Tucked away in its writeup on the postseason schedule for this year, The Washington Post included comments from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s virtual town hall with Hofstra University this week, and I’m thinking you’re gonna want to see them. You can see more at The Athletic, too, though I’m mostly going to be focusing on the longer-term comments from the Commissioner.
In the most surprising and impactful comments, Manfred said that he thinks the expanded postseason is likely to stay after this season. “I think there’s a lot to commend it,” he said of the structure, “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.” An “overwhelming majority” of owners wanted expanded postseason even before the pandemic.
What’s not entirely clear from Manfred’s comments is whether he’s talking, specifically, about this year’s EXTREMELY EXPANDED postseason, which seemed a necessity based on the short season, and the desire to recoup lost money. This year, playoff entrants leapt from 10 total to a whopping 16, more than half the league. The top two teams in each division make the playoffs, as well as two Wild Cards after that. There is no significant benefit to being the top team in the league under this format, and only a small benefit to winning your division.
It made sense this year for a variety of reasons, but set against a 162-game regular season, it’s nonsense to have more than half the league making the playoffs if you hope to preserve some semblance of importance in the regular season. With that many playoff entrants, the desire to incrementally improve your team goes way down, the value of middle-tier players goes down even further, and what you gain in keeping more teams in the race might be lost by making half the season extremely boring for the fans of clearly good teams who already know they’re in. Moreover, all those problems are exacerbated if there’s no incentive to actually win your division.
We know that owners were on board with a version of an expanded postseason earlier this year – remember the rumors of expanding to seven teams in each league, with a bye for the top team, and then the next three get to pick their first round opponent? – and I can be sold on that idea, especially if the plan is to eventually expand to 32 teams. Then you’re talking about 14 of 32 teams making the playoffs, there’s a clear reward for being the best team, and there’s a clear reward for being the best team in your division. How the rest of the particulars shake out we can debate, but I’ve generally been of the mind that at least SOME increase in postseason presence could assist with the tanking problems in recent years.
There is no playoff change in place for 2021, the final year of the current CBA. So that would have to be a side deal with the players if it’s going to happen, and then it could be made permanent in the new CBA. It’s something the owners really, really want, so the players would be wise to make sure to get value for it (service time changes and increases in minimum salary could be the two most compelling (stop focusing solely on the top earners, MLBPA!)).
2020 Rules Changes
Manfred did not commit to making any of the on-field rules changes for 2020 a permanent thing – again, that has to be negotiated with the players – though it’s not that hard to see why people might now be even more on board with a universal designated hitter, for one thing. A lot of us have wanted it for a while, it makes things fair between the leagues, and it really hasn’t made the game less enjoyable this year. At all. Just keep it.
It doesn’t sound like Manfred was all that on board with making seven-inning doubleheaders a permanent thing, though I’d argue that, too, has pretty much been fine. Moreover, I’d add that if you made them part of the scheduling process, it would give you SO MUCH more flexibility in creating the schedule to increase off-days for players. The last five years or so, I just feel like it’s really become clear that the more off-days players get, the better: they stay healthier and they perform better. It’s a better caliber baseball than when you wind up with these absurd 25 games in 26 days in September crap because of all the rainouts in April and May.
And then there’s the starting-extra-innings-with-a-runner-on-second-base thing. I’ll admit, I was VEHEMENTLY opposed to this rule change when it started in the minor leagues. It was clear that it was being tested as a possible MLB rule, and it just feels so artificial. I mean, I know most rules are artificial when you first create them, but this one felt especially off.
… that said. It’s been less bad than I expected. I don’t hate it as much as I expected, and the way teams operate in those innings has not been as boring and rote as I expected. Sometimes you don’t really know how something is going to look and play out until you actually do it.
… that said x 2. I probably wouldn’t want to see it happening in the 10th inning in a normal season. Maybe you play a regular 10th inning, and then, if it’s still tied, you do the runner on second base in the 11th and beyond? I think you could convince me that’s an acceptable deal.
Much as sports have been a bellwether for other aspects of how we proceed through the pandemic (in ways both good and bad), it’s worth following how sports proceed with respect to their anticipation on a vaccine. That is to say, sports are DEEPLY invested in knowing exactly when a widely-distributable vaccine will be available, so they likely have as good of “expert information” is available on something that is largely still unknowable. You also have to keep in mind that sports will have an incentive to present the rosiest picture possible, so you must mentally balance those things.
To that end, here’s Manfred on fan attendance in 2021, and how it boils down to the vaccine: “What our experts are telling us is that they expect by the time we resume play in the spring we will have a widely distributed vaccine,” he said. “I hope they’re right about that. … The virus controls [everything], and it’s: ‘Do you have a vaccine? Are we still seeing spikes.’ That’s going to drive what local governments allow us to do.”
An expectation of a widely-distributed vaccine by the spring seems pretty aggressive, though again, these teams all have a very strong incentive to know, far in advance, what is likely to happen. Huge chunks of their revenue depend on it.
To that end, as I’ve said before (and you’ll hear me banging the drum as the offseason approaches), we’re going to see a strong correlation between teams that are willing to spend this offseason and teams that are more optimistic than others that they can recoup a lot of lost revenue next year. And the biggest piece of that optimism is going to be tied to whether you think there’s a going to be a vaccine. Heck, if you’ve got strong sources on vaccine development and distribution, you’d have more confidence that you could be aggressive in free agency and scoop up some bargains. How … backwards is that? This offseason is going to be an absolute mess.