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Long season, short playoffs: does MLB have the best, or worst, playoff system?

Comparing the MLB playoff system to that of the NFL, NBA, and NHL.

Championship Series - San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Five Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Last week, I did a little bit of basic math—this after the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the NL Central, got thumped by the Philadelphia Phillies in the Wild Card round of the playoffs; after the Padres disposed the Mets; and the Mariners took out the Blue Jays.

These were all considered “upsets” due to the rankings—the Cardinals were the #3 seed facing the #6 seed Phillies, the last team to make it in. The Cardinals had won six more games than the Phillies during the regular season. The Padres, the #5 seed with 89 wins, dispatched the #4 seed Mets, who had 101 wins but lost the division tiebreaker to the Braves. In the junior circuit, the Mariners were the #5 seed with 90 wins playing in Canada against the Blue Jays, the #4 seed with 92 victories.

Like in all sports with playoffs, upsets happen, and they tend to happen frequently in short series. That’s partially why the Phillies, with the second-fewest wins of all the playoff teams (Tampa Bay had 86) are now playing for their first World Series championship in 14 years.

Championship Series - San Diego Padres v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Five Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Back to that basic math. There are 162 games in baseball’s regular season. Now, with expanded playoffs, the maximum number of postseason games a team could play in and win it all is 22—three in the Wild Card round, five in the Division Series, seven in the League Championship Series, and seven in the World Series. That’s 13.5% of the regular season.

Compare that to the NFL, which of course doesn’t have series but rather single-game elimination rounds. Such is the nature of the beast. Anyway, starting in 2021, the NFL expanded the number of regular season games to 17 and then also expanded the number of playoff teams. Still, the maximum number of games in which a team could participate in the NFL playoffs is four—Wild Card, Division, Conference Championship, Super Bowl. That’s 23.5% of the regular season.

The NBA and NHL both have 82 games but the maximum number of playoffs games comes in at a whopping 28 games—34.1% of the season!*

*A couple of years ago when the St. Louis Blues finally—finally!—won Lord Stanley’s Cup, I watched every single one of their playoff games, all 26 of them, beginning against Winnipeg on April 10 and concluding against Boston on June 12.

Sixteen teams make the playoffs in both the NBA and NHL, which used to mean that in both, more than half of the teams got into the playoffs. That’s changed with the NHL adding franchises in Las Vegas and Seattle in recent years, but it’s still the deal in the NBA, which is still at 30 franchises.

(Hey, speaking of the NBA, a quick aside: the biggest market in the U.S. without an NBA franchise is Seattle. What about the second-biggest market in the U.S. without an NBA franchise? No, it’s not Las Vegas—it’s St. Louis. And the biggest market in the U.S. without an NBA or NHL team is Kansas City.)

There’s a lot that can be learned from the numbers above, but what’s most obvious is that Major League Baseball has a) the longest regular season and b) by percentage of games played, the shortest playoffs.

Is that good?

Is that bad?

Does that make the regular season worth more since the playoffs are so short?

Or does the fact that the playoffs are so short compared to the regular season actually dilute the regular season?

[insert shrugging emoji]

Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Strange things happen in short series, so that may be a point against the majors. In longer series—which, granted, occur in baseball once the championship series begin—the better teams tend to outlast the lesser teams. Cream rises to the top and all that.

Still, it’s not like upsets don’t happen. President Cup winners still get knocked out in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Top teams in the NBA fail to make even the conference finals. The Giants defeat the Patriots.

Playoffs won’t be getting any shorter, either in terms of games played or participating teams—too much money involved.

And then there are teams like the Phillies, that squeak in by a game as the last seed, get hot and make it all the way to the championship.

Those teams give other front offices, coaches, players, and, perhaps most importantly, fans the hope that, hey, maybe, just maybe if my team makes into the dance, it could be the last one standing.


Which playoff system is the best?

This poll is closed

  • 32%
    (58 votes)
  • 44%
    (79 votes)
  • 13%
    (23 votes)
  • 9%
    Give me the European Football model! No playoffs!
    (16 votes)
176 votes total Vote Now