Major League Baseball has done a lot of pivoting this season. Whether it was ratcheting down a 162-game marathon to a 60-game sprint, or changing the playoff formats (and announcing it on Opening Day), it’s been a whirlwind the two+ months.
In August (which seems like yesterday, and also a decade ago, all at the same time) MLB announced the 16-team playoff format for this season. MLB decided they would take the top two teams in each division, along with four wild card teams, and have each team play in a three-game series to see who would advance to the LDS.
Well, after one iteration of that plan, it’s time to scrap it for the future.
This season, 16-team format made up, in some part, for the fact that the season had to be shortened by over 100 games. In a game that prides itself as a marathon, where large sample sizes generally separate the wheat from the chaff, moving to a 16-team playoffs made a lot of sense. After all, in a 162-game season, it’s hard to hide behind luck; in a 60-game season, it’s completely plausible.
Most people got behind this plan for 2020, an atypical season if there ever was one. However, Rob Manfred, the representative spokesman for owners, made it pretty clear that this format is the preferred postseason format for the future, something the MLBPA and fans should fight against tooth-and-nail.
Let’s start with the basics: of course ownership prefers this format to previous playoff iterations, since it includes more playoff games and consequently more postseason revenue. Ok, we got the nuts-and-bolts owner motivations out there. But as fans, where does this leave us?
First-and-foremost, a 162-game season rewards well-balanced rosters, player depth, divisional success, and interdivisional competence. The 162-game slog usually weeds out the lucky teams from the good teams, rewarding the best teams with coveted divisional pennants that position teams well for the postseason. When the additional wild card was added, it made winning a divisional pennant something worth fighting for in order to avoid a one-and-done play-in wild card game.
September was a time where teams at the top continued to try to field their best roster, attempting to capture the pennant as quickly as possible so at that point, and only that point, they could rest some players.
September baseball this year did not have the usual drama we’ve seen in recent years, as teams ended up playing for seedings that basically meant nothing. This means a lot of days off for star players down-the-stretch, a time that has generally been filled with high-leverage divisional games.
Pennants have been won-or-lost on the last day of the season, and as recently as 2018, not one, but two National League divisions were settled with a thrilling game 163, where the loser had to play a second win-or-go-home wild card game just one day after a game 163 to crown a division champ. Talk about drama!
Most fans would take that two-game, high-leverage scenario over the eight game days of last week. Sure, las weeks games all had leverage, but those series really felt like play-in games to make the ‘real’ playoffs. The divisional winning Cubs and Twins were out of the playoffs basically before they began (an annual tradition in Minneapolis, but a shocking development for the Cubs, who lost to the terrible-run Marlins).
Having so many teams make the playoffs devalues the divisional pennant. We’ll never get another dramatic divisional race ever again in MLB. August and September baseball will effectively be entirely low leverage. The big ‘drama’ will be 72-win teams trying to scratch out a bottom-seed against teams destined to be in the 77-win range. How mediocre indeed.
This new system would not only end September pennant races as we know it, but most games in August and September will be effectively meaningless. Few fans can get jazzed about being the fifth seed instead of the sixth.
When more than 50 percent of teams make the playoffs, parity in its most mediocre form is inevitable, since any team that makes the playoffs and enters into these short series has a decent change of advancing (just ask the Marlins).
This point goes hand-in-hand with the reason the MLBPA should be against this playoff format: what motivation does an owner have to spend and put together a 90-win team when an 80-win team can have basically the same odds to win the World Series? Why spend the extra money, what’s the point?
If the next ten-win player is looking to command a $300+ million dollar contract similar to Mookie Betts, owners really have no motivation to pay that much, since ten regular season wins isn’t worth what it has been in recent years.
Sure, an owner would want to field a good playoff team, but is an owner really going to pay to put together the best team when they can put together a perfectly.500 one and end up with basically the same playoff odds?
Rob Mansfred extolled the virus of ‘the bracket’ harkening to March Madness, but MLB is not the NCAA, and 16 mediocre baseball teams is not 64 individual unique college basketball stories from across America. It’s not remotely the same thing. Case-in-point, do you know anyone who entered an office bracket pool for this year’s 16-team MLB postseason tournament? Exactly, neither do I.
Pennant races are great. September baseball is great. This new plan if, and likely when, enacted, is going to make September baseball meaningless, and the first round of the playoffs random and watered down. It will lead to less interesting games later in the playoffs, as teams that are simply not that good continue to advance.
Just think, every single MLB team could be run like the Marlins and make it to the LDS. That’s reason enough to be against this proposal.
Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano