By Corey Tatel
Since the installation of Major League Baseball’s new playoff season in 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates have never won less than 88 games in a season. They won 94 games in 2013, 88 games in 2014 and 98 games this season. That’s an average win total of 93.3 games per season, the best run in the ball club’s recent history.
The Pirates have only made one appearance in a playoff series, however. This will be their third year in a row competing in the wild card single-game playoff. For the second year in a row, Pittsburgh is facing an elimination game in which its opponent will send the hottest pitcher in the league to the mound. Last season, World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner pitched a complete game shutout to eliminate the Pirates. This year, Pittsburgh encounters the difficult challenge of facing Chicago Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, who boasts a 0.48 earned run average over his last 10 starts.
Until 2013, the best second place team in each the National League and American League was named the wild-card team and received the lowest playoff seed in the league. Under the new system, the two teams with the best records in each the National and American Leagues that did not win their respective divisions compete in a single game to decide which team earns the fourth and final spot in the divisional round.
Pittsburgh owes its consistently difficult playoff path simply to the poor luck of competing in the National League Central division. The St. Louis Cardinals have consistently been one of the best teams in baseball in recent years. As a result, as good as Pittsburgh has been, it has been stuck in a one-game scenario with its entire season on the line for three years in a row, while division champions with notably worse records advance immediately to the divisional round without having to play a play-in game.
Overall, the MLB installed the new playoff system to get more teams involved in the playoff race. The system has been an improvement over the old format and the MLB should be commended for making necessary changes. If it weren’t for the new changes, the Cubs, who won 97 games this season, would have missed the playoffs entirely— but what has happened to the Pirates over the last three years shows that the system is still flawed and further improvements are needed.
While some argue that entertainment value is the main goal of the playoffs, the true objective of any playoff system should be to crown the most deserving champion. The best way to do this is to give an advantage to the teams who have been the strongest competitors over the course of the season. What has happened to the Pirates over the past three years is evidence that the MLB playoff system does not crown the most deserving team. The current system rewards the division champions over the teams who have been the most consistent throughout the year.
This season, the teams with the three best records in Major League Baseball reside in the NL Central—St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Chicago. The Cardinals have won the division while the Pirates and Cubs will play each other in Wednesday night’s wild-card game. Yet, both the Pirates and the Cubs would have won the other two divisions in the National League, based on their final records. This season, one of the best three teams in the MLB will be eliminated before the divisional round even begins.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred came to the defense of the current system when asked about it. “Personally, I think it’s a mistake to get caught up in results,” Manfred told FOX Sports. “I understand what you’re saying about Pittsburgh and what has happened to them. I get it. But I think it’s a mistake to focus on an individual team as opposed to the system.”
However, this could happen to any team at any time under the current conditions. The system gives an unfair disadvantage to wild-card teams that cannot control the strength of the other teams in their divisions. When either Pittsburgh or Chicago advances past the wild-card game, they will face the team with the best record in baseball, the Cardinals themselves. It’s a guarantee that two-thirds of the best regular season teams this season will be eliminated by the end of the divisional round.
Two potential changes could improve the current MLB playoff system: First, the MLB could do away with divisions, similar to the NBA. The divisions could remain intact for scheduling purposes in order to preserve classic rivalries, but playoff seeding would not reward division champions. Instead, the teams with the three best records in both the National and American Leagues would advance directly to the divisional round, while teams with the fourth and fifth-best records in each league would compete in the one-game playoff for the last spot.
Under this system, the teams who have finished the regular season with the best records would be given an advantage over the teams who did not. The system would reward a team that has been one of the best in the league for an entire season, rather than a team that simply got hot at the end of the year. Manfred would likely be against such a change, after stating publicly that he wanted to place an emphasis on division championships so that teams continue to compete to the end of the season in order to win the division.
If the division standings remain the decider of which teams avoid the wild-card game, the second change should be to extend the wild-card game to a three-game series. Wild-card games do not determine which the better team is. They simply determine the better team on a single night. In a one-game scenario, a dominant pitcher like Bumgarner or Arrieta could be the difference in the game and end a contender’s season. A team’s season should not depend on a single game against a dominant pitcher the way the Pirates season will for back-to-back years. A three-game series would limit the enormous effect that one opposing player can have on a team’s season and gives a higher probability of the better team advancing.
The MLB playoff system has improved since the new system was implemented in 2013, but further improvement is needed. The proposals offered may or may not be the actual solutions, but the MLB must find a way ensure what has happened to the Pirates over the last few years does not happen again to them again or to another team.