Does the MLB playoffs’ wild-card bye hurt as much as it helps?

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By Samantha Rose

I’ve been yelling this from the rooftops since the debut of the new Major League Baseball playoff format — the six-day layoff that top-two seeds get with the bye past the wild-card round is not necessarily a good thing for those teams.

Teams are going to have to learn how to manage that off time and stay active. In a recent conversation with me on “Flippin’ Bats,” John Smoltz endorsed the current format and is confident the higher seeds will figure it out in the long run.

“When it stays this way, teams are gonna learn how to deal with the rest,” Smoltz said, “Because the No. 1 minefield you have to deal with in your mind is, “What are we gonna do with six days off? How do we replicate baseball with six days off?” The benefit of that is, you’re facing a team that has had to burn and churn through a series.”

But it’s clear to me that, in the division-series round of year two of this format, those higher seeds have not yet figured that out, and whatever fatigue the lower seeds pick up in a wild-card series is outweighed by the value of getting revved up earlier for playoff baseball.

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The 90-win Texas Rangers just swept the 101-win No. 1 seed Baltimore Orioles. The 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks can do the same to the 100-win Los Angeles Dodgers with a win Thursday. The Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros, my picks to reach the World Series, each dropped one of the first two games of their respective division series at home.

Last year, the Braves and Dodgers both won over 100 games and were bounced in the NLDS by division rivals they beat up on in the regular season. The 99-win New York Yankees barely survived a very flawed Cleveland Guardians squad in the ALDS. Only the Astros, who already had the experience of several deep playoff runs and went on to win the World Series, swept the lower-seeded Seattle Mariners, and even they needed a come-from-behind walk-off win in Game 1 and an extra-inning victory in Game 3 to do so.

Those struggles are entirely understandable. In Major League Baseball, teams play 162 games and never have more than two days off in a row aside from the All-Star break, which isn’t really a break for many of the players good enough to help their teams to division titles and top-two seeds. Then all of a sudden, before your biggest game of the year, you have five days off and then you find yourself going off a team that is riding a high from winning a playoff series already and popping bottles in the locker room. That is not an ideal setup.

During my five-year career in the minor leagues, I would play somewhere around 142 games. Off days were obviously rare. When I would step back up to the plate in a game after an off day, I could tell something was off. My eyes wouldn’t adjust the same. My swing timing felt off by a tick. My timing on defense seemed off by a smidge. This would happen without fail after every off day. To have to come back from five or six off days in a row into a playoff environment seems nightmarish to me from a playoff perspective. 

Nathan Eovaldi fans seven over seven innings in the Rangers’ series-clinching victory over the Orioles

Nathan Eovaldi fans seven over seven innings in the Rangers' series-clinching victory over the Orioles

Hitters have to time every part of their physical mechanics, down to their blinking when they are facing 100-mph fastballs. I remember having to do that. That timing is not going to stick when you have five days off.

Just take a look at what has happened to the offenses of the Braves, Dodgers and Orioles. Atlanta’s stacked lineup did not wake up until the seventh inning of Game 2 against the Phillies’ uneven bullpen. Baltimore got shut down by Andrew Heaney and a suspect Rangers pitching staff in Game 1. The Orioles’ bats roared to life in Game 2, but it was still not enough. The Dodgers have four runs total in two games against an Arizona team they raked against in the regular season.

Ultimately, the bye provides two big edges. The first is setting up your pitching staff in the best possible way to face the team you’re going to play in the DS.

The second is avoiding one more chance at elimination. Baseball is an unpredictable sport. The Blue Jays, Rays, Brewers and Marlins saw that firsthand, and the four teams with byes did not need to take that risk.

Los Angeles Dodgers get STUNNED again by the Diamondbacks at home

Los Angeles Dodgers get STUNNED again by the Diamondbacks at home

But I’ve had my beliefs about long playoff byes for many years, well before the implementation of this new format and even before my own professional baseball career. People who rooted for my brother Justin and the Detroit Tigers in the late 2000s and early 2010s like me probably understand why. 

In 2006, the Tigers won 95 games and swept the Oakland A’s in the ALCS. They then had five days off before the World Series while the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets fought it out in an epic seven-game NLCS. Then in the World Series, the 83-win Cardinals kicked the butts of a superior Tigers team. 

History repeated itself in 2012. The Tigers swept the Yankees in the ALCS, had another five-day bye before their biggest games of the year, then came out flat and lost to a San Francisco Giants team that needed seven games to beat the Cardinals in the NLCS. 

I’ve made it clear many times on “Flippin’ Bats” that I am a fan of the current playoff format, and so has Smoltz. But I also agree with him that teams are going to have to face the challenge of figuring out how to manage this five-day break. Clearly, it’s not impossible. The Astros won the World Series as a team with a bye last year because the Astros are inevitable. But that off period affects so much for players, and teams need to start taking it more seriously.

Ben Verlander is an MLB Analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the “Flippin’ Bats” podcast. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Verlander was an All-American at Old Dominion University before he joined his brother, Justin, in Detroit as a 14th-round pick of the Tigers in 2013. He spent five years in the Tigers organization. Follow him on Twitter @BenVerlander.



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