Improving the MLB Playoffs: The Ladder

I’m a huge baseball fan. I follow the Mets all season long, tied to my TV or phone for (almost) all 162 games. I’m a scoreboard watcher for most of August through the end of the season, depending on whether the Mets are in the playoff hunt. And I watch the post-season games regardless of who is playing.

The playoffs are fun — but I want them to be more fun. And more importantly, I want the regular season to matter a lot more than it does. Here’s my plan.


  1. The more fun: Except for the ALCS/NLCS and World Series, all playoff games become elimination games.
  2. The “regular season matters” part: It’s a lot harder for a low Wild Card team to make it to the World Series than before.
  3. We expand the playoffs.

How It Works

Right now, six teams from each league make the playoffs — the winners of each division and the three wild cards. The teams are ranked one through six; the divisional winners get the top three seeds based on their regular season record and the wild cards get the bottom three seeds based on theirs. I’m not changing any of that — not immediately, at least.

In the current system, the #3 seed hosts the #6 seed in a best-of-three series; the #4 seed hosts the #5 similarly. The winner of 4/5 faces the #1 seed in a best-of-five series and the winner of 3/6 faces the #2 seed. That leads us to the LCS. I’m keeping the basic structure there — 3 plays 6, with the winner playing 2; 4 plays 5, with the winner playing 1.

So what’s new?

The first two rounds are now a two-game series, which I’m calling a “best of two.”

  • The lower seed hosts both games.
  • The higher seed has to win both games to advance.

What does this mean?

First, all of the first and second-round games are elimination games. If a 5 or 6 seed loses the first game of their best-of-two, they’re done. In the second round, if the 1 or 2 seed wins the first game, their opponent is eliminated. Making every game an elimination game increases the drama by a lot, and therefore, makes the playoffs a lot more fun (for more casual fans especially).

Second, it means that low seeds need to win four games in a row, against “better” teams, on the road, to advance to the LCS. That’s doable, but it’s a big hurdle — one that an 87-win team should have to overcome if they want to get into the World Series over multiple 100+ win teams.

Would This Have Changed 2022? Maybe?

Here are the results of the 2022 Playoffs, via

In the new ladder system, the overall bracket would have been the same, as explained above. (That will change with my “future state” idea below, but don’t worry about that for now.) The results would have been different — and please, don’t think I’m suggesting this just because the Mets come off better. The Mets had plenty of chances and got what they deserved, sadly.

I want to focus on the Astros and Phillies, though — the two World Series teams. The Astros, being the 1 seed in the AL, would have simply needed to win one of two games against Seattle (which, even in my system, earned their upset of the Blue Jays) to advance to the ALCS; they clearly would have still done so, and they almost certainly would have still faced the Yankees. So no change there. The Phillies — the 6 seed in the NL — would have faced a tougher road, but maybe they make it to the World Series as well. They did what they needed to do in the Wild Card round, beating the Cardinals two games to zilch in St. Louis. They won the first game against Atlanta but lost the second; perhaps they play it differently if it’s an elimination game? And if they did advance, it’s possible that they’d have to face the top-seeded Dodgers, given LA’s relatively easier path forward. In short, the Phillies still may have made it to the title bout, but it would have been more difficult. That’s a good outcome, given their regular season performance.

The Big Problem: Fewer Games, Fewer Dollars

MLB expanded its playoffs before the 2022 season for a very clear reason: money. Playoff games make a lot of money for the league, and the more games, the more you make. My system cuts back on the number of games, and that’s a huge problem. (Don’t worry, I have a fix! And it’s a good one.) In 2022, we had nine total Wild Card games; my system caps that at eight, and realistically, you’re looking at probably around six. The LDS is even worse: my system gives the league a maximum of four games, but the current system gives us a minimum of six and as many as ten.

Realistically, I’m costing the league about ten games. There’s no way MLB is going to switch to my plan unless I can make up some of that gap. The “every game is an elimination game” aspect probably helps me out a bit — you’re likely to see better TV ratings for elimination games than you would otherwise. But I need more.

That’s where the “ladder” comes in.

Let’s Add Four More Playoff Teams

Right now, 12 of the 30 MLB teams make the playoffs — that’s 40% of the league. The NFL has 14 of 32 make it, or 43.75%. The NBA has 16 of 32 (50%) unless you count the “play-in” tournament, in which case it’s 20 of 32 (62.5%). The NHL has 16 of 32 (50%) go to the postseason.

