Around the Horn

Manfred threatens to continue expanded playoffs past 2020

The current Commissioner of Baseball, Rob Manfred, is "a fan of the expanded playoffs." He's repeatedly spoken about expanding the playoff format, even before this season, and said during a Hofstra Universtiy event that "there’s a lot to commend [the 2020 postseason format] and it is one of those changes that I hope becomes a permanent part of our landscape."

This is a horrible idea. It would change the fabric of Major League Baseball tremendously, further eroding its uniqueness among the major sports and fostering a cascade of altered behavior that likely would hurt the overall health of MLB.

An expansion of the playoff structure in 2020 is acceptable, even, arguably, a good thing as a one-off because of the short schedule. "I think that the initial round could have the kind of appeal that you see in the early couple of rounds of the NCAA tournament … it’s going to be crazy, just a lot of baseball all in a compressed period of time,” Manfred said to the Hofstra audience. “We’re going to have a bracket, obviously. People love brackets and picking who’s going to come through those brackets.”

Again, that's fine for a year that only saw a season of 60 games. Without the six-month season of 154-162 games, which MLB has utilized for 115 years (excepting strike- and war-shortened campaigns like 1918, 1981, and 1995), a tournament-style bracket makes some sense. With a standard length schedule, a huge playoff bracket does nothing other than neuter the regular season, turning it largely into glorified practice sessions.

It's no surprise that Manfred is pushing this unbelievably bad idea. In the first place, he has a penchant for bad ideas, they're kind of his brand. But more than that, because he sees his position as that of a toady for the club owners, his focus is always, always, on short-term profit, no matter how myopic the vision or how detrimental the idea is to any long-term interests.

See, more playoff games means more TV money. At least, that's the idea. It may not actually be true once the bigger picture is examined, but that's Manfred's thought. And for him, more TV money = good. End of thought process.

But we have more intellectual capacity than Manfred does, so let's play this out.

We'll discount 2020 standings since 50 games is not a fair representation, but we can use 2019 for this exercise. With the 2020 system in place, the 2019 playoff "bracket" would have been this with that year's final standings:


But that's Manfred's lauded "bracket," not the consequences of it. Here's where standings sat at the All-Star Break:

AL East         NL East
NYY 57 31   ATL 54 37
TB 52 39 6½    WSH 47 42 6
BOS 49 41 9   PHI 47 43
TOR 34 57 24½   NYM 40 50 13½
BAL 27 62 30½   MIA 33 55 19½
AL Central   NL Central
MIN 56 33   CHC 47 43
CLE 50 38   MIL 47 44 ½
CWS 42 44 12½   STL 44 44 2
DET 28 58 26½   PIT 44 45
KC 30 61 27   CIN 41 46
AL West   NL West
HOU 57 33   LAD 60 32
OAK 51 41 7   ARZ 46 45 13½
TEX 48 42 9   SD 45 45 14
LAA 45 46 12½   COL 44 45 14½
SEA 39 55 20   SF 41 48 17½

Here the Phillies are ahead of the Mets, but otherwise things look as they do under the final standings. However, team behavior for the second half of the year will now differ. Remember, first place means little now. A second-place finish is plenty fine, and .500 probably gets you in.  With the number of atrocious teams in the American League, .500 isn't even necessary for the AL squads. Therefore, there is no trade season to speak of, no push to build up a strong team. Granted, the ’19 trade season was relatively tame anyway, but you think Arizona still trades Zack Greinke? No way, they need to hold off the Padres and Rockies, plus why would Houston give up anything of value for him when they're basically assured of a playoff spot anyway? Teams like Colorado and San Diego will want to add some help, but the only sellers are Miami and the five AL dregs, who have been shedding veterans all year anyway, so there's no help to be had. Even the Mets, at ten games under .500, are within 5½ games of two different berths. The Giants and White Sox are each only four games out, the Angels just 3½, the Reds 2½. Half the season is done and 24 teams are looking at playoffs.

You might say, but Tim, that's good, almost everyone is in it and that will keep people interested in more markets.

