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MLB’s expanded playoffs could last past 2020 if Rob Manfred has his way

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It’s a bad idea, but it’s probably not anywhere close to happening.

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Al Yellon

We’re going to have 16 of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball in an expanded postseason starting September 29.

Most people think this is just fine. We’re having a bizarre, shortened 60-game 2020 season with all kinds of different rules, and so why not let more teams into this year’s October tournament? Plus, of course, it’s mostly about money: The expanded postseason will be worth $1 billion to MLB and an extra $50 million for players, who normally get extra postseason cash from ticket sales, but there (likely) won’t be any of those this year.

But this will all go back to normal in 2021, right? Right? Uh.... about that:

“I’m a fan of the expanded playoffs,” Manfred said of this year’s 16-team field. “…I think getting back to that three-game series in the first round is a positive change. I think the initial round could have the kind of appeal you see in the early couple days in the NCAA tournament. It’s going to be crazy — just a lot of baseball in a compressed period of time. We’re going to have a bracket, obviously. People love brackets and love picking who’s going to come through those brackets. I think there’s a lot to commend it. It is one of those changes that I hope becomes a permanent part of our landscape.”

Oh, man. There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s start with his comparison to the NCAA tournament. MLB isn’t NCAA basketball and shouldn’t be. The college basketball regular season comprises around 30-35 games. MLB is, in normal times, a 162-game sport. Does Manfred really want to make regular-season games more meaningless? How’s that going to affect ticket sales (once they begin again) and local TV ratings? If nothing really matters until October, why pay attention from April through September?

At The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal writes that we shouldn’t freak out about this — not yet, anyway:

The union does not currently favor the idea, in part because of concerns that easier paths to the playoffs would disincentivize competition and reduce spending on player salaries. Many players opposed expanding from 10 to 16 teams even in this unprecedented season, and ultimately approved a plan only for 2020, not ’21.

Really, then, there is no need to overreact to Manfred’s comments, particularly when they are considered in full context. What he said should merely be a springboard for further discussion between the league and union, if not this offseason then in the next collective-bargaining negotiations, with the current deal expiring on Dec. 1, 2021.

Rosenthal then goes on to discuss how three-game wild-card series seem more “fair” than a one-game knockout like the wild-card game has been since it was instituted in 2012. (Cubs fans, of course, have positive memories of the 2015 game — the 2018 contest, not so much.)

There’s a long part of Rosenthal’s article that involves an interview he did with Bob Costas on this topic, and I’m going to discount that entirely because Costas, who was once a strong new young voice among baseball broadcasters, has become one of the worst old curmudgeons of the sport, talking about the introduction of the wild cards in 1995:

Two years later, sportscaster Bob Costas was still seething over the idea that a second-place team could qualify for the postseason without being significantly handicapped, and many fans and other media members agreed with him.

“When it was announced in 1993, I thought the concept was inane, and nothing that has happened since has caused me to think otherwise,” Costas wrote in The Sporting News. “The wild card is antithetical to baseball.”

That’s... not even close to being right. “Antithetical” in what way? So only first-place teams should make the postseason? How about going back to one league, then, Bob, and just having a World Series as it was done pre-1969? There’s just no way that works in 2020 or beyond, financially or otherwise.

Costas also told Rosenthal of some proposals he had, citing Jerry Reinsdorf as a source (another reason to make them suspect), and I won’t detail them here, you can read Rosenthal’s article for that. Suffice to say that none of them is ever likely to become reality.

I’m not completely opposed to expanded playoffs going forward. Back in February, before the novel coronavirus pandemic upended everything, MLB had floated the idea of a 14-team playoff field:

MLB is considering a move in which each league would have three division winners and four wild-card teams making the postseason starting in 2022, sources said. The best team in the league would receive a bye into the division series. The two remaining division winners and the wild-card team with the best record of the four would each host all games of a best-of-three series in the opening round.

This plan would have involved some of the teams with better records being allowed to choose their opponents, which is an interesting concept, if not necessarily logistically viable. This one sounds more doable if and when MLB expands to 32 teams, which is coming, although likely also delayed by the pandemic.

If MLB had a 16-team postseason field over the last 10 seasons and used a format identical to this year’s, here are the teams with the worst records in each league that would have been in as the No. 8 seed:

2019: NL, Cubs (84-78). AL: Rangers (78-84)
2018: NL, Diamondbacks (82-80). AL: Twins (78-84)
2017: NL, Marlins (77-85). AL: Angels or Rays or Royals (all 80-82)
2016: NL, Marlins (79-82). AL: Astros (84-78)
2015: NL, Diamondbacks (79-83). AL: Indians (81-80)
2014: NL, Mets (79-83). AL: Indians (85-77)
2013: NL, Padres (76-86). AL: Orioles (85-77)
2012: NL, Phillies or Diamondbacks (81-81). AL: Angels (89-73)
2011: NL, Nationals (80-81). AL: White Sox (79-83)
2010: NL, Marlins (80-82). AL: Tigers (81-81)

That’s far too many with losing records (11 of 20 possible teams), and in two cases (2016 Marlins and 2015 Indians) teams would have to play makeup games to see if they’d avoid a tie for the spot with another team. Plus, how do you do tiebreakers here? It doesn’t seem right to just do “best record” or “best record in divisional play” to break a tie over a 162-game season.

Most importantly: Does MLB really want a 77-85 team (the 2017 Marlins, for example) to get hot for three days and upset a 104-win team (the Dodgers, who they would have played that year using the 2020 16-team setup). Using the NCAA analogy, this would be similar a 15 seed upsetting a 2 seed, which has happened a few times, or even a 16 seed upsetting a 1 seed (which has happened only once). But again, this would render the regular season almost meaningless.

The best team over the 162-game season doesn’t always win the World Series — though the Cubs did when they were — and that was the case even before expansion and divisional play. Just ask the 1954 Indians (111 wins) how they felt losing to (and getting swept by!) the 97-win Giants, or, for that matter, the Cubs, who lost World Series in 1906, 1918, 1935 and 1945 despite being significantly better during the regular season than their opponents in those years. But with the postseason aligned the way it is now, there’s at least a decent chance for the regular-season best team to win the World Series. That chance would be reduced by forcing said team to win FOUR postseason series.

Does this all mean, if it happens, a potential reduction in the length of the regular season? That’s been discussed, and it could wind up happening, though teams that regularly sell out games (Cubs, Dodgers in particular) might balk at losing revenue from ticket sales by giving up home dates.

I’m fine with the pre-2020 setup. If MLB wants to add more games for TV (and money) purposes, fine, make the wild-card round a three-game series instead of one game. Like this year, play it on three consecutive days all at the home park of the team with the better record.

I understand why MLB is having an expanded postseason this year. But once we return to a "normal" MLB schedule, I want to see baseball’s postseason reward excellence, not mediocrity.

Poll

MLB’s playoff system after 2020 should be...

This poll is closed

  • 29%
    The 10-team system exactly as it was in 2019
    (68 votes)
  • 53%
    The 10-team system as it was in 2019, except with a three-game wild card series
    (124 votes)
  • 4%
    The 14-team proposal made by MLB in February
    (11 votes)
  • 3%
    The 16-team system being used in 2020
    (9 votes)
  • 8%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (19 votes)
231 votes total Vote Now