Expanding playoffs again is a bad plan, but here's an OK way to do it
December 8, 2021
Commissioner Rob Manfred and the Major League Baseball Players' Association have a lot on their plate right now. The lockout continues with no apparent progress and the matters under alleged discussion are many. One of those matters is the structure of MLB's playoffs.
Manfred was so enthralled by the extra round of playoffs in the abbreviated 2020 season that he wants that system to be the norm from here on out. He doesn't seem to care that it only made sense to do it that way in 2020 because of the short season played that year; 60 games was not a fair test of a team's mettle, so making the playoff tournament pool bigger was a way to compensate. So what, Manfred seems to think, it meant a bigger influx of TV money! MORE TV MONEY! BWAAH-HA-HA-HA!!!!! In the tiny mind of Manfred, there is no balancing argument, no down-the-road obstacle that would counter this. It's merely "more playoffs = more TV money." No doubt with the evil laugh, too.
He's probably wrong, of course—the way he wants to set things up, the regular season would be so further devalued that teams' individual broadcasting contracts would inevitably shrink, relatively speaking, and there would be no net gain of TV money. (To say nothing of the fact that today's cable/satellite broadcast model is fast becoming obsolete.) But that's a long-view argument that can't penetrate the commissioner's meager and myopia-addled perceptive powers. He's going to insist on more playoffs and the union is going to give them in some fashion in order to reach agreement on other issues. The question is, what form will they take?
Manfred wants essentially the 2020 model: Three division winners and three second-place finishers and one Wild Card (or just four Wild Card teams regardless of division/finish, unclear which he proposed) in each league, where the club with the top record gets a bye on the first round and everyone else plays a best-of-three series to advance to the second round, which we now know as the Division Series. This is terrible, as it makes winning your division unimportant. With the exception of the bye team, whether you finish first or not is just a matter of seeding; it is a more widespread reintroduction of the problem that the addition of the second Wild Card slot in 2012 successfully rectified—finishing first has to be substantially better than finishing second or lower. More broadly, the regular season must remain important and not merely a warmup for the playoff tournament.
If we are to be saddled with more playoff teams, the only way in which I'd be OK with it is if finishing first is maintained as a matter of significant import. We have a six-division structure and not enough clubs to comfortably break into more, so six first-place teams is the most we can have (with a two-team expansion, MLB could break into eight divisions of four, but that's off in the future a ways and wouldn't help with this anyway). With the four Wild Card clubs (two in each league), we have ten playoff teams, a full third of the MLB complement, but for Manfred that's not enough. He wants fourteen.
Can this be accomplished? 14 clubs in the tourney while still retaining the importance of first place and the full season? Not entirely, no, but adding more Wild Card slots can still be done without totally FUBARing things. Right now each league has a Wild Card game as a play-in to the Division Series. If we limit additional Wild Cards to that tier, we're still in the same general realm of acceptance. In fact, one might argue it as an additional incentive for a first-place finish instead of a devaluation of it. (I mean, I don't think I would, but I can see a logic there.)
Rather than make division winners play in this new introductory round, you leave them be. Win your division and be guaranteed a seed in the Division Series, just like now—three division champs and a single Wild Card club play on from that point. Before that, though, instead of having two Wild Card teams play for that one Division Series berth, you could have four.
As we know, in 2021 Boston hosted New York for the American League Wild Card entry to the Division Series, while Los Angeles hosted St. Louis for the same in the National League. With additional Wild Card teams in play, this is what we'd have had in ’21:
|AL EAST||AL CENT||AL WEST||NL EAST||NL CENT||NL WEST|
Unlike what Manfred wants to do, in our case the four Wild Card teams in each league would get pared down to one before any division winners get involved:
|AL WC 1||AL WC 2||NL WC 1||NL WC 2|
|SEA (90-72) @ BOS (92-70)||TOR (91-71) @ NYY (92-70)||PHI (82-80) @ LAD (106-56)||CIN (83-79) @ STL (90-72)|
|AL WC 3||NL WC 3|
|ALWC 1 winner vs. ALWC 2 winner||NLWC 1 winner vs. NLWC 2 winner|
Then things proceed apace with the Division Series and League Championship Series as we know them now.
You can do this with single-game Wild Card games, three per league total, or you could make it a best-of-three series first round and then a do-or-die single game. Single games would be best, as that only adds one day of idle time for the division winners, but Manfred would whine about how he wants more TV money than that. So to get him to stop throwing his baby tantrum, we say best-of-three for WC 1 and WC 2, then single deciding game for WC 3, giving MLB a "Wild Card Week" between the end of the season and the Division Series (season ends Sunday; day off Monday; best-of-three Tue-Wed-Thu in one league, Wed-Thu-Fri in the other, 2-1 home/away format with no travel days; single-gamers Saturday and Sunday; LDS starts Monday in one league, Tuesday in the other). The drawback is that doing best-of-three means the division winners all sit on their hands for a week. That's not a good thing, though some might welcome it; any hot-streak momentum might go away, but being able to reset pitching rotations regardless of how down-to-the-wire your season was would be appealing, as would extra rest for any banged-up players.
But, you say, all that downtime for division winners makes things uneven and unfair! Well, under the current system division champs wait up to four days already, and even Manfred's way has two clubs waiting around for a week; doing single-games for all the Wild Cards would have division winners idle for five days. But that really doesn't matter. If we really cared about equity and fairness and what's good for the sport, we wouldn't be adding more playoff teams to begin with. No, this is nothing but an attempt at a cash grab, and that needs to be acknowledged. Accepting that, we mitigate the fair and equitable thing by keeping the regular season and finishing first as meaningful as we can and make it a true disadvantage to advance as just a Wild Card team.
A better compromise would be to do all Wild Cards as single-elimination, win one and move on, and make the Division Series best-of-seven instead of best-of-five. Then you still get your "extra" playoff teams, you don't have anyone sit around for an entire week, and you get your added games for playoff TV. Either way the World Series starts nearer to the end of October (in 2021 it would have started October 30 instead of October 26).
The whole thing is, of course, colossally dumb. But so long as Rob Manfred is Commissioner of Baseball, the best we can hope for is to limit the scope of the dumbness and keep as much integrity in our great game as we can in the face of his destructive shortsighted agenda.
Expanding the playoffs
Should MLB have more playoff teams?