The 2023 World Series begins in a little over an hour as I type this. It's not the World Series I anticipated, far from the one I wanted, and the second consecutive one featuring a team that would not have made the postseason at all under rules that existed before 2022.
Depending on your point of view, this consequence of expanded playoffs is a travesty or a brilliant jewel of success. Or, I guess, you're indifferent; I do realize there are people out there that just don't get worked up over baseball.
Once in a while, a less successful team bests a bigger season winner and advances past them. It happens, especially in short series, and is a fun aberration from time to time. But it's no longer an aberration, it's a feature. And it should change.
You'd think this view would mean I am rooting against the 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series this week. Well, no, I'm rooting for them. Because their opponent is the Texas Rangers, a team I've spent a lot of years disliking and rooting against. This week I'm a Diamondbacks fan, a partisan for my former home state. Nevertheless, their pennant is something less than deserved, a bit tainted by being a sixth-seed in a postseason format that rewards mediocrity over excellence.
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred likely sees this as a feature rather than a bug in his new system. But his focus has always simply been on revenue; competitive issues just aren't important to him. Which means there's a small chance the system can be tweaked to improve things.
I've opined on this before, so rather than rehash all the details of my pre-2022 suggested playoff plan I'll skip to the end.
The principal problem with the current setup is that two of the division winners—the winningest ones—sit around for a week after the season ends while everyone else plays in "Wild Card games," even the other division winner who is not a Wild Card team. Which is doubly unfair. The secondary problem is that Wild Card teams are not penalized for not finishing first and there's a good chance that, as was the case in the last two National League Championship Series, the last two standing will be WC teams. If you're going to allow teams in the postseason that haven't won anything, make it a disadvantage.
So, oddly the way to fix this that might make it palatable to Manfred and company is to add yet another playoff seed. Make it four Wild Card berths rather than the current three and have them play one-game-and-done advancing games the day after the season ends. Then the next day have the victors play each other. The winner of that game then advances to the Division Series as the LONE Wild Card entrant to the main playoff tourney, which begins THE NEXT DAY. Also, the Division Series, which has been a best three out of five format since its inception, is expanded to best four out of seven, just like the League Championship Series and World Series. This allows Manfred to retain his extra playoff games—even gives the possibility of a couple more—and thus the TV revenue he so lusts after, as well as the hype potential of another WC berth, while at the same time restoring some balance and fairness to the competitive side of the postseason.
All three division winners get placed on the same footing. WC teams are disadvantaged not just by having to run a mini-gauntlet of winning two extra games before making the Division Series, but by having no off days after the season. Division winners have two off-days (perhaps three for one of them, depending on how the TV schedules work out) instead of the five-plus they currently suffer through. Two days is enough to catch your breath and reset your pitching rotation, but not enough to get stale and lose your timing at the plate.
Right now the lesser clubs are advantaged in the DS. Somehow the hated Houston Astros have not been hurt by it either last year or this, but every other "favorite" has looked bad against upstarts. The Goliaths are meek vs. the Davids.
In the history of postseason baseball, there have been 16 teams to make the playoffs with a season win total below 90 and advance beyond one round by defeating at least one 90+ win team, be it in the LCS or Wild Card game/series. Five went the distance to become World Series champs. Five. That goes back to 1973, the first time such a team got in—and to date the one with the fewest wins, the 82-80 New York Mets. But the Mets won their division in an era when teams played 60% of their games within their own division, so they got where they got plenty legitimately. With Wild Card teams there is no schedule equity.
The Diamondbacks are the fourth Wild Card team under 90 wins to win a pennant. If the system stays the way it is, look for a whole lot more of them going forward.