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Let’s Talk About Expanded Playoffs

For better or worse, expanded playoffs are likely coming to Major League Baseball

MLB: World Series-Atlanta Braves at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

At its very nature, baseball is a marathon. From the first day of players reporting to Spring Training to the last game of the World Series, baseball is happening ten of the twelve months in a year, at least normally. It’s a slow, methodical grind of a sport. That’s why we love it. Nothing comes fast or is decided quickly. If your team starts the season slow, or even dreadfully, there’s no need to panic. There’s still plenty of time to right ship before the story of that season has been told. Look no further than 2021 Atlanta Braves for this concept in its fullest.

If you’ve been following the CBA negotiations with any frequency, you’ll know one of the key points for owners is expanding the playoff field from its current 10-team format, to as many as 12 or 14 teams. The equation for the owners is a fairly simple one. Playoff games mean more eyeballs watching. More eyeballs watching means more money from TV partners and more money from TV partners means everything to the owners. That’s really it. The fact that it could fundamentally change the sport or how teams operate within is merely a speed bump on the way to a fatter bottom line. The players do recognize this and are using expanded playoffs as a rather large bargaining chip to get other things they want in the next CBA.

The issue, of course, is if the owners agree to these trade offs, then expanded playoffs are coming to MLB and those fundamental changes would become a reality that must now be dealt with. And the safe assumption is, this is what’s going to happen. The players will use it as a negotiating point, the owners will agree to the offsets, and expanded playoffs will come to Major League Baseball.

So the question becomes, in light of this likely reality, what can be done to mitigate the problems? The first step is state the problem(s) clearly.

The Problem

As stated above, baseball is a marathon. It is the very nature of the sport. No other sport comes close to playing as many regular season games as baseball, 162, which means no other sport should be as protective of its regular season as baseball. This is why, for most of its history, MLB has had among the smallest playoff fields in American professional sports. The fewer playoff spots you have, the greater the emphasis on the regular season, as succeeding there is the only way to grab one of the few playoff spots available. This is why winning your division has always been such a huge accomplishment in baseball. It’s by design. The antithesis of this concept is of course college basketball, who allows the most teams in its playoffs (68) but also features one of the least important regular seasons.

And the concept is a very simple one. The fewer teams your regular season eliminates from winning a championship, the less important it is. Baseball plays the longest regular season, and baseball itself is most accurately measured over months vs weeks. Therefore any increase in the number of playoff teams it allows diminishes the very thing it should be trying to enhance, it’s regular season.

But it’s not just about protecting the regular season, though that should be a principle concern. Expanded playoffs also lowers the bar for what it means to be a playoff team. For what it means to compete. This should be a massive issue for the players. If they think owners are hesitant to spend money now, just wait until 84 wins gets you into a 14-team playoff field with basically the same odds as everyone else.

As was stated before, baseball is a sport most accurately measured over long periods of time, which means over short periods of time, like the playoffs, it can be very random. Even in the current playoff format, randomness still plays a role, as evident by the team with the worst record in the postseason last year winning the World Series. But that randomness is mitigated by the relatively small playoff field. With a small playoff field, it takes a sufficient level of talent to reach the playoffs, so any randomness that occurs once they start can be lived with. But by increasing the field, not only do you increase the randomness of the playoffs themselves, but you decrease the amount of talent needed in the regular season to get there. It throws that delicate balance out of whack. Talent level becomes less important all the way around. And once teams fully realize this, the incentive to build a 105-win team isn’t going to be any higher than it is to build an 85-win team. And since owners are already looking for any reason not to spend money on players, and especially free agent, that’s big, big problem for the players.

So not only does expanded playoffs damage what makes baseball most unique, it’s marathon regular season, but competitively, it pushes everything towards mediocrity by watering down what it means to compete and gives the owners a built-in excuse on why they shouldn’t pay for players.

So the question becomes what can be done about it? Is there a way to protect great team building and the regular season in a 14-team playoff format?

The short answer is yes, but as always, the devil is in the details. A 14-team playoff means 7 teams per league. And that almost certainly means the 1 seed in each league gets a bye while 2 plays 7, 3 plays 6, and 4 plays 5 in a best-of-3 series. The 1 seed and the three winners all advance and continue the rest of the postseason as normal. One way to protect the regular season and maintain the incentive to build great teams would be, in that first round, to have the better seeded team get all three games at home and have it where they only have to win one of three games to advance. This would obviously be a huge advantage to the better seeded teams and would be tremendous emphasis on being one of the top 4 seeds in your league. And viola, you’ve included massive amounts of regular season importance into your 14-team playoff and sufficiently incentivized your teams to keep adding talent. Yes, the path of say, the 7th seed is significantly harder than the path of say, the 2 seed, but that’s how it should be. Otherwise what was the point of playing 162 games to determine those seeds?

This is essentially the “ghost win” format the players introduced earlier and it is a critically important detail if you want to expand the playoffs without completely wrecking your regular season. If a 100+ win 2 seed has to beat an 81-win 7 seed two out of three games to advance, you’ve removed most of the incentive to build that 100+ win team as randomness is going to decide that series almost as much as talent. That’s the nature of baseball. But if that 2 seed only has to win one of three games, that awesome regular season they just had matters and gives them a real leg-up in the playoffs, as it should.

Some might say having home field in all three games is a big enough advantage but home field doesn’t work the same way in baseball as it does in other sports. It’s a minimal advantage at best. Others might say “Well have those first series be a 5-games series instead of 3 so the better team has more of an advantage.” The problem is 1.) the amount of randomness that decides a 3-game series doesn’t get reduced very much in a 5-game series and 2.) now you’re number one overall seed that’s getting a bye is sitting around for a week or more not playing while all these 5-game series conclude. Baseball is a daily sport and having a team take a week+ off before playing their first playoff game could be viewed as just as much a disadvantage as it is a reward for having the best regular season record. If you’re going to use a bye for the top seed, those first series need to be as quick a possible.

If you want a 14-team playoff and want to protect the foundational aspects of the sport, the best way to do it, in this writer’s opinion, is the top seed gets a bye, and the other top seeds only have to win one of the three games in the wild card round. This creates the scenario where more teams and fans get to experience the excitement of meaningful playoff races without completely watering down your 6-month long regular season.

The owners just want the money, same as always. So it’s going to be up to the players to not only protect baseball’s regular season, but also the competitive integrity of the sport.

Where do you stand on expanded playoffs?