The Confusing Bastardization of Playoff Baseball

Eli Horowitz | Medium Talk Co-Creator

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been out of the loop where baseball is concerned. I haven’t followed baseball closely since 2008, (after drinking an entire bottle of Jim Beam following the Cubs playoff defeat to the L.A. Dodgers). Aside from just enjoying basketball and football more, I can pin my aversion to the Great American Past Time to one specific reason: baseball is stubbornly stuck to tradition. 

While allowing the use of instant replay (misguided really, with simple calls taking five minutes to review) and adding a fifth playoff team are welcome steps toward modernity, baseball is still a drawn-out, slow season that doesn’t compel (me) to turn on the TV and watch each of the 162 games per year. That said, I still love going to games, and I follow the Cubs daily via phone updates. But is the investment worth the crash when the Cubs inevitably implode come October? Somehow…yes.

As a sports junkie and Chicago native, I couldn’t possibly ignore the upcoming one-game playoff at Pittsburgh.  This Cubs’ season has been awesome to say the least, and I’ve already cleared my evening for the October 7th event.  And yet, there is something disturbing about the setup of the playoffs that I still cannot understand.

The three best teams in the National League by record are the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs—all three of which are from the Central Division. If the playoffs started today, the Pirates and Cubs would meet in a one-game playoff, while the Mets and Dodgers (currently winning the East and West divisions) would be able to advance directly into the first round, despite having inferior records. 

As someone who thoroughly enjoys playing Devil’s Advocate, I was confident I’d be able to explain why this Wild Card setup makes sense. I failed. Other than upholding the tradition and value of the division, there is no logic to punishing teams with better records simply because they all happen to be in the Central Division. It’s bad enough the Wild Card teams are only rewarded with a one game playoff assurance after a 162-game slog. The current system completely undermines the value of proving your worth over a long season. If the playoffs started today, based on record it would be:

1.     Cardinals (Superior Division winner, advances to next round justly)

2.     Pirates *Wild Card (not a Division winner)

3.     Cubs *Wild Card (not a Division winner)

4.     Mets (Inferior Division winner, advances to next round unjustly)

5.     Dodgers (Inferior Division winner, advances to next round unjustly)

Why the Pirates and Cubs will play in a one-game playoff is beyond me. In college, my professors told me that to appeal to tradition was a logical fallacy, but I guess a billion-dollar organization structures its postseason on that exact faulty premise. And just think: executives getting paid hundred of thousands—if not millions—sat at a round table and decided this made sense. I guess it pays to be clueless.