This October, MLB fans will witness one of the results of the last winter’s lockout: the new 12-team playoff format. The compromise between ownership’s demands to add four teams to the postseason and the players’ desire to maintain the status quo, this new format removed the one-game play-ins between the leagues’ Wild Cards that had existed since 2012, added another Wild Card team, and established a best-of-three Wild Card Series that features everyone except for the top two seeds in each league.
At the time, we pondered the implications of this change. Obviously, teams would value the first-round bye, but how would it affect the rest of the race? Would more teams remain in the race in the latter half of September? There were theories abound, but they were nothing more than that — theories. Without playing the games, we’d have no idea what the impact would be. So now that we’re in the middle of the first playoff hunt with the new rules, what are the effects?
To start, as of the start of play yesterday, here’s where the American League standings stood, courtesy of Baseball Reference:
Because the top of the division is worse than the middle of either the East or the West, the Central would be in the same spot under both the old rules and the new: the White Sox and, to a lesser extent, the Twins, are chasing the Guardians, whose lead in the division is certainly not insurmountable. Likewise, the AL West would be safe for the Astros. In the East and Wild Card races, however, things get a bit interesting.
Barring a late-season hot streak by the Baltimore Orioles (something which, the way they’ve been playing this year, isn’t entirely out of the question), all four other postseason spots are claimed. One of the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Rays will win the AL East, and the other two will be joined by the Seattle Mariners as the three Wild Cards. At this point, they’re only fighting for seeding and, in the case of the East teams, a first-round bye.
Under the old format, however, with only two Wild Card teams, one of these teams would find themselves on the outside looking in — just like in 2021, when the Blue Jays finished the season with 91 wins but found themselves spending time on the couch. (The Mariners also barely missed out last year, as they were eliminated in Game 162 as well.) Furthermore, two of those teams would be guaranteed only one game, incentivizing a last-minute push for the AL East crown. Clearly, there would have been more drama under the old format.
Even with the Dodgers running away with the West, the National League is more interesting than the AL in this regard.
Under the old format, the Mets and Braves would be fighting to avoid the one-game playoff, with the Phillies, Brewers, and Padres scrambling for the second Wild Card spot. Instead, the Mets and Braves are fighting for the first-round bye (with the Cardinals not quite out of it yet), while the Phillies, Brewers, and Padres are fighting for two spots. It’s a pair of small changes, and obviously the races are still intense, but the race between the Phillies, Brewers, and Padres doesn’t quite feel as intense as it would have last year. There’s also no chance for any do-or-die Game 163 tiebreakers à la 1978, as those sadly went the way of the dodo in the new CBA, removing another fun twist to the impact of September baseball.
With so many spots already decided, particularly in the American League, it remains to be seen how ballclubs will approach the final week(s) of the season. Typically, once a team clinched the best spot they could clinch, they began to rest their players a bit more than usual; the only hitch preventing teams from playing a spring training roster is the end of the 40-man expanded rosters. The first-round bye, however, means that teams like the Astros and Dodgers (and, Abner Doubleday willing, the Yankees too) will have multiple days off between the final day of the season and their first playoff game; in an attempt to avoid rust, might these teams treat the final week of the season more seriously?
We’ll know soon enough. Either way, one fact is certainly crystal clear: that additional spot rewrote the typical playbook for the MLB playoff race.