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Mulling a different playoff format

Posted by Andy on November 19, 2009

Wired magazine recently published a short opinion piece about the suggestion that American professional sports consider changing their playoff system to be more similar to the one used in European soccer.  Over the pond, each soccer league is split into levels. Teams that finish with the worst record (or records) in a given level are demoted to the next lower level, while teams winning lower levels can climb up to a next higher one. I don't know a lot of the specifics of how these leagues work, but that is the basic idea as I understand it.

The Wired article suggests that the guys who have come up with the suggestion feel that this sort of system used in MLB would encourage creation of new teams, take away some leverage from ownership (such as threats of moving the team) and force all teams to be as competitive as possible to avoid the lower levels.

My friend Eric P brought the article to my attention and we discussed how such a baseball playoff system might look in baseball. I'm not suggesting this is a good idea--here's just a summary of what we discussed.

First, we limited our discussion to the current 30 teams and how such a system might perhaps increase competitive balance while also making the full season more meaningful for a larger fraction of the teams.

Suppose we break the 30 teams into 6 levels, each containing 5 teams. Let's go by 2009 records to determine the levels.


Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies


Rockies, Cardinals, Giants, Rangers, Marlins


Twins, Braves, Tigers, Mariners, Rays


Cubs, Brewers, White Sox, Reds, Blue Jays


Athletics, Padres, Astros, Diamondbacks, Mets


Indians, Royals, Orioles, Pirates, Nationals

So here are some thoughts on how such a league would work in 2010 and forward:

  • Teams play a fairly unbalanced schedule against mostly teams within their own level. For example, Level 1 teams play 18 games each against the 4 other teams in their level, 6 games each against the teams in Level 2, and 3 games each against the teams in Levels 3, 4, 5, and 6. That's 72 games against Level 1, 30 games against Level 2, and 60 games against Levels 3 through 6, for a total of 162 games.
  • The top four teams from each level make the playoffs. The seeding and home-field advantage are determined by best records. There are six sets of playoffs. The ultimate winner from Level is is the overall champion. The winner from the playoffs in Levels 2 through 6 moves up to the next higher level. The team in each level that did not make the playoffs drops down to the next lower level, with the exception of the worst team in Level 6, which can't drop to a lower level.

Again, I'm not suggesting that this idea is necessarily wonderful, but it does offer some interesting benefits:

  • By adding the extra playoff series the lower levels, there are more games and therefore more revenue. MLB will never change anything about the game unless they see more revenue.
  • By virtue of the ability to move up or down, many more teams will remain invested in game outcomes for most of the year. Fans will remain interested too, especially those in Level 2 or 3 who hope to move up a level. It might be OK to have the moving team determined strictly by best or worst record (and not add the lower level playoffs) but again that would eliminate the extra game revenue.
  • By having the in-level unbalanced schedule, there would be new rivalries that would remain somewhat constant from year-to-year. For example, in 2010 there would be lots of games between the Braves and Twins and the Cubs and White Sox. Those rivalries would continue until one team moved up or down from its current level.

However there are many negatives:

  • At the beginning of each year, the overall champion can come from only the 5 Level 1 teams, regardless of how well those teams actually play. It gives those teams an unfair advantage. It also means that no team can ever have a significant reversal, such as Tampa Bay making it all the way to the World Series in 2008 after never having had a winning season.
  • The scheduling would be a nightmare and in all likelihood, impossible. The 2010 schedule couldn't have been created until the end of the 2009 season, which isn't enough time. Also, check out what Level 1 would be like in 2010: three east coast teams and two west coast teams. That means that Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies fans would have to deal with 27 games on the west coast, and these games are against primary rivals. Imagine, too, if there were 4 west coast teams in Level 1 with a single east coast team. That team would be flying west for 36 in-level games (as well as other out-of-level games against west coast opponents.) It would be such a disadvantage for that team. (Of course, the Mariners face such a disadvantage now by having no nearby divisional rival. Even the Althletics are a multi-hour plane flight away. Compare this to the proximity of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Pittsburgh.)
  • The teams in the lower levels know that they can't compete for the championship for a minimum of a certain number of years For example it takes a minimum of 5 years to move from Level 6 to Level 1, and only then if the team wins its level every single season. This goes against the spirit of professional sports as we know it in the U.S., where hope springs eternal and any team can have championship aspirations each season. The idea of keeping fans interested would probably backfire for a team like the Royals, which by such a system would have been stuck in the doldrums for many consecutive years.

