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MLB Needs Postseason Expansion

Major League Baseball has a litany of issues that will take a long time to fix. Relations between owners and the Players’ Union are tense. The league poorly advertises its stars. Sabermetrics have hit the mainstream in a way that casual fans often don’t understand. The lack of a real salary cap leaves small-market teams at an extreme disadvantage. Competitive balance is the massive issue that can be fixed more expeditiously than the rest.

Having grown up watching both the New York Mets and Tampa Bay Rays, I’ve marveled at the contrast in strategic execution. The Mets, wishing they were the Yankees at times, aspire to have a salary-bloated, top-heavy roster dominated by superstars. Tampa Bay capitalizes on market efficiency and legal manipulation of league rules to simply have a chance at postseason success. Such is life in baseball’s most famous division.

Competitive balance shouldn’t be about dollars though. Every other sport has a hard salary cap and heavy penalties for exceeding it. The negotiation of a hard cap would be lengthy and strenuous. Instead of leveling the playing field, MLB should widen the field further to increase postseason chances. Elite regular season teams would still have an advantage, but other contenders would be given a fair shot as well.

I propose an eight-team-per-league playoff field, which I will detail in a moment. A slight regular season modification and a wider range of outcomes for the current non-contenders would keep fans more consistently interested. We don’t need more baseball. We need more meaningful baseball.

The History

Baseball fans love history and tradition more than in any other sport. In recent years though, MLB has lagged behind when it comes to adjusting the game for modern times. The playoff structure has succumbed to the divide between contenders and non-contenders. Fans love tense, competitive baseball. They fantasize about game sevens and one-game playoffs and game 163. Fans will refuse to watch however when their team declares its surrender in mid-July.

Understanding the current format is simple. Many of baseball’s greatest games have been classic win-or-go-home scenarios. My grandfather has repeatedly told me the story of seeing Bobby Thomson‘s shot heard ’round the world in person. Bucky Dent once dashed the Red Sox playoff hopes in game 163. A run of classic one-game playoffs at the end of 2007, 2008, and 2009 made the league ponder whether or not playoff expansion was feasible. The wild final night of the 2011 season further accentuated thoughts of expansion.

MLB has always been reluctant to widen the postseason field. It took them roughly seventy years just to create the League Championship Series. Another twenty-five years was needed just to expand the playoff participant total to eight. Now that number is ten, yet the bottom four are forced to exhaust their resources in a manufactured winner-take-all game. The league is banking on two high-tension games. The assumption was that more teams would be willing to push for contention in order to play one more game. The payoff has not been worth the effort.

Fans from various cities are tired of teams explaining why they tank. Fans are tired of small-market teams acting as feeder programs for the game’s wealthier franchises. Under the current rules, these teams are smart, but certainly not fan-friendly. Players want a chance to win. Fans want to win. Organizations want to win. They don’t want to wait for their one shot at a wild card and miracle World Series run.

The NBA and NHL have had no qualms about fielding more than half their teams in the postseason. Given the current circumstances, they are willing to expand even further this year for entertainment purposes. The NBA is basically designing their comeback effort with Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans as their biggest priority.

Major League Baseball should progress into a modern postseason structure. The NBA and NHL have long had a fair structure. The NFL is moving in a similar direction. Fan interest is at the heart of the problem. Expand the playoffs and they will expand fan interest. Let’s take a look at what a new structure would look like.

A Modified Regular Season

The Regular season should be slightly shortened. Time needs to be given for an extra playoff series (more on this in a moment). I propose a slight decrease from 162 to 150 games. We are also under the assumption that realignment won’t happen. There would understandably be some scheduling kinks to buffer out, but the league office can handle that part. The structure is as follows:

  • 18 games vs. each divisional opponent = 72
  • 6 games vs. other ten teams in respective league = 60
  • 6 games vs. interleague rival = 6
  • 12 games vs. assigned interleague division = 12
  • 150 games total

Interleague opponents would be based on the previous year’s standings, unless it is a year that each coinciding geographic division faces off. This would make the interleague schedule slightly harder for better teams. I’m also slightly biased on interleague rivalry matchups. I grew up going to at least one Subway Series game at Shea Stadium every year. They do create an electric atmosphere.

Shortening the season will allow it to end closer to the middle of September. The NFL won’t be in full swing by the time the MLB postseason starts. Slightly less total games adds slightly more marginal value to each individual game. Furthermore, an expanded playoff field will have less teams surrending their season by July 31.

