Major League Baseball is considering some huge changes to its postseason starting in 2022. Adding four more teams to expand the playoff slate to 14 of its 30 clubs might be a controversial enough idea by itself, but that's not the only part of the package of proposed tweaks to October baseball.
The team with the best record in each league would get a first-round bye, and then the other two division winners and the wild-card club with the best record could end up picking their opponents in a televised seeding showdown.
Does that sound dramatic? Terrible? Creative or bizarre? We asked our MLB experts for their reactions.
The new playoff proposal: Love it or hate it?
Sam Miller: There are a lot of moving pieces here, so there's room to love and hate different parts at the same time. I mean, "no more Game 163 tiebreakers" is offered here as a benefit. Imagine, as a fan, being against Game 163 tiebreakers. Imagine!
The "pick your opponent" part of it is a pretty low-stakes tweak -- you could do that now in the current format -- but it feels wacky and unpopular. I don't think playoff teams actually want to pick their opponents. They would like to face the worst opponents, to be sure. But actually picking them inevitably ends up looking like an act of hubris. You pick a team, fire them up, give them all the bulletin board material they could ever hope for, and then if they actually beat you (which -- it's baseball, so of course they will), you get taunted for your arrogance? Awful. Meanwhile, the notion that lots of fans are going to tune in for this picking ceremony feels wildly optimistic.
In a broad sense, I mostly agree with the idea that having more playoff teams and more playoff tiers would, as designed, cause more teams to compete hard for playoff spots -- yes, allowing mediocre teams to sometimes win the World Series, but that's the trade-off if you want to encourage mediocre teams to go for it. And more playoff teams mean more playoffs, which are of course very good. And longer wild-card series are more playoffs too. I feel a little bit like the Meat & Cheese Focus Group here, but if baseball is really willing to give me more playoff games, I don't think I'm opposed to that part of it. It's not going to fix baseball or anything. It would make me happy is all.
Bradford Doolittle: This is the worst concept since "Cop Rock." Hate is not a strong enough word for how I feel about this idea. Detest? Despise? Loathe? My soul is engulfed by flames just by the thought of it.
OK, I'm trying to steer clear of any reasoning here that will spur a rash of "OK, boomer" responses. But that's probably impossible. Baseball, as we know, is a sport in which the differences between players and teams are only born out over a large number of games. The worst teams in a season win 60 games, usually, the best lose 60, yada, yada. You play for six months to weed out the mediocrity, not reward it. (Baseball used to weed out all but the very best teams with its format, but those days aren't coming back.)
With this system, mediocrity WILL be rewarded. In 2017, only five teams in the American League had winning records. There would have been two teams in a seven-game postseason structure to play into October with sub-.500 regular-season records. Most years, if you're a game or two around the .500 mark, you're in it until the final week.
Some questions: Where is the evidence that teams building to mediocrity spend to get there? Where is the evidence that it drives fan support to see a mostly uninteresting team stumble into a seventh playoff slot? What would it do to the World Series to have an 80-win team play an 82-win team for something labeled as a "championship?" Where is the evidence that any significant percentage of baseball's fan base is remotely interested in this?
That's just the playoff format. The idea of a gimmicky, reality show event in which teams draft their opponents is repugnant. I mean, people would probably watch it. People will watch anything. But how about throwing a bone to baseball's core fan base that wants to see its favorite sport retain a shred of dignity?
Many other sinkholes open in my head as I type this. Would we retain divisions? Because there is no earthly reason for them any longer. The concept of "pennant race" will finally be formatted out of existence, as teams slog for a favorable seed in a postseason tournament no one can really plan for because, you know, we have to wait for the big Selection Night.
Look, this is obviously a touchy subject with me. But at some point, we have to keep in mind that the purpose of a postseason format is to determine a worthy champion. I'm just gonna stop now ...
Maybe this is one of those unfounded rumors that just goes away -- a trial balloon being floated to see just how mad people get about it.
David Schoenfield: Look, I don't really think there is much of a crossover audience between fans of "The Bachelor" and fans of baseball -- or at least enough who would care to watch some goofy rose ceremony on a Sunday night in late September or early October to see Brian Cashman pick his playoff opponent. That's a gimmick. Some fans like gimmicks. Some still like watching pitchers hit too. This just feels like a gimmick with no actual payoff, other than forcing the best teams to go on the record and disrespect an opponent by "choosing" them. Which makes it the opposite of the rose ceremony, actually. Given the current situation with the Astros' cheating scandal, I think we will have enough bad blood in baseball for the time being. Why create fake bad blood headlines? Pass.
Otherwise, I do like the idea of getting rid of the one-game wild card -- another gimmick (although I don't totally hate it) -- and expanding the playoffs isn't a bad idea. I get that the beauty of baseball's regular season is rewarding season-long excellence, but you can argue that this format still does that by giving the team with the best record a first-round bye and a chance to rest up. The biggest problem with the wild-card game is it never really did incentivize teams to compete harder; indeed, we've seen more tanking than ever since the creation of the second wild card in 2012.
