Major League Baseball’s playoffs are about to get bigger. Whether they’ll be better remains an open question.
In perhaps the most significant on-field development in collective bargaining agreement negotiations that concluded Thursday, owners managed to achieve a longstanding goal: An expanded playoff field that will provide an immediate revenue boost to all 30 teams.
It will be a 12-team field, expanded from the current 10 but less than the 14 owners desired, and while the reported $65 million to $100 million ESPN agreed to pay to broadcast additional rounds of playoffs will fill the coffers of revenue-ravenous owners , it will come at a price.
Most notably: The meaning and relevance of a 162-game season that will result in 40% of teams gaining entry to the playoffs.
Baseball’s charm – and its greatest glories – have always been tied to the grind itself, a six-month crucible of a season that weeded out pretenders and rewarded sustained excellence. To be sure, no player, executive or fan conditioned to the modern game wants to throw it back to 1968 and earlier, when only the pennant winners of the National and American leagues moved on, advancing directly to the World Series.
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Certainly, that format produced the greatest pennant races – and collapses – in the game’s history, from Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” in 1951 to the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies blowing a 6½-game lead with 12 to play. In the nearly six decades since, baseball’s expanded playoffs – from the league championship and division series down to the wild-card game – have added their own, rich chapters to the game’s history.
Those formats would have provided a safety net for the 1951 Los Angeles Dodgers, 1964 Phillies and 1993 San Francisco Giants, whose 103 wins were one shy of the Atlanta Braves, a year before the first wild card was added.
Now, it’s fair to question whether the cushion is too vast, that soft landings will be assured for pretenders, even losing teams. A look at how the new playoffs might work, and some unintended consequences that may result:
For now, MLB is not altering the number of divisions – there will be six, five-team divisions, though that may grow to eight and four should the league expand to 32 teams, as commissioner Rob Manfred has intimated is possible in coming years. All six division winners will earn playoff berths, but not all will get the advantage of rest they currently enjoy.
Instead, the division winners with the two best records will receive first-round byes, with the remaining division winner and three wild cards meeting in best-of-three wild-card series. The winners of those series would advance to the division series, and the playoffs as we’ve known them since 1995 (division series, LCS, World Series) would commence.
There are plenty of suboptimal details in the fine print, most notably that the wild-card round will be a best-of-three format in which the higher seed hosts all three games. That will certainly result in multiple teams going home without playing a game in front of their home crowd, calling into question the meaning of what exactly constitutes a “playoff appearance.”
And in order to facilitate a quick turnaround and avoid top seeds sitting out too long, tiebreaking games will no longer be contested to break deadlocks atop a division, or to determine the final playoff participant. So say goodbye to some of the most titillating baseball, courtesy of Game 163, played over the years. (Shout out Bucky Dent).
It seems a bit incongruous to play 162 games and have a division title decided on, say, runs allowed in division games or net home runs in games against common opponents. But hey, no longer are such Byzantine tiebreakers the NFL’s exclusive property!
Punishing the great
The beauty of MLB’s wild-card game format – instituted in 2012 – was the significant emphasis it placed on winning the division. Additionally, it provided a punishment to non-division winners in the form of burning their top pitcher before moving on to the wild-card round.
But this format will undoubtedly bring some outstanding teams unfairly down a level – essentially, forced to contest an extra round (and a dangerous two-of-three, at that) despite providing themselves over 162 games.
Here’s a sampling of just a few outstanding division champs in the wild-card game era who finished with their league’s third-best record, and thus would have been forced into an unnerving (but moneymaking) wild-card series: 2019 Twins (101 wins ), 2016 and ’17 Red Sox (93 wins each), 2013 Tigers (93 wins), 2012 Giants (94 wins).
Certainly, a handful of excellent wild-card teams will get a nominally fairer shot in a best-of-three than a single game, although research by MLB.com, covering 10 years of data, indicated that teams that win Game 1 of a three-game series go on to win the series 76% of the time. (Sorry, 2015 Pirates, but your 98-win squad was likely cooked once Jake Arrieta tossed that gem at you).
The likelier outcome is affording a decidedly subpar team a virtually even shot at taking out a proven winner.
Rewarding the bad
To be fair, every season has its own DNA, and that’s never truer in this modern era of tanking that can make divisions exceedingly lopsided and pad the win totals of good, not great teams.
Yet most years, the drop off from decent to mediocre is sharp, and rolling six playoff teams deep in each league will undoubtedly elevate a handful of rummies into meaningful October baseball. The scary thing is, if said rummy has one great pitcher, it can immediately put a superior team in significant jeopardy.
Let’s go back to 2019 for a second, a year in which the New York Mets dawdled to an 86-win season and a third-place finish in the NL East. The year was such a disappointment, in fact, that the club fired manager Mickey Callaway after the season.
Well, those forgettable ’19 Mets would have made the playoffs under the 2022 format. Not only that, they would have placed a 91-win division winner in immediate jeopardy.
See, if there’s one thing the 2019 Mets had going for them, it was Jacob deGrom, who struck out a major-league high 255 batters in winning his second consecutive Cy Young Award. So imagine being the St. Louis Cardinals, going about your business the right way by winning 90-plus games and your division, and suddenly you’re facing the likelihood of an immediate elimination game.
So much for that reward of winning your division.
Another fear players had was the notion of teams disincentivized to compete in the off-season, or at the trade deadline, if the road to the playoffs widened. While the 14-team format would have vastly increased the chances of a .500 (or worse) team getting in, there’s plenty of room for chaff to sneak in. We’re a bit numb to gross standings imbalances after five years of tanking across the major leagues, but it’s easy to forget an era in which wins were more easily distributed.
As recently as 2017, an 80-82 team would have made the playoffs – in this case, either the Angels, Rays or Royals in the American League.
Once they figured out the tiebreaker, of course.
It was pretty fun when the playoffs vastly expanded in 2020, in the name of making a pandemic-shortened 60-game season a little more fair. Lots of playoff baseball on TV wasn’t the worst quarantine balm, to be sure.
Yet the permanently expanded playoffs begs the question of, how much is too much?
Will fans of fringe teams and contenders truly come to the ballpark in September, or will they stay away because they know their team is truly mediocre, or will they be assured a playoff berth, anyway?
Will fans of perennial division winners, perhaps tiring of coughing up thousands of dollars for high-priced playoff tickets, fill up Dodger Stadium 55,000 strong knowing that three more rounds of playoffs await?
That was the case for Braves fans in the mid-to-late 1990s, when modern “fan shaming” arguably was born after Atlanta failed to sell out some of its playoff games after years of success. The “optics” of empty playoff seats are never good.
But indifferent September crowds and a soft market for playoff tickets are a way down the priority list for MLB. Playoff TV revenue is king, and perhaps in a future CBA, shortening the season may eventually come on the table.
Right now, though, a permanent imbalance will settle in – 162 regular-season games to ultimately usher average teams into October and potentially push great ones into a best-of-three dogfight.