The New Postseason

My proposed postseason format is as follows:

  • Eight teams per league in the postseason
  • Division champions are top-4 protected when it comes to seeding
  • The best wildcard can surpass division champions in seeding
  • The first round will consist of a best-of-three series according to the seeded matchups (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5)
  • ALL THREE GAMES of that series will be played in the higher-seeded team’s home ballpark
  • The teams will NOT be reseeded after the first round
  • There are no restrictions on having to play divisional teams in the first round
  • There will only be a play-in game if multiple teams are tied for the eighth seed
  • NFL-style tiebreakers (head-to-head record, division record etc.) will determine divisional ties
  • If a division champion and the best wildcard team have the same record, the division champion automatically wins the seeding tiebreaker

Certain parts of these rules are malleable. Some would argue for no protection of division champs, as it is structured in basketball. I found several occurrences in the format, dating back to 1995, where a fifth-seeded team with a better record ended up as a road team. Reseeding is generally a controversial topic as well. Baseball is meant to be played in series though. A three-game series feels more appropriate than a forced one-game playoff.

Last years postseason would have started like this:

  • #1 L.A. Dodgers vs. #8 Chicago Cubs
  • #1 Houston Astros vs. #8 Texas Rangers
  • #2 New York Yankees vs. #7 Boston Red Sox
  • #2 Atlanta Braves vs. #7 Arizona Diamonbacks
  • #3 St. Louis Cardinals vs. #6 New York Mets
  • #3 Minnesota Twins vs. #6 Cleveland Indians
  • #4 Washington Nationals vs. #5 Milwaukee Brewers
  • #4 Oakland A’s vs. #5 Tampa Bay Rays

That’s a juicy playoff field regardless of records. With the new rules, September games will carry alot of weight as teams fight for division titles and home field in round one. Entertaining as the wildcard games generally are, a September weekend dedicated to these eight series would be the new best weekend in baseball. Every stadium would be packed and the ramifications of short-series upsets would be spectacular.

Would it be watered down?

Sixteen-team playoffs are the norm in Basketball and Hockey. The NFL just expanded to fourteen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they expanded the field beyond that soon. Traditionalists would be concerned mostly about subpar teams being gifted an undeserved postseason berth.

Only four sub-.500 teams have made the NBA postseason in the last seven years. Five others have made the playoffs with an exactly .500 winning percentage. Under my new format, twelve sub-.500 teams would have made the postseason in the past eight seasons. Several of those teams had eighty wins as opposed to the eighty-one that would yield a .500 winning percentage. None of them had less than seventy-six. Some of this is to be accepted when allowing the eighth-best team out of fifteen to qualify. However, a new format, along with a change in competitive mentality, may skew those numbers in a positive direction.

The bigger travesty is keeping quality teams out of the postseason. The NBA has only had six winning teams kept out of the playoffs in the last seven seasons. Most of this is due to their western conference being decisively stronger than the eastern conference. Less than one per year isn’t bad though. Five winning teams in MLB missed the postseason last year alone.

The average number of wins for a wildcard team since the inception of the current format is just over 91 (.564 winning percentage). Prognosticators could probably choose about ten teams before each season that definitely won’t win 91 games. Another five or six of those remaining are usually forced to surrender at the trade deadline. Baseball gets alot less fun for half the league come July 31st every year.

Small market teams and fans feel especially disenfranchised. There was a time in baseball when Yankees-Red Sox or Dodgers-Giants were the only games people wanted to see. Those times are gone. Fans want their teams to have a chance. Under my proposed system, the only team that wouldn’t have seen postseason play is the San Diego Padres. We would have seen more Mike Trout in the playoffs. Giancarlo Stanton could have extended his 59-homer season in Miami. Seattle fans would no longer despair. Baseball fans are tired of their teams being systematically denied success.

The easiest thing to fix

There really isn’t much logical reason for Major League Baseball to leave its postseason format as archaic as it is. Quality teams miss the playoffs every season. Small market teams still feel left out. Fans don’t attend as many games because they want to see a team with a chance to win a trophy.

Competitive balance is among the major issues facing the sport today. It also should be the easiest one to fix. If MLB wants to keep fan interest through their current difficulties, they need to create equity throughout the league. Even the playing field by widening the playing field. Again, we don’t need more baseball. We need more meaningful baseball.

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