-7 over the Braves, but the two teams begin a three-game series Friday, giving Atlanta a chance to take it back. The Braves need to sweep to win the season series, and, of course, a sweep would put them two games up in the division, reducing the chances they have to fall back on the tiebreaker. Still, you'd rather have the tiebreaker than not.
The tiebreaker could also come into the play in the wild-card race. The NL East runner-up is locked into the No. 4 seed, but the No. 5 and 6 seeds are up for grabs. Here's who holds those tiebreakers (these are final):
The Brewers are in tough spot despite being only a half-game behind the Phillies for the third wild-card spot. They don't hold the tiebreaker over either the Padres or Phillies, so that half-game deficit is effectively a 1 1/2-game deficit. A tie does Milwaukee no good. They have to finish with a better record than either the Padres or Phillies to get into the postseason.
The Phillies can sleep a little bit easier knowing the hold the tiebreaker over the Brewers and Padres. All they have to do is finish with the same record as one of those teams to clinch their postseason berth since 2011. The Padres hold the tiebreaker over the Brewers and that's the important one because Milwaukee is on the outside looking in.
It's entirely possibly the NL East title and the final NL wild-card spot will be determined via tiebreakers this year. In the past, the Braves and Mets would have played a Game 163 to decide the division, and the two teams that tie for the No. 6 seed would have also played a Game 163 to determine who went to the postseason and who went home. Now it comes down to math.