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Imagining a double-elimination MLB Postseason

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This is for you, people — like Billy Beane — who claim the postseason is a “gauntlet of randomness.” Can we remove some randomness?

Divisional Round - Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals - Game Five Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

First of all, this will never work.

I sat down today to write this article, and once I generated my online bracket, I immediately realized that baseball won’t — and shouldn’t — ever implement this.

This, of course, is referring to a double-elimination style postseason bracket, similar to the Little League World Series. (I really do find myself writing a lot about Little League these days.) Nonetheless, this remains an idea — a fun, imaginative one at best, a exhausting, idiotic one at worst. This article is just going to throw this at you, and I’ll quickly discuss the pros and cons of this system. Ultimately, you can voice your opinions in the comments or, if you so choose, you can tweet at me. I’ll see it, and I’ll probably respond too.

Anyway, just recently, I watched yet another Washington Nationals division title get washed down the drain right before my eyes, in one of the most emotionally draining games that, I think, I have ever seen. (Note: I haven’t seen many games pre-2008, so there aren’t that many in my mental database.)

But it sucks, no matter how you want to look at it. I think even some Cubs fans would admit that it’s hard to watch a team like the Nationals choke this often. Alas, it still is their fault for losing. They had a 4-1 lead in Game 5, at home, and managed to blow that, too.

Baseball is the only sport where you spend six months of your year playing a game every single day, only to often see it washed away in five games in the postseason. It’s a thrilling cruelness in this way, but it’s also uncharacteristic of the sport. Baseball prides itself on being a “marathon, rather than a sprint,” yet it wants postseason teams to sprint in a five-game series, one that might not even go longer than a team’s longest in-season series, which is often just four games. So, yes, a 162-game season can come down to winning a single series that isn’t really even all that longer than a series that you’d play during the season and would make up just 2 percent of your total games.

I get it. I truly do. The best teams should still be able to prevail, and the Nationals, Indians, Diamondbacks and Red Sox very well could have been the lesser team; that is very possible. But it’s hard for me to discredit a 97-win season from Washington and a 102-win season from Cleveland and say that they were, in fact, the lesser teams in their series.

An easy fix would just to be to lengthen the first series. In baseball, it seems, the better team does show up over the course of a seven-game set — rather than a five-game extravaganza. I’m not entirely sure what makes seven this magic number, but it might have to do with pitching your first four starters rather than three and bullpen usage. In a five-game set, the game is distorted from its regular-season image; in a seven-game series, the games that are played truly look like the baseball we are used to seeing. Still, baseball’s postseason, among the four major sports, could be doing the worst job to determine who is truly the best team.

I might sound like a salty Nationals fan. Rest assured, I am neither salty nor a Nationals fan. Regardless, I had a discussion with a friend of mine some time ago about what sports do the best job at producing the truly best team at the end as the champion. I can’t remember what we agreed upon, but I think the order went NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB. Even the NFL, which has only single-elimination postseason games, does a better job than Major League Baseball by giving the best teams first-round byes, increasing the chances that they win their conference and advance to the Super Bowl. Plus, NFL seasons are 16 games long. One playoff game represents about 6.3 percent of a team’s total regular-season games; a five-game series represents just 3 percent of a baseball team’s regular season games.

I considered reform. What could we possibly do to ensure that the best teams are given an advantage for being the best, while also giving other very good teams a second chance — another opportunity — all the while not lengthening the postseason beyond the early touches of the month of November?

To me, the answer became clear: a double-elimination postseason.

Let’s consider what the National League double elimination bracket might look like:

Bracket via Challonge.com

First off, as you can see, we’d be reducing the number of teams in each league that make the postseason from five to four, already eliminating it as a potential option for the league. More postseason teams makes more fans think that their team has a shot, resulting in increased ticket and TV revenue. It also gives some feel-good, potentially up-and-coming teams like the Twins and Rockies some recognition on national TV.

Secondly, as I’m sure you have noticed, this first round would have just three games, and the second round would be just five, already discrediting the hundreds of words that I wrote above. It’s hard to create a postseason that works, but in this rendition, the Dodgers would only need to win nine games to make the World Series; that is just as many as they would have to win in the current format.

Still, though, this provides a change of scenery for the teams like the Nationals and Diamondbacks, who were eliminated early. Perhaps they weren’t well suited to play the Cubs and Dodgers, respectively, and could benefit from playing each other to get into some sort of “groove,” if those things truly exist.

After the Nationals and Diamondbacks are eliminated in National League Round 1, they go on to play each other in yet another three-game series in the loser’s bracket. Don’t worry, the Dodgers and Cubs wouldn’t be twiddling their thumbs at this moment in time; they would begin National League Round 2.

The Nationals-Diamondbacks series would probably end just before Dodgers-Cubs, considering the difference in games. Really, though, it might only be two or three days before both series are decided, and the Dodgers will advance to the National League Championship Series.

Herein the problem lies. The Cubs would be screwed. The Nationals, if they beat the Diamondbacks in Game 3, like in this scenario, would get a couple days of rest until Chicago-Los Angeles finished up. Then, the loser of that winner’s bracket round (in this scenario, the Cubs) would immediately have to go on to play Washington in another five-game set. The Cubs, even after winning Series No. 1, would be at the biggest disadvantage, assuming that rest only positively impacts the Nationals (it should be noted that we really do not know how rest impacts baseball players after having a season of games every single day).

Of course, the biggest winner in a bracket like this is the team that wins the first two series. The Dodgers get a week off while the Cubs and Nationals determine who gets their second series loss and is thus removed. Then, whoever wins that series is absolutely gassed and has to go on to play the juggernaut in Los Angeles.

Let’s imagine the scenario above, but with the Cubs winning the NLCS in Game 7. It would have taken them 11 wins to reach the World Series, where it would have taken the Dodgers nine. And the Dodgers would technically have been eliminated in a series just once, making this not a true double-elimination. Plus, there is no way to prevent a team like the Diamondbacks getting the advantage that was initially set up for the best team in the league in a situation where they win Series Nos. 1 and 2.

It might be fun to give the better seeds all three games at home in Round 1, setting up a higher chance for a sweep. Even then, still, the Diamondbacks may never play a game at home, as they would be given two straight three-game sets on the road. Perhaps we would gift them with a home playoff game once they moved to the loser’s bracket. But even then, it makes no sense, and it’s bad for business.

Baseball can’t help that its postseason is a “gauntlet of randomness,” as A’s GM Billy Beane likes to call it. Let’s just save ourselves the headache and make the Division Series a seven-game set, okay?


Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.