The true spirit of the Wired article is different from what I suggest above. To follow its suggestion would mean something more like this:

  • Create a 12-team "developmental league." Any owner can put together players he or she acquires as free agents and pay a yearly fee to place his team in the league. The league fee would need to be quite large to cover costs associated with travel, locating stadiums to play in, etc.
  • Each year, the winner of the developmental league moves up to the major leagues, while the major-league team with the worst record moves down to the developmental league. If creating your own baseball team is exceptionally difficult, then the major league team that falls into the D-league should easily win the D-league championship, and the D-league team playing in MLB should finish with by far the worst record. Then they just switch places the following year. Eventually, though, as things develop, the D-league might get good enough to be able to promote some of its teams to the majors and keep them there.
  • Falling out of the MLB and into the D-league would represent a major loss of revenue for that team and therefore should strongly motivate the owners of all teams to try to avoid losing a lot of games.

It seems remarkably unlikely that the playoff system in MLB will ever shift to anything akin to what I've written here, but I still find it fun to think about.

14 Responses to “Mulling a different playoff format”

  1. Raphy Says:

    Wouldn't this thwart the league's desire for parity?
    Are free agents going to sign with a team below tiers one or two?
    In the current structure there are more teams with a chance at the championship at the end of the regular season than there are in the beginning of the season in this format. Do yo want there to be less?

    Baseball already has too many minor leagues, I don't understand why you would want to add another level.

  2. Andy Says:

    Well, yeah, I'm not trying to suggest that this is a good idea or that it would increase parity. But your specific concerns might be addressed as follows:

    Take the 6 levels above and split them up into two leagues--NL and AL. Then the top two teams in NL Level 1 have a playoff, as do the top two teams in AL Level 1, and the two winners play for World Series title. This means that at the start of each season, 10 teams have a chance to win the title.

    It's also true that the 10 teams in the two Level 2's have a serious competition, each each is competing with the 4 other teams in its division for a chance to advance to Level 1 in the following season.

    This means that 20 out of 30 teams have something very valuable to play for each season, and the Level 3 teams also want to try to make it into Level 2.

    Keep in mind that you can think about parity in two ways: fraction of teams with a legitimate shot at the title, or fraction of teams that have anything real to compete for. In MLB now, we think about floundering franchises like Kansas City or Washington eventually getting enough good players to become a decent enough team so that they have a chance to compete for their division crowns and make the playoffs. As we have seen, this can go on for years and years with no results. At least if there were levels, they'd have a chance of doing well enough to make it into Level 2 sometimes, which would give them the possibility of making Level 1 at some point. In one of those years that they make Level 2, maybe that's when they might be able to attract some better free agents willing to take a shot at helping get them to Level 1.

    Again I'd like to repeat that I'm not advocating this idea---it's just a fun thought experiment.

  3. WillyB Says:

    I wouldn't think you'd actually split up the current major league. Baseball already has a multiple league tiered system set up.

    I'd envision it like this:
    The bottom 2-3 teams in the major leagues would be relegated to AAA status, while the top 2 - 3 AAA teams would be promoted to the major leagues. You could probably do this all the way down the system as well (The best single-A teams get promoted to AA, and so on).

    It would definitely change the purpose of the minor leagues, but this method still allows any of the major league teams to win the World Series, while gives teams some major incentives to not finish at the bottom of the league.

  4. kingduct Says:

    I've lived in both Europe and South America and definitely think that some of our professional leagues should look for ideas from elsewhere, especially the soccer world. However, these ideas can not be directly transferred, because there are fundamental differences:

    a) They have far more top-tier teams than the US does -- just between Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and England there are about 100 teams for a population roughly the same as the US population.

    b) They have multiple tournaments, providing multiple ways of being champ (European leagues have the regular season, the simultaneous cup, and the also simultaneous Champions league, which pit the previous season's winners of the other two tournaments against each other). At one time baseball also had this to some extent, but the additional rounds of playoffs and the wildcard at this point have made the divisional pennant meaningless and the league pennant less representative of true greatness over the course of a season.

    c) European leagues have developed naturally in this fashion, not through mechanisms exclusively designed for TV money.

    d) In the US, the rabid fanship of lower level players is essentially substituted for with college sports.

    I think the NBA would be the league most suited for a similar set up to European leagues. It could easily split into two leagues, lower leagues could be added on with independent ownership (since there is no real minor-league system), and a multi-tournament simultaneous system giving lots of teams a chance to win in some way would work well. They'll never do it, because owners are a conservative bunch afraid of change, but they should.

    The problem with baseball is that there already is an established lower-league system that would have direct conflicts of interest with the top league. Furthermore, the every-day nature of baseball would limit its ability to have simultaneous events (we already see this with the Baseball Classic). Yet at the same time, I don't think anybody is really satisfied with how things currently are, which is why we see people coming up with new ideas.

    Personally, I would adopt one thing from soccer that no major American professional sport currently does: have the first playoff round be a round-robin. The three division winners in each league would host two 3 game series (one versus the wild card and one versus one of the other division winners) and would go on the road to the other division winner. The wild card would play all of their series on the road (thus being appropriately punished for not winning the division). After 9 games, the top team would go to the World Series, which would operate as it currently does.

