While we await the next step in the hey-maybe-now-it’s-actually-a-negotiation, one thing we’ve known all along that MLB owners want in a deal: expanded playoffs.
Indeed, even before the pandemic, credible rumors floated that the league was eager to expand to 14 playoff teams – three division winners and four Wild Cards in each league – as soon as 2022, which is to be the first year under a new CBA. But with the topic necessarily on the table now that the 2020 season has been blown up in such an extreme way, it’s obvious that the owners would want that expansion even sooner.
But now that the latest proposal is on the table, we know a couple things: (1) the expansion this year would actually be up to 16 teams, and (2) expansion would include next year (2021) as well.
Let’s talk about those two things.
First of all, I’m pretty broadly down with massively expanded playoffs *this* year, because with such a shortened season, you’re not going to have enough time to really distill the “best” teams anyway. So, the more that can be included in the postseason, why not? You’re slightly more likely to include the “best” teams, and the whole season will feel like one big tournament anyway, so let’s just go ahead and have the actual tournament include more teams. More than half the teams in baseball? Yeah, sure, let’s do it.
Secondly, I was down with the idea of expanding playoffs under the previously-floated plan. At 10 teams, the MLB playoffs are currently the smallest in major sports. I absolutely understand and appreciate that a smaller postseason connects to the regular season in a meaningful way – it makes winning in the regular season all the more special, whereas, for example, how special is winning in the NBA regular season right now? But the flip side to that is you’re looking at all the more reason for teams to tank in MLB, and all the more reason for half the league’s fan bases to check out completely by August. And that stratification has only gotten worse in the last decade.
Do I think the best route is going from five teams in each league up to seven? Oh, well, that does seem like a big jump. If there were a good playoff format to have be six instead of seven, I’d probably prefer that, but I like seven better than five (especially where the initial round, as rumored, would be a three-game series instead of a one-gamer). Throw in the fact that expansion may be coming very soon (owners are going to want those expansion fees, folks), and then you might be talking about 7 out of 16 teams in each league making the playoffs. I think that sounds good.
BUT! Apparently, owners will have the option of going to 16 teams NEXT YEAR, too, rather than just 14 (AP).
On that, I gotta say please no. Maybe that seems like a small difference, but at 16, you’re literally talking about more than half the teams making the postseason after 162 games. That just feels wrong. It feels like a whole lot of crappy teams are making the playoffs at that point, and even where you incorporate byes, I worry that you create way too much disincentive for teams to actually try aggressively to improve each year.
Consider some data points JJ Cooper put together about how recent years would look with 16 teams in the playoffs:
Playoff teams in a 16-team playoffs:
2019: Texas (78-84)
2018: LA Angels (80-82)
2017: Miami (77-85), KC or TB (80-82)
2016: Pittsburgh (78-83)
2015: Arizona (79-83)
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) June 17, 2020
By my quick scan the 2013 163rd-game playoff between the Padres and Giants (a pair of 76-win teams) would be the worst playoff team of the 21st century if we had 16-team playoffs. https://t.co/VRc1ZcS0lF
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) June 17, 2020
That isn’t quite what I’d want to see in the postseason in an otherwise “normal” year.