November 22, 2022

MLB Offers Expanded Playoff Format During CBA Negotiations, Compared

The baseball collective agreement, the contract that allows MLB and MLBPA to conduct business, expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on December 1. It is predicted that the two sides will not be able to reach a new deal until this time, at which point the owners will likely sideline the players, giving baseball its first stoppage of work since the players’ strike of 1994- 95.

Among the many points discussed during collective bargaining, there is an expanded post-season format, something the MLB has been seeking to boost revenue for years. Last year, in the pandemic-shortened 60-game season, MLB used an expanded 16-team playoff format, although almost everyone involved agrees there are too many teams. That’s over half the league.

In recent collective bargaining sessions, the MLB once again offered an expanded 14-team playoff format, Jesse Rogers of ESPN reports. It’s the same format the league floated in the 2019-20 offseason, before the pandemic. Here is how it would work:

  • Seven teams from each league make the playoffs.
  • The teams with the best record in each league get wild card round passes.
  • Two more division winners and the top wild card team host all matches in the three-match wild card series.
  • Two other division winners can choose their opponents in the wildcard round from three other wildcard teams.
  • Three series winners and one team with a pass to the division round.

Here’s what the 2015-19 playoff pitches would have looked like with the proposed 14-team format. The 79-82 Marlins would have made the playoffs in 2016, and the 80-82 Rays and Angels would have made it in 2017. Needless to say, no one wants teams under 500 in the playoffs.

This is the playoff range that the 14-team format would have given in 2021 (matches based on the record as we don’t know which opponents the division winners would have picked):

American league
GOODBYE: Spokes (100-62)
WC1: Astros (95-67) vs. Mariners (90-72)
WC2: White Sox (93-69) vs. Blue Jays (91-71)
WC3: Red Sox (92-70) vs. Yankees (92-70)

National league
GOODBYE: Giants (107-55)
WC1: Brewers (95-67) vs. Phillies (82-80)
WC2: Braves (88-73) vs. Reds (83-79)
WC3: Dodgers (106-56) vs. Cardinals (90-72)

Rather tough clashes in the American League. 90 winning teams all around. But in the National League? We would have gone dangerously close to a .500 (or even under-.500) team in the playoffs.

And that’s the risk with an expanded field in the playoffs. You’re watering down the playoff competition, reducing the importance of the 162-game regular season (which makes baseball great and separating it from other major sports), and increasing the role of chance in the playoffs. The playoffs are enough of a crapshoot. Do we need to take it up a notch?

Part of MLB’s concern is that lowering the bar to get into the playoffs would deter teams from trying to improve, because hey, 84 wins could get you into October. It could mean less dollars spent on free agents, less urgency to call that prospect, and so on. These are very valid concerns given the anti-competitive behavior that we are seeing today.

It should be noted that MLB has previously sold the rights to broadcast the Wild Card Series to ESPN, according to New York Postby André Marchand, so they have a lot at stake here. MLBPA knows this and can take advantage of it, at least in theory. For now, the league is trying to expand the playoffs again. What form the extended format takes is a bit uncertain at this time.

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