    This system would have lots of games (TV money!), yet would also take a shorter amount of time than the current system, which is pushing the World Series into November.
    This would put more importance back on the regular season and at the same time would reduce the odds that a truly dominant team would fail to qualify for the World Series. It is very frustrating to watch 6 months of baseball only to see some great teams be eliminated from the postseason in 3 days.

  5. Andy Says:

    fascinating stuff kingduct--thanks.

  6. whiz Says:

    kingduct, the round-robin format is interesting. The number of games would be similar -- a maximum of 5 + 5 + 7 = 17 for division series plus LCS versus 18 for the round-robin (although it is always 18, never less), but they could be done in less time. The DS + LCS takes at least 17 days: 12x34x5x12x345x67, where x is a day off.
    The round robin could be done 123xx456xx789, which is only 13 days AND it allows a team to use its top three starters in each series, always with 4 days rest.

    You would have to allow for breaking ties in the round-robin (I assume tie-breakers would not be used since they are not used in the regular season). The worst case scenario would be a 3-way tie (three teams at 5-4 and one at 3-6, or three teams at 6-3 and one at 0-9) -- that could get messy.

  7. Andy Says:

    I see why they call you Whiz...

  8. kingduct Says:

    Yes, round robins would lead to ties, but I don't see that as a downside and it wouldn't be too often. What could be better than a tiebreaker after an exciting 9-game playoff?

    The biggest potential downsides (and they are true of all round robins and of the regular season):
    a) What happens when teams are essentially eliminated before the end of the 9 games? Does they give up? I myself don't worry too much about this, in that observation from both regular seasons and soccer World Cups is that it generally isn't an issue, because teams really want to win. Perhaps money would have to motivate those teams (dollars per win?).
    b) What happens when one team clinches before the 9 games are finished? Again, this is an issue that happens in all round robins -- should it simply end once a team clinches? That is probably the most logical, but it takes the symmetry out of the system. I would guess that it would usually only happen after 10 or 11 games, just because the odds of a baseball team sweeping through a round-robin against other good teams are low, but it would happen sometimes. Probably we would basically just have to sit through a what would in reality be a few exhibition games before the World Series in which the team going to the Series would try especially hard to avoid injury.

    Again, those are the downsides. The upside in my mind outweighs them (after all, there are teams that play dozens of games after they have either clinched or been eliminated), due to additional excitement and more teams getting closer to the World Series.

  9. kingduct Says:

    Oops, I don't know how to edit my post -- I meant to say that clinching would rarely happen only after 7 or 8 games! At least that's my guess.

  10. terry312 Says:

    I would restructure baseball to include relegation. Unfortunately, that doesn't at all work with the minor-league system - when Kansas City gets knocked down to AAA and the International League champion gets called up in its place, what happens to KC's farm system? Do they still have rights to those players?

    That's led me to conclude that the only way relegation would work would be to abandon the farm system. No draft or anything either. I believe this is the way things work for English soccer too - when a player's contract is up, any team can sign him. If applied to baseball, you'd think this would mean that big-market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox would get all the prospects. But that's not necessarily true - where would they put them? Unless they were willing to carry a guy on their roster who wasn't ready for the big time, they'd have to let him improve in the minors for a while before getting a crack at him.

    Frankly I think this would make baseball so much more exciting, and it would even make the minors more interesting too. I'm not sure what the downsides would be.

  11. Andy Says:

    Terry, you're hitting on another aspect of this whole idea. When the teams can fall in and out of the leagues, it really disrupts player movement. The players union as we currently know it could not function in such a new system and there would be a LOT more competition for players. One big problem is that current teams that draw well make $100 million in ticket revenue, which goes a long way (or the entire way) towards paying the payroll. If that team drops to a lower league, suddenly ticket prices and revenues are going to drop and they won't be able to make payroll. Perhaps the team has to fold right there, making all the players free agents. Overall, it would bring down salaries and ticket prices, I think.

    It sure would be interesting, but I don't see anything like this happening.

  12. whiz Says:

    Kingduct -- good point about clinching early, that could reduce the number of games needed.

    And it probably wouldn't happen too early (the earliest is by game 6 if one team was 6-0 and the others all 2-4). But if it does, it's not much different from a 7 game series ending early in terms of dead time.

    I like it. Let's do it 🙂

  13. sav2880 Says:

    If nothing else, I would love to see a video game, be it the more mainstream style like an MLB 09: The Show, or a straight-up sim game like Baseball Mogul give the option to customize the playoff structure in some crazy method like this. I agree, this would add a lot of excitement to the way baseball is setup but with union structures, it would likely never fly.

    I would see such a system as organized chaos for about 4-5 years, and then the promotions and demotions would level off and be more predictable, much like they are in English soccer.

  14. Interesting Blog in Baseball Reference. Says:

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