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Thinking through changes to MLB’s playoff format (Vol. 2)

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Come World Series time, should the Wild Card be able to regain any kind of home-field advantage?

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images

There are looming changes in the air with the negotiations for a new CBA between MLB and the MLBPA. With that in mind, I decided to embark on a series discussing some adjustments that could be made to the current postseason format.

Last week, we discussed the need for the inclusion of reseeding after the Wild Card round - Whether that particular rule is implemented or not, the following one needs to be addressed. It’s an odd situation since it was something only changed just a few years ago.

In an effort to juice up the All-Star Game, MLB began using the Midsummer Classic to determine home-field advantage for the World Series in 2003. (Previously, the leagues simply alternated year-by-year.) It was an innovation that had mixed reviews at best, though I think that in its heart, the concept wasn’t so bad. Regardless of the intentions behind it, though, my mind always goes back to Derek Jeter’s last All-Star appearance in 2014.

The American League won that game, 5-3, and Jeter had a couple of hits, including a leadoff double in the first inning that ended up turning into three runs off Adam Wainwright. That has some meaning because whether it would’ve actually changed anything or not, no one knows, but Wainwright kind of hinted that out of respect for Jeter’s career, he gave him a “pipe shot” to hit in that spot.

Maybe without that first extra-base hit, there’s no rally, and without it, the AL doesn’t win. The ripple effect was that Game 7 of the World Series between the Royals and Giants was in Kansas City, rather than San Francisco if the NL had pulled out a victory. The Giants won the championship, so this is all for naught, but the point to take is that the decision for home-field in the World Series should have to do with some aspect of the two participants’ record rather than an exhibition.

That change ultimately came in 2017. However, there was one little addendum that went under the radar and it’s creating quite an arbitrary system at the moment. Home-field in the World Series goes to the best record, with no exceptions.

Baseball puts a lot of emphasis in the division title. That’s why the Wild Card round has only one game, and it’s also why the Wild Card winner never gets home-field advantage in the Division Series and Championship Series. This holds true even when there’s an 18-game difference in wins, as was the case this year, when the 88-win NL East-leading Braves got to host the NLCS over the 106-win Wild Card Dodgers.

Whether you agree with this treatment of the Wild Card or not, that’s the prerogative of the Commissioner’s office and it’s not a secret to anyone. However, can someone explain to me why that philosophy would change for the biggest playoff round, the World Series?

If the Dodgers had beaten the Braves, then under the current system, they would’ve had home-field advantage over the AL West champion Astros in the Fall Classic. Right now, this format is inconsistent and it leaves us with two options:

1. MLB can choose to retain its prerogative and allow for the exception of division winners always getting the advantage over Wild Card teams despite their record.

2. MLB can realize or concede that the need to define the fate of your entire season in a single game is punishment enough for not winning your division. By doing that, you can still value the regular season and the division races while also rewarding the best record with home-field advantage in every round of postseason play.

Option 1 goes in line with the narrative of valuing the division title, which has been a key part of the entire postseason format ever since the introduction of the one-game Wild Card in 2012.

It makes perfect sense if you’re looking for consistency from MLB. If a team has a better record but doesn’t get home-field during the LCS — which has been the case for a long time — why would that suddenly change when the same team reaches the World Series?

There’s some value in going that route because it follows the same lane the sport has been taking, but in choosing the current arbitrary route, MLB opened up the door to Door No. 2.

That aforementioned Option 2 offers a more fair route and it could be argued that it still retains roughly the same significance to the division races and the downside of playing in the Wild Card game.

Yes, any Wild Card team would prefer to host Game 1 of a playoff series in which it has a better record than its opponent, but that’s irrelevant when it comes to the magic of the division races.

Take this season for example and the magnificent race between the Giants and Dodgers. Do you really think either team wanted to win the NL West just to potentially host the NLCS against the Braves or Brewers?

The answer is a no. Although that was a benefit, what each team was really interested in was in avoiding the one-game Wild Card round against the Cardinals (even at home). The Dodgers just barely survived that one in the bottom of the ninth on a walk-off homer by Chris Taylor. An odd bounce going the other way would’ve meant that the Giants faced the Cardinals instead of LA, and one can only guess how the rest of the playoffs would’ve changed from there.

Even if you disagree, a decision must be made. Right now, the criteria is just too arbitrary and without an explanation that makes any sort of sense.