The National League Central is a powerhouse of a division in 2015, and it’s unveiling a problem with the playoffs that needs to be fixed.
As of this writing, the St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in baseball at 84-46. Sitting in second, making Missouri the crown jewel of the baseball world in 2015, is the Kansas City Royals at 80-50. After that? The Pirates at 79-50 and the Cubs at 74-55.
Right behind these top-four are several teams sitting at 72 wins and with over a month of games left, this might be irrelevant at the end of the season. But today – like, right now – two of the three best teams in the National League have zero percent chance of making the National League Championship Series. That’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed as early as next year.
To be crystal clear, if the standings hold, the Cubs and Pirates will face off in a winner-take-all wild-card game. The team that wins that game will then have to travel to St. Louis to take on the Cardinals.
The reason this is an issue is because the playoffs need to provide the best teams the best chance at winning the World Series. It’s widely been seen that superior teams don’t always win, that’s baseball, it happens all the time and almost every year. The regular season marathon is simply a better sample for determing the best team in the league. However, the hardware still matters (see: 2008 Chicago Cubs).
For example, in 2014, the Giants and Royals were two wild-card teams with heart who went the distance. The farther out we get, the less quantifiers apply. In ten years, will you go back and compare division records and advanced stats? Or will we just see World Series Champs 2014: San Francisco Giants.
So why neuter the best teams’ chances at being remembered as the best? With two wild card teams, it’s something that was going to come up eventually.
I’ve seen several suggestions on this issue already. Divisional realignment. Discarding divisions all-together. Making it free for all. I think those are all great well-thought out ideas, but major, sweeping changes in baseball are hard to implement.
Instead, I think something much simpler can work, as early as next year: re-seed after the wild-card round. That’s it. That makes all of this go away.
Using today and this year as a reference, that means the Cubs and Pirates – being the second- and third-best teams in the league, and in their division – would still face off in a do-or-die wild-card. This keeps the reward for winning the division, something I think is necessary and should help satisfy the traditionalists as well. Getting rid of division winners and the rivalries (despite the fact the teams would still play) just isn’t happening anytime soon, so winning the division should mean more.
So the Cubs and Pirates play in Pittsburgh. Using the best record for our example, we’ll say the Pirates win. With this proposed plan, we now reseed the remaining teams to put everyone on an even playing field. That would mean St. Louis hosts the New York Mets and Pittsburgh would be the home team against the Los Angeles Dodgers as opposed to Pittsburgh travelling to St. Louis and New York travelling to L.A. Seems much more fair, right?
In this instance, the wild-card winner isn’t the black sheep of the playoffs, but have an equal position at the divisional series table. As they should, if they were the better team. This year, we could potentially see the New York Mets (just as an example) have the worst record of every single playoff team in MLB and be the home team in the NLCS. That, along with potentially losing two of the top three before that series is even played, make this a no-brainer.
If anyone had a complaint about it, the simple answer would be “win more games than the other team, then.” While a stones-throw from “win your division, then,” it seems like a better answer. There’s always a lot of luck, flukes, randomness and weirdness that take place in baseball every single day, month and year. Average teams can lead the league in wins, the best teams can be the luckiest and make a division unwinnable for the other teams and amazing teams can have losing records. Instead of making tidal waves to combat this, all it needs is a slight tweak to the existing formula to help balance things out a bit.
Hopefully, we’ll see this scenario play itself out this year. Not only because the three teams in the NL Central would be exciting to watch battle with each other, but also so MLB takes a good long look at their playoff formula and fixes it.
Regardless of how this year shakes out, baseball needs to make a change. Every single year, baseball needs to give the best teams the best chance of winning the World Series. That’s what our favorite game is all about.