How the New MLB Playoff Format Impacts Handicapping

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DJ LeMahieu #26 congratulates teammate Aaron Hicks #31 of the New York Yankees after Hicks scored on a wild pitch in the fifth inning against the Baltimore Orioles. Elsa/Getty Images/AFP.

Now that the playoffs have expanded to 12 teams, we need to make some adjustments with our MLB picks, but nothing too drastic. Some trophies are easier to win than others. With the advent of the salary cap in professional sports, and with so many teams making the playoffs, winning a championship can sometimes seem like winning the lottery.

Baseball is different. Instead of a hard cap like they have in football, Major League Baseball uses a “luxury tax” that allows the top teams to spend as much as they want to stay competitive. And unlike basketball and hockey, they don’t let half the teams qualify for the MLB postseason.

It used to be even harder to win the title, though. Before 1969, the World Series was the only playoff round in baseball. Then they added the League Championship Series, then the Division Series, and Wild Cards on top of that, first one per league, then two, and now three for the 2022 MLB postseason.

Let’s try to forget the 2020 playoffs, where a 16-team format was used after the coronavirus pandemic cut the regular season to just 60 games. With every change in the format, bettors need to change their MLB picks in order to keep up. Let’s take a closer look at the new playoff set-up and see if we can gauge what impact it will have on the title hunt.

Easy as 1-2-3

One of the worst things about the previous format is that teams could lose one single Wild Card Game and be eliminated from the playoffs. That won’t happen under the new collective bargaining agreement, nor will any tie-breaking games.

Instead, the top two division winners from each league will get a bye to the Division Series. In the best-of-three Wild Card Round, the division winner with the worst record will play the worst Wild Card team, and the other two Wild Card teams will face each other.

Aside from 2020 (we’re trying to forget that), this will be the first year that MLB officially uses seeding as part of the format. The three division winners are 1, 2 and 3, and the three Wild Card teams are 4, 5 and 6. The higher seed in each series will host every single game; 3 will host 6, and 4 will host 5.

For the Division Series, the top seed will host the winner of 4 vs. 5, and the second seed will host the winner of 3 vs. 6. These will be the usual best-of-five series, with the higher seed hosting the first two games and Game 5 if necessary. Then the best-of-seven Championship Series and World Series will follow.

Who Does No. 2 Work For?

This new system is great if you happen to be the second seed. Under the previous format, the two worst division winners had to face each other in the Division Series. That could still happen this year, but the 2-seed might also end up facing the 6-seed, which will normally be an easier matchup even if 6 beats 3.

We already know one of this year’s 2-seeds. The New York Yankees will represent the American League, and while they still have some injury problems to shake off, they’re in pretty good shape as +550 fourth favorites on the World Series MLB odds board at top-rated sportsbooks.

In this case, though, it won’t matter too much for the Yankees whether they end up facing 3 or 6 should they advance. The 3-seed is the Cleveland Guardians, and their plus-57 run differential at press time is roughly the same as the 6-seed, the Tampa Bay Rays (plus-55).

Top Seeds

The top seeds, meanwhile, won’t get much benefit from the new format. The Houston Astros (+400) would have faced the winner of the Wild Card Game under the old rules; that would have been either the No. 4 Toronto Blue Jays or the No. 5 Seattle Mariners.

The only real difference is that 4 vs. 5 is now a best-of-three, so maybe that will impact the starting rotations for the surviving Wild Card team, but that’s about it. And of course, the 3-seed gets the shaft now that they have to play the Wild Card Round rather than advance straight to the Division Series.

Every extra round is an opportunity to get eliminated, although Cleveland (+3500) will be happy just to make the postseason. Maybe the No. 3 St. Louis Cardinals (+1600) will be less enthusiastic about having to face the No. 6 Philadelphia Phillies in the National League.

So there you have it: Under the new format, it’s business as usual for the 1-seed, a boost for the 2-seed, and a kick in the pants for the 3-seed. Bet accordingly, and may the sphere be with you this postseason.