There’s room for growth.

I think the big reason that the league, players, and even fans are reluctant to add more playoff teams is that doing so devalues the regular season. With a 162-game season, you don’t want to do that. We need a way to add more playoff teams and not have to worry about diluting the importance of the regular season results.

Let’s say we added two more teams per league to the 2022 playoff picture, using the National League as an example. The Brewers (86-76) would be our 7th seed and the Giants (81-81) would be the 8th seed. In a traditional bracket, the Dodgers (111-51), as our #1 seed, would have faced the Giants, and the 2-seeded Braves (101-61) would face the Brewers. For the Dodgers and Braves, that’s really bad; in the current system, they have a bye past the first round, and in an expanded format, they’d have to re-prove themselves against a team that, arguably, shouldn’t even have been given a postseason berth. The traditional bracket doesn’t work.

But there’s another way: the ladder. Ladders work exactly as they do in real life: to get to the top, you need to start at the bottom rung and make your way up. In this case, the playoff would work exactly as they do in my idea above — except that we’d add a round before the Wild Card.

  • The 5th seed hosts the 8th seed in a “best-of-two” series
  • The 6th seed hosts the 7th seed in a “best-of-two” as well
  • Everyone else gets a bye

Then, we go into what I had before. The 4th seed hosts the winner of 5/8; the 3rd seed hosts the winner of 6/7.

That only adds two to four games back into the playoff schedule, but I think that’s enough to get by. Why? Because it massively increases the value of the end-of-season pennant race. In reflecting on the expanded 2022 playoff field, Sports Business Journal noted that “when Major League Baseball announced a postseason expansion from 10 clubs to 12 as part of its new five-year collective-bargaining agreement last spring, the primary motive was to keep more markets engaged longer” — and the results bore that out. “The league drew 1,644,658 fans the last weekend of the regular season, marking the best-attended weekend overall since August 2015.” While it’s definitely true that “more playoff games equals more money,” it’s also true that “more playoff teams equals more money.” And that’s before we factor in the obvious value of being the #4 seed over the #5 seed.

The Playoffs Are Going To Expand Anyway. Let’s Make Them Great.

MLB is going to expand to 32 teams before 2030 — that’s pretty much a given. And when they do, they’re not going to stick with 12 playoff teams. A 16-team playoff is inevitable.

Ideally, when that happens, we’ll also get realignment — but I fear we’ll end up with four divisions in each league. I’d like to see the opposite happen, and if it does, a playoff ladder would be incredible.

Imagine four divisions total: NL East, NL West, AL East, AL West. For our purposes, I’m going to use a hypothetical NL East of the Braves, Mets, Phillies, Marlins, Nationals, Pirates, Reds, and a new Montreal team. Let’s assume the Braves take the regular season pennant, like they did in 2022, followed in order by the Mets, Phillies, and then the Marlins. If we mirrored the current MLB playoff format, you would have a regular tournament bracket — the Braves host the Marlins in a best-of-three, the Mets host the Phillies in the same, and the winners face off in a best-of-five. That really reduces the importance of the regular season.

Alternatively, we could have an NL East ladder. The Phillies host the Marlins in a best-of-two, the winner goes to New York to face the Mets in a best-of-two, and the winner of that then goes to Atlanta for a best-of-two. Winning the division is a huge, huge advantage — not only do you have to win one game to get into the NLCS, but you have two chances to do so, and you’re playing both on basically full rest. The regular season becomes massively important, but the lowest-seeded team still has a chance. And if the Marlins (in this case) manage to win six games in a row, on the road, against the three better teams in their division — I think it’s fair to say they earned that NLCS bid.

And, Most Importantly, It’d be SO MUCH FUN

Imagine: three days left in the MLB regular season. The Marlins are a game ahead of the Pirates for 4th place in the new NL East, and they’re facing the Mets at Citi Field. The Mets are two games back of first-place Atlanta and a game ahead of the Phillies. Every game matters.

And then, when the regular season ends, the real fun begins. Over a ten-day stretch in October, we go from sixteen playoff teams to four — courtesy of a blitz of at least 12 and as many as 24 elimination games. It’s like March Madness, but for MLB.

Originally published on October 1, 2023