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Matthew Roberson: Explaining MLB’s new 6-team-per-league playoff format and the advantages of the No. 3 seed

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A baseball with MLB logo is seen at Citizens Bank Park before a game between the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies on June 28, 2018 in Philadelphia.

A baseball with MLB logo is seen at Citizens Bank Park before a game between the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies on June 28, 2018 in Philadelphia. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images/TNS)

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NEW YORK — As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, Rob Manfred will break it.

While Major League Baseball’s previous playoff format included the controversial wild-card game, which usually meant that at least one 90-win team would have their entire season come down to one game, it also was much easier to understand than the new bracket.

Implemented after the lockout, the new playoff format includes six teams from each league and killed the wild-card game in favor of a three-game wild card series. While playing a best-of-three series is a better way to determine a superior team than one game, it also may unintentionally hurt the teams who win their division. Now, the top two teams in each league receive a first-round bye, something that is much more advantageous in other sports than it is in baseball. Rather than just waiting out one game to see who their opponent is, the top two seeds could potentially have to sit around for three games, perhaps disrupting any rhythm they had going.

If the Mets can hold off the Braves to win the National League East, they guarantee themselves a spot in the Division Series, which is still best-of-five. If they have to settle for a wild-card spot, it means having to win two games against the Phillies, Padres or Brewers before playing in an NLDS. For the Mets, losing the NL East would mean grabbing the No. 4 seed, as their final record should be much better than the other teams competing for a wild-card spot. While a wild-card series means playing right away and not having to worry about a layoff messing with their timing at the plate or overall mojo in other aspects of the game, it also means having to face the Dodgers in the NLDS.

The winner of the National League Central (safe to assume it will be the Cardinals, who have a 7.5-game lead entering play on Tuesday) is all but locked into the No. 3 seed. The Dodgers and their historic winning will put them in the No. 1 seed, and the NL East winner should have enough wins stacked up to come in second. That leaves the Cardinals — unless they can make a spectacular September run for the second straight season — as the division winner with the worst record, meaning they get third.

There’s an argument to be made that the third seed is the best one to get. Doing so means playing the sixth-seed in the wild-card round — and playing each game at home, as the higher seed has home-field advantage for each game — and then facing the No. 2 seed in the NLDS rather than the mighty Dodgers. The Dodgers will get the winner of the No. 4-5 match-up no matter what. Even if the sixth-seed pulls an upset, MLB has decided not to re-seed for the next round. Think of it like an NCAA Tournament bracket, where the fixtures are set in stone, allowing a team the potential luxury of an easier championship path should they run into an underdog winner instead of the favored team that the underdog took out.

So, if the Mets win their division and take the NL silver medal to the Dodgers’ gold, they’ll await the winner of the three-game series between St. Louis and whichever wild-card team has the best record. In this scenario, that will almost assuredly be Atlanta. The Braves toppling the Cardinals would technically be an upset as far as seeding, but would not exactly register as a shock. That would pit the NL East rivals against each other in one NLDS as the Dodgers tangle with the four-five winner.

If Atlanta wins the division, the Mets are all of a sudden in a three-game dogfight with the fifth seed while the Braves relax. That most likely means seeing the Phillies (a team the Mets went 14-5 against this year) or the Padres, who they lost four of six to. While any team that qualifies for the playoff is a good one, the rest of the NL contenders are likely hoping the Brewers can wiggle their way in.

Sure, the Brewers have made the playoffs each of the last four years and they have a fearsome top of the pitching rotation. They’ve also scored just 11 runs in their last seven postseason games, only one of which ended in a Milwaukee win. As a team, the Brew Crew rank only slightly above average on offense this season as Christian Yelich’s slugging percentage continues to wilt. Taking two of three from the Brewers seems like much less of a daunting task than doing so against the Phillies or Padres, who both have much more star-studded lineups to pair with their frontline pitching.

In short, winning the division is the Mets’ best course of action. A first-round bye can be a little strange, but it’s certainly better than having to play their way into the NLDS, especially if said NLDS would be against the Dodgers.

Securing the NL East means wrapping up the No. 2 seed, not having to worry about a wonky three-game series and not seeing the Dodgers until the NLCS. That gives them much better odds of making the World Series than playing a wild card series does, even if the bye that comes with winning the division could allow rust to set in.

Taking a few days off in the heat of October can always be a problem, but with this new format that aims to reward the best teams in each league, that could be a classic case of having a good problem.

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