Baseball loves to laud itself for meritocratic policies, from a grueling 162 game season that exposes any weakness and only rewards true quality, to the extensive minor league system that provides easy replacement for any player not making the grade. But some of the postseason policies that Major League Baseball has implemented in the last 25 years in the name of that meritocracy have failed to truly reward the best teams. This dissonance stems from one fundamental aspect of the current postseason system that flies in the face of competitive logic: that winning a division can matter more than a team’s record, and determine home field advantage.
Now, winning a division isn’t easy, particularly in the six-month slog that an MLB team endures. But certain divisions are much easier to win than others, and winners of less competitive divisions should not be rewarded with home field advantage over wild card teams with better records.
The current American League wild card race provides a perfect illustration of how this system falls short. If baseball season ended today, the playoff system would hurt a better team while bringing the added economic benefits and competitive edge of extra home games to a city with only a middle of the pack team.
The Cleveland Indians are not a bad baseball team, and they will deserve the division crown they are going to win. They have perennial MVP candidates in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, and a rotation with past Cy Young winner Corey Kluber and current Cy Young contender Trevor Bauer. When healthy, their bullpen can go toe-to-toe with the best in the league. The Indians’ winning percentage, though, is not only lower than the other two division leaders in the American League, but also lower than the two wild card teams, the Yankees and Athletics, who would face each other in a one-game elimination playoff if the season ended today.
Because of MLB’s present format, beyond the Indians being spared the luck-susceptible one and done wild card game, they would escape a matchup with this year’s juggernaut Red Sox who hold the league’s best record. Worse still, if the Indians advanced to the League Championship Series, they might face a wild card team that was fresh off defeating the league’s best regular season team and holding a better record than Cleveland. But despite this, it would be the Indians enjoying home-field advantage.
The wild card game and the entrance of at least one team from every division still hold merit in protecting smaller markets’ postseason chances. But MLB can take an easy, concrete step towards a more fair postseason by reseeding teams according to regular season record with each round, rather than giving preference to division winners. We shouldn’t have to see a team that wins 90 games playing host to one that won 100: it simply isn’t fair.
Only exacerbating the current format is the simple fact that not only is winning those 100 games harder than winning 90 games, but that winning 90 games in the American League East or West is harder than doing the same in the Central. MLB’s insistence on weighted, division-heavy scheduling simply makes the field of play unfairly difficult in some divisions compared to others.
By the end of the season, the Yankees and the Athletics will have played the Red Sox and the Astros, the leaders in their respective divisions, nineteen times. The Indians will play each of these teams six times all year, while the Yankees and Red Sox will see each other six times in September alone. Cleveland, meanwhile, plays more than a third of its total games against the White Sox, Tigers and Royals, who would be the three worst teams in the American League if not for Baltimore’s historic bout of losing this year.
The win total that will bring Cleveland their division crown is lower than the one that will bring two teams a mere wild card berth. It also hasn’t come loaded down with the hard-fought wins against teams in a division with three teams above .500. In the Central, Cleveland is the only team with a winning record, having beaten up on four losing teams in various phases of rebuilding.
It’s not like baseball is any stranger to this type of postseason format change either. The addition of one wild card spot in 1994 and then another in 2012 went a long way to make sure teams like this year’s Yankees and Athletics don’t get snubbed an invitation to the dance completely. But giving home field advantage to division winners over teams with better records is misguided. On top of that, baseball has already fixed the indefensible practice of the All Star game deciding World Series home-field advantage by reinstituting a record-based system. This should be the same kind of no-brainer.
If baseball truly wishes to institute a meritocracy in its postseason, this year’s Indians should play mostly on the road, and wild card teams should be granted what they earn in the regular season.
The Indians are not a team that should be hosting a playoff series. At most, they should be a team with a chance at an underdog run against better opposition. Instead, they are going to be the number three seed in the American League playoffs.
So much for meritocracy.
Patrick Nugent ’21 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.