Will it, though? Or will interest just shift? I mean, the Dodgers are a lock, so are the Astros, Yankees, Braves, Rays, and Indians. Oakland is pretty safe, so are the Cubs and Milwaukee. You can check out on them and come back in October. The hard-core fans will pay attention all season, but wouldn't they anyway? The drama is now with the mediocre, not the good. Can San Francisco have a burst at the end to snag a berth? Can Cincinnati?

Let's jump ahead a ways. August 31st, and now the Yankees, Rays, Twins, Indians, Astros, A's, Red Sox, Braves, Dodgers, and Nationals have all either clinched berths or are on the cusp of doing so. Late-season interest is not on any traditional pennant chase but the race for Wild Cards. Which under-.500 club will snag the AL's last berth? It's a two-team chase for maybe 75 wins between the Rangers and Angels, with the White Sox a longshot in the final weeks. In the NL, eight teams fight for five berths, making the tension, well, not completely absent. It's the stretch run, a September of Who Cares! TV ratings are abysmal, dropping even below the anemic levels of July and August, though Met fans still make noise on sportsradio.

Attendance around the leagues is down since so many of these games are basically exhibition contests. Fans are saving their dollars for a bank-breaking playoff ticket rather than attend a dozen or more games during the season. Shortsighted club owners raise ticket prices again to try to make up for the lost revenue and drive even more fans away, netting them at best a break-even result now and a smaller audience later.

But Bracketmania is here! Since there's no drama on the field, all the hype is on placing wagers and bracketology, then the long-awaited playoffs arrive. Those that haven't forgotten about baseball during the inconsequential season tune in for best-of-three-game sets that are over quickly. For less than a week, MLB had attention and excitement as the field narrows from 16 to 8 and at least one or two good teams are upset by middling-to-terrible ones in the flukey short series. Mission accomplished! A week of good ratings and full parks in eight of 30 markets after a season of disinterest and poor attendance and local TV ratings that have broadcast partners demanding to renegotiate their contracts since so few people watch regular season games anymore, especially in the second half. Well done, everybody!!!

And the union, well, how happy are they with this now that there's no more incentive to hand out big contracts? The more Wild Card teams upset division winners in the opening round, the less reason there will be to add a big-name player. "Why sign Mookie Betts for all that money when we can be a .500 club with waiver pickups and have the same shot?" Not that there would be the kind of money needed to offer those contracts anymore anyway, what with such a greater percentage of revenue coming from postseason TV after local revenue plummets.

Zach Kram of The Ringer has a nice take on this, told as an imagining of the intro portion of the TV coverage of the first playoff game in 2030. (I initially took issue with one of Zack's assumptions—he postulates expansion between now and 2030—but then I reconsidered: Of course Manfred would expand, because there would be a desperate, DESPERATE need for those expansion fees to shore up the financial health of the league.) It's funny. And sad. And very, very possible.


2020 playoff plan

What's your opinion of the expanded playoffs in 2020?


  • Posted by Mack McCoy on September 17, 2020 (7 months ago)

    Well written, Tim. This year's playoff system is a great one-off. It's like if you knew the season would end on May 31st, it's be good to let everyone know ahead of time and do something to maintain interest, given the shortening of the season. To do this over 162 games would make life boring as hell. Hockey and basketball are able to thrive by allowing most teams to make the playoffs because their attendance base exceeds arena capacity; season-ticket sharing means that they might have thirty or forty thousand fans who'll buy tickets for 18,000-seat arenas. Baseball doesn't have that. Using the Mariners as an example, they were 7th of 15 AL teams in attendance with an official average attendance of 22,112 -- 46% of capacity. Making the playoffs may result in capacity crowds for the M's, but with a lot less fervor than for an NBA or NHL team that plays at capacity. And if the M's made the playoffs as a sub-.500 team, it's actually likely that they wouldn't play to capacity crowds, unless the ticket prices were a lot closer to regular season prices. The whole idea sux. I don't know about the NBA, but it seems to me that in the NHL, the team that goes into the Stanley Cup Playoffs doesn't really resemble the team that opened the season. I think that for the integrity of the sport, teams should be forced to limit personnel moves, so that when a team is crowned Champion, most of the players on that team actually played a significant part of making that team Champion.

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