It’s no secret that MLB, and especially the owners, have been coveting an expanded playoff format for some time now. This is one of the hot topics for the next CBA negotiations. It is also arguably the most valuable chip that the players and the union have at the bargaining table.
So why are the owners so keen to increase the number of playoff teams? One word: money. More teams in the playoffs = more matches = more views = more advertising revenue. Just look at the OK The league recently signed with ESPN to have the network become the exclusive broadcaster of the Wild Card round for the next seven years if the playoffs grow. $ 4 billion to televise a “round” of the playoffs!
For those wondering how it might even work, look no further than the Extended Playoffs in the 2020 Playoffs. 16 teams took part in this hacked playoff setup. That’s over half the league! If you’re not sure how that turned out, basically every team in the playoffs – even the division winners – were thrown into a pot for the Wild Cards round. The division winners were awarded the top three seeds based on the regular season record, the second-place team in each division was ranked four to six, and then the remaining two teams with the best record. in each league were seeded seven and eight. The seed played seed eight, two played seven, etc. in a best-of-three series, meaning that the winner of the division could be and was eliminated in what amounted to the cubs).
However, even before that format was decided for the COVID-shortened 2020 season, there were rumors of a separate and more permanent expanded playoff proposal. Joel Sherman of the New York Post revealed during Spring 2020 practice that MLB is seriously considering moving to a 14-team playoff format starting in 2022. And the details of that proposal bordered on reality TV.
In this format, the division winner with the best record gets a division round pass. Each of the two remaining division winners and the first team wild card would stage a best-of-three series to determine the other three division contenders. But here’s where the drama comes in. These three host teams could choose their opponent from the three wild card teams with the worst records in a nationwide television special selection.
So what would that have looked like in 2021? In the AL, the Rays would get the pass to the divisional round while the White Sox, Astros, and Red Sox each accommodates a series of jokers. Starting with the Astros, they could pick from the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Mariners as their best opponents in the series. In NL, the Giants get the bye and the Dodgers, Brewers, and the Braves can choose from Cardinals, Reds and Philly.
I don’t know about you, but it’s kind of made up for my blood. Instead, I’d like to propose a revised format for the 14-team playoffs. My idea is to give the three division winners a pass for the division round. Then the four wild card teams are placed in a two-round wild card playoff slice.
In the first round, the top-ranked wild card team plays against the fourth-seeded team while the two seeds face the three seeds in a playoff game in the style of the current Wild Card game. The winners of those two matches would then play in a best-of-three series to determine which team would advance to the division round to face the division winner with the best record in their respective league.
The main complaint against a playoff extension is that it discourages the all-in in a particular year. If nearly half the league qualifies for the playoffs, that surely prompts teams to do just enough – say, a few games over 0.500 – to qualify for the playoffs and reap that playoff income. I would say my proposal helps tackle this complaint, but that ultimately depends on the overall goal of each franchise competing.
On the positive side, this format rewards division winners even more than the current format. Skipping the wild card looks even better when it avoids a two-round play-off, rather than a one-match “play-in”. Likewise, this system punishes wild card teams by introducing an extra round. Instead of hoping for the playoffs in a single game, it now relies on winning streaks.
That being said, there are definitely a few downsides to this model. If just making the playoffs is the overriding goal rather than trying to win the World events, it inspires teams to do just enough to cringe. In this proposition, the playoffs as a non-division winner are even more of a dice game, so teams might be even less motivated to improve their roster.
Ultimately, my proposal is a double-edged sword. Teams on the verge of hanging on can hold back their players (read: no tank trying to sneak up). Teams that really prioritize winning the World Series can make that extra signing to ensure they win the division. On the flip side, teams for whom just making the playoffs a successful season would feel even less justified in raising the payroll to bolster their rosters. If they can’t win the division, what’s the point of paying that extra dollar, only to end up like a wild card with an uphill battle?
Make no mistake about it, an extended playoffs are coming in the near future, possibly next season pending the results of the next CBA negotiations. The owners seem to lean towards a 14-team format, with different variations on the theme representing better options than the rest. It was an educational exercise in trying to design an expanded 14 team playoffs, let me know in the comments what you think and what changes you could make.