Image credit: Nationals GM Mike Rizzo (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)
At this point, it appears expanded playoffs are likely to happen.
In February, Major League Baseball floated a proposal that would expand the postseason from 10 to 14 teams. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and MLB expanded the 2020 playoffs to 16 teams to accommodate the small sample size of a 60-game schedule. Earlier this week, commissioner Rob Manfred told a virtual panel hosted by Hofstra’s business school an expanded, 16-team postseason had the support of “an overwhelming majority” of owners to remain beyond 2020 and that “it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.”
MLB cannot expand the postseason without agreement from the MLB Players Association. At the same time, it is clear this is something the league wants and will push for in future negotiations.
The current, 16-team setup has its advantages. More teams in the postseason means more television dollars and postseason gate revenue to go around for everyone. It also means more teams playing meaningful games late into the season—entering the final 10 days of the season, 22 of the 30 teams are within two games of a playoff spot.
But it also rewards mediocrity and disincentivizes teams from trying to win as many games as they can. Under a 16-team setup, there is no strategic advantage to winning your division—division winners still play a best-of-three wild card series like everybody else—so there is little reason for teams to try for 94 wins when 84 will get them into the playoffs. Players and coaches still take pride in winning a division title, but as we’ve increasingly seen over the years, front offices are driven by strategy first and foremost. And with little strategic advantage, they will be less inclined to spend big dollars in free agency or to surrender top prospects in trades to get those extra 5-10 wins.
Teams don’t even have to try for a winning record. If a 16-team format had been in place, at least one team with a losing record would have made the playoffs every year since 2013. That includes teams that went 76-86 (the 2013 Padres/Giants), 77-85 (the 2017 Marlins) and 78-84 (the 2019 Rangers). In 2017, four teams with losing records would have made the playoffs in a 16-team format.
The question now becomes how to give the league and owners what they want—an expanded postseason—while ensuring teams are still incentivized to win as many games as possible rather than settle for 78-84 wins and hope they get a few breaks in the playoffs.
There is a solution. It will take vision and decisiveness, as well as some hard choices. But to both expand the postseason and incentivize winning rather than mediocrity, it’s necessary.
The first step is either contraction to 28 teams or expansion to 32 teams. (Like I said, this is going to take vision and decisiveness). Since contraction is unlikely while expansion is on the docket, we’ll stick with expansion in our scenario.
As for the fact expansion is many years away? Doesn’t matter. Wait until expansion happens before expanding the postseason. It’s either that, contract two teams or have making the playoffs become a participation trophy. None are optimal choices, but waiting a few years for expansion is the best of them.
The second step is re-align the division structure to two, eight-team divisions per league—an American League East, American League West, National League East and National League West.
Once the divisions are re-aligned (there’s a couple of different ways you can do it, take your pick), an expanded playoff field of 12 teams can be set: six teams per league, made up of the two division winners, the two second-place teams in each division and the two teams with the best remaining records.
Teams are seeded 1 through 6, with the division winners getting the top two seeds, the second-place teams getting the No. 3 and 4 seeds and the two wild cards getting the No. 5 and 6 seeds. The division winners each get a first round bye while the 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 seeds play each other in a Wild Card round.
Here is what the playoff schedule would look like, using the same number of games for each round in place this year.
WILD-CARD ROUND (best-of-three)
No. 3 seed (second place-team) vs. No. 6 seed (wild card)
No. 4 seed (second place-team) vs. No. 5 seed (wild card)
DIVISION SERIES (best-of-five)
No. 1 seed (division winner) vs. lowest remaining seed
No. 2 seed (division winner) vs. highest remaining seed.
CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES (best-of-seven)
Same as now—the winner of each division series faces each other
WORLD SERIES (best-of-seven)
Same as now—the winner of each league championship series faces each other
Winning the division is rewarded (with a first-round bye), finishing second in your division is incentivized (for the automatic playoff spot) and winning as many games as possible is critical for the remaining teams (to get one of the final two spots regardless of division). The latter two are already in place with the current 2020 format, but the first—a reward for winning your division—is not.
Winning is incentivized on three levels, with an added emphasis placed on winning the division, while the extra postseason round created this year remains. To further emphasize winning, the second-place team in each league could be rewarded by getting to host all three Wild Card round games, just as the team with the better record will do this year.
This setup also maintains the integrity of the postseason field. Only one team with a losing record would have made the playoffs since 2013 under a 12-team setup, as opposed to at least one team with a losing record making the playoffs every year in the same time frame had a 16-team format been in place.
This is the solution that satisfies all parties. More teams in the postseason field and another round of playoffs. Teams still incentivized to make moves to win as many games as possible. The rationale for a 162-game season maintained, with only teams that actually show themselves as worthy over the course of a grueling season granted entrance to the postseason.
It won’t be easy. Expansion and divisional re-alignment are extremely difficult endeavors. But the league and its owners appear determined to expand the postseason, and this is the way to do it without debasing their own product.
If the league and its owners don’t want to put in the work and simply expand the postseason to 16 teams immediately and make the playoffs a participation trophy, that’s their choice. But with true vision, patience and decisiveness, they can get what they want without sullying their own product and incentivizing a race to the middle.