The more MLB playoff spots the better, right? Not so fast

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Editor's note: From rising strikeout totals and unwritten-rules debates to connecting with a new generation of fans and a looming labor battle, baseball is at a crossroads. As MLB faces these challenges, we are embarking on a season-long look at The State of Baseball, examining the issues and storylines that will determine how the game looks in 2021 and far beyond.

This is it. The stretch run. The final month of the 2021 baseball season is at hand. It's all been building up to this.

The degree to which that string of promotional clichés grabs you might depend on which year you hail from. Let's say you're viewing this year's standings through a 1965 lens, or, really, any lens from 1901 to 1968. There are two leagues and no divisions or wild cards, so everything rides on finishing in first place. It's pennant or bust.

Through that lens, there are five teams angling for the two slots in the World Series. In the AL, the Tampa Bay Rays have a nice six-game lead over the Houston Astros. Everyone else is far enough back that if any of them were to catch the Rays, it would generate some "miracle" headlines.

The NL is tighter, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants locked in a neck-and-neck classic pennant duel on the 70th anniversary of their great race in 1951. But don't sleep on the Milwaukee Brewers, who hover just 3.5 back of Frisco. Everyone else? It's wait until next year.

The narrative changes when you shift the historical lens and match up 2021 results with the formats from baseball's history. Let's prorate the current standings for a full 162 games, assuming that the current winning percentages hold up through the completion of the regular-season schedule. Let's also assume that any team that's seven games or closer to a playoff slot in the prorated standings is considered a contender.

Given those assumptions and prorated 2021 standings, here's how many contenders we have in each format:

1. Two leagues, no divisions or wild cards (1901 to 1968): 5 contenders
2. Two leagues, four divisions, no wild cards (1969 to 1993): 8 contenders
3. Two leagues, six divisions, two wild cards (1994 to 2011): 16 contenders
4. Two leagues, six divisions, four wild cards (2012 to 2019, 2021): 16 contenders
5. Two leagues, six divisions, two top-seed byes, 12 wild cards (rumored proposal for expanding the playoffs): 19 contenders
6. Two leagues, six divisions, 12 first- and second-place finishers, four wild cards (2020): 19 contenders

In the real world, the only one of these scenarios that matters is No. 4. That's the current format, the one that's been in place each season since 2012, save for the ad hoc system we endured during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign.

Our question today: What are the pitfalls, and benefits, of changing that format, given the current level of top-to-bottom competitiveness across the game?