Major League Baseball may restructure its playoffs to add teams and primetime drama. The changes would pit purists against progressives
The NBA is toying with an in-season tournament, while the NFL devises deals with its players to add a 17th regular-season game. Its all in the name of increasing revenue streams, and if new rumors are to be believed, you can put Major League Baseball right on that bandwagon: a fattened playoff format could be in the works for the 2022 season.
The timing of such rumors is uncanny. With the new season on the horizon, theres suddenly a distraction from the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. And while a change in playoff format doesnt quite have the sizzle of one of the most profound transgressions in the history of the sport, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred must be delighted that at least some of that negative attention has shifted towards the never-ending battle between baseball purists and progressives. On Monday the news that the playoffs may expand was enough to light up Twitter, with players such as the normally, ahem, shy and retiring Trevor Bauer speaking out. Your proposal is absurd for too many reasons to type on twitter and proves you have absolutely no clue about baseball. Youre a joke, he wrote in a tweet directed at Manfred.
So, whats the controversy all about? It involves a proposal to up the number of playoff teams in each league to seven from the current five, while adding games to the wildcard round. In a sport that sells nostalgia as part of its package, any alteration of the postseason is enough to draw the ire of traditionalists.
Throughout its history, the league has justified the length of its 162-game regular season by limiting playoff spots, much more so than the NBA, NHL, or even the NFL. The latest change would mean 14 of the leagues 30 teams would make the playoffs, and some believe that undermines the importance of regular season games, which have seen a multi-year slide in attendance, while potentially poisoning the prestige of the postseason.
Besides adding teams to the playoffs, other changes are proving to be controversial. First off, the format is complicated. Lets bullet point it out for clarity.
three divisional champions and four wildcard teams in each league would make the playoffs
the division winner with the best overall record in each league would receive a bye to the best-of-five games divisional series
the wildcard round would change from a one-game knockout to a best-of-three-games series
the division winner with the second-best record in the league would get first choice of which wildcard team to face, and that team would host all three games
the division winner with the third-best record in the league would get the second choice of which team to face and also host all three games
the two wildcard teams that were not chosen would face each other, with the wildcard team with the best record hosting two of the three games
there would be a Sunday night playoff selection television show on the last night of baseballs regular season where division winners would pick the teams they want to face
Yes, thats an awful lot to digest, but could it work and is it better? Well that depends who you are. If youre MLB, you see an opportunity to sell a whole new round of playoff games to networks. Those extra games could bring financial growth, or at least offset any losses the sport is facing in other departments such as attendance.
If youre a fan there are multiple ways to look at it.
First off, more playoff slots means theres more of a chance that your club can win the World Series. Teams on the bubble may see more incentive to patch together a ballclub and bid to compete rather than tear it all down and wait years to win again. This also could mean more demand for the type of older fringe players that weve seen cast aside in recent years, in favor of younger, cheaper, less experienced talent: score one for the MLB Players Union there.
The new format also means that there would no longer be a winner-takes-all wildcard game. This means that fans watching their team go through an entire 162-game season only to bow out after a single-game wildcard series would no longer have reason to whine.
A selection show could bring intrigue to the final night of the season, with teams having to select their opponent, providing instant bulletin board material and a rallying cry for the teams the division winners choose to face. That would add some friction into the playoff mix, always welcomed, even if its manufactured.
It also means more playoff games for those who cant get enough of playoff baseball, which is a different animal to the regular season version of the game. Except that what actually makes postseason baseball so special are the high stakes involved. Its why, as the old cliche goes, every single pitch in every single at-bat matters. If you have another round of games, featuring weaker, middle of the road teams, those stakes are likely to be smothered, right along with the pitching rotations of partaking teams. Sure, there would be more elimination games, and of course, locally, those games are always going to do well, and yes, theyll make money. But nationally, theyll likely get less attention than Divisional Series games and thats because playoff baseball would have been cheapened: thats not good for a game struggling in the fight for eyeballs.
So while the format is creative, and there are certainly some positive takeaways, ultimately, the juice is probably not worth the squeeze, unless of course, you consider that an expanded postseason format could be the only way we ever get to see Mike Trout in the playoffs again.