The best-of-5 format has been a part of baseball’s postseason since Major League Baseball expanded to two rounds in 1969. Whereas before the World Series was simply played between the teams that won the National League and American League, a best-of-5 League Championship Series was added in 1969 when the AL and NL each expanded to 12 teams. It wasn’t until 1985 that the LCS was expanded to a best-of-7.
An MLB realignment in 1994 created three divisions. With this new setup, a third round was added to the playoffs in the form of a Divisional Series, which would be determined with the best-of-5 format. Here are three reasons that baseball gets it wrong by sticking with the best-of-5 format instead if switching to a best-of-7.
1. The best-of-5 puts the higher seed at a disadvantage
The Los Angeles Dodgers were a clearly superior team to the Washington Nationals during the 2019 regular season. The Dodgers won 106 games to the Nationals’ 93, scored 886 runs to the Nationals’ 873, and ranked best in the majors with only 613 runs allowed while the Nationals ranked 14th with 724 runs allowed.
But thanks to the best-of-5 format, Los Angeles now risks elimination on Wednesday after losing just two games in the NLDS. A best-of-7 series would have given Los Angeles the chance to use all three of its All-Star starting pitchers on normal rest; in the best-of-5 series format, only Walker Buehler will get two starts.
The fewer games there are in a series, the more variance comes into play. In one winner-take-all game, luck will play a huge factor in deciding the winner as just a couple of bounces going one way or the other can determine the winner. In a hypothetical best-of-21 series, luck and bounces would likely even out over 21 games, and the team to reach 11 wins would be far more likely to be the superior team.
Of course, a best-of-21 series isn’t feasible. But why not a best-of-7? Both the LCS and the World Series are best-of-7; why are the lowest seeds being given the benefit of additional luck and variance?
2. It doesn’t make any sense in the context of the sport
The MLB regular season is a marathon, not a sprint. It is played out over 162 games; over 10 times more games than NFL teams play (16) and nearly double the 82 games that NBA and NHL teams play. Those 162 games aren’t timed, either; they can take as much or as little time is needed to finish. The long season gives the cream of the crop plenty of time to rise to the top.
And then the playoffs begin. One-game series for the Wild Card! Best-of-5 for the Divisional Series! Let’s hurry up and get to the Championship Series!
What is the rush for all of a sudden? We were willing to let this long, meandering regular season play out over the course of six leisurely months, and now all of a sudden in the most important games of the year, we are in a hurry to get them over with?
Expanding both the Wild Card Game and the Divisional Series
Expanding the postseason would bring in more revenue and give the teams who finished with better records a competitive edge over their opponents. This sounds like a win-win to me.
As Bob Costas suggested in 2015, the Wild Card Game should be converted into a three-game series, with all three games being hosted by the team who finished the regular season with a better record. This would give teams more incentive to battle for first place in the wild card race and would give the top wild card team (that used to advance into the Divisional Series without this one-game playoff) an advantage.
And then switch the Divisional Series to a best-of-7. There’s no legitimate argument against it. Over-matched teams would still be quickly dismissed on four or five games, and the more competitive series would have more time to develop and be less affected by one bad pitching matchup or luck.
If the argument against this format is that the season is too long, shorten it to 154 games. But is an extra one or two games per series really that big of a deal?