Eliminating the one-game format might push teams a little harder to get into the low 80s in wins for a chance at a best-of-three series to move on. The obvious downfall to this format, as Brad pointed out, is that it might reward mediocrity. In 2018, for example, the seventh playoff team in the National League would have been the 82-win Nationals or 82-win Diamondbacks or 82-win Pirates -- how would that tie have been resolved? In the American League in 2017, there would have been TWO playoffs teams that finished under .500 -- the Rays, Royals and Angels tied for sixth at 80-82. At least that might have put Mike Trout in the postseason. So maybe it is a good idea.
Joon Lee: It feels like in the past few seasons we've gotten a couple of out-of-left proposals from (commissioner) Rob Manfred. While I don't like the entirety of this proposal, expanding the playoff field could be a very good idea, though I do have some caveats.
There has been a lot of discussion about the potential expansion of MLB to 32 teams, 16 in each league. Perhaps it might make sense to add an additional round of playoff games if the league were to grow down the road. Bits and pieces of this radical idea seem like they could add some fun and drama to the MLB playoff experience, but I'd like to see more teams chasing playoff spots and not strategically tanking before expanding the playoffs and thus risk devaluing what it means to be a playoff team in baseball.
One aspect of the proposal that I actually do find interesting is the three-game series. That could really ratchet up the drama of every pitch and game, with Game 2 automatically serving as an elimination game. I'm a big fan of the wild-card game and the totally irrational, always exciting winner-take-all format, and I would love to keep that. I do appreciate Manfred's willingness to propose outside-the-box ideas that could shake up the status quo of baseball, even if it does risk inflaming takes that might warrant an "OK, boomer" response.
I heard recently from someone at the commissioner's office that Manfred spends a lot of time thinking about baseball through the lens of what his 20- and 30-something kids would want out of baseball today. This entire proposal feels like it falls into that category, especially with the reality show aspect of the best teams choosing their playoff opponents.
Alden Gonzalez: My initial reaction? Oh, my god, baseball's in big trouble! This seems to be the type of thing one does out of desperation, not unlike all those zany ideas the original XFL had nearly 20 years ago.
The one I still can't wrap my head around is the concept of teams choosing their opponents. Yeah, in theory, I'm sure it would make for great TV. But teams are going to hate this. Players hardly ever say anything negative about their opponents because they don't want their words coming back around on them (and probably because there's a fair chance they'll join that team eventually). Now you're asking them to disrespect a team by choosing to play against it, creating bulletin board material for the ages and leaving them subject to endless ridicule on social media if they lose? Good luck with that.
I'm not a huge fan of expanding the playoff field, but I get the desire to create more meaningful regular-season games and accrue more lucrative rights deals. I've always considered it an inevitability. But keep these two words in mind: load management. The NBA, which has eight playoff teams in each conference, has devalued its regular season by making it too easy to reach the postseason, which has prompted teams to frequently rest star players. This would be a serious problem for Major League Baseball and its broadcast partners.
What's your perfect playoff format?
Miller: I'm already on the record here: Every team should make the playoffs. But let's get slightly more realistically weird:
All three division winners make the playoffs and go straight to the division series round. The best nondivision winner is Wild Card 1. The second-best nondivision winner is Wild Card 2. If the third-best nondivision winner is within five games of the second wild card, then it qualifies as Wild Card 3 and plays Wild Card 2 in a one-game playoff immediately after the season. The winner of that one-game playoff then faces Wild Card 1 in a three-game series over the course of just two days, with every game in Wild Card 1's home park. (The second day would be a doubleheader, if necessary.) The winner goes on to the division series round, where it is reseeded according to its regular-season record.
Meanwhile, if the fourth-best nondivision winner is within five games of Wild Card 1, then it qualifies too, as Wild Card 4, and plays Wild Card 1 in a one-game playoff to advance to the three-game playoff round.
And then the winner of the three-game playoff moves on to the five-game league division series against one of the division champs, and then the seven-game league championship series, and, what the heck, if the weather's nice, we might as well make it a nine-game World Series.
Doolittle: I'm fine with where we're at now, until expansion comes along. I would prefer four divisions and no wild cards. Heck, I'd prefer two leagues and no divisions. But I'm somewhat realistic.
Assuming baseball adds two teams in the coming years, I'm torn about what would be the better layout. Given all the data we've learned about how much of a baseball franchise's popularity is based on local factors, it probably makes sense to bite the bullet and do a full-on geographic realignment. I would hate the loss of continuity with league histories, but there just might be too much benefit to ignore.
So we go to 32 teams with more of a geography-based alignment. From there, I'm torn. My strong preference would be for four eight-team divisions with no wild cards. I feel like subdividing into those smaller groups would do as much to keep the greatest number of teams relevant through a typical season as a playoff expansion. And you'd get maximum benefit from regional rivalries. Sure, a couple of teams would run away with divisions every year, but that's fine.
However, I think baseball will invariably want to add playoff teams if we go to 32. If today's report is accurate, then we know that's the case.
If so, then I'd favor just having two eight-team divisions in each league, rather than four micro-divisions. With that format, you'd be able to retain the prestige of winning a division title. The four division winners would get byes. Then you'd have four wild cards play in some quick-hitting format, probably a best-of-three, to see who survives to play in the league championship series. You wouldn't want it to drag, as you don't want the favored teams to atrophy waiting around for an opponent. Which, by the way, is another issue with this proposal.
Schoenfield: My quick plan:
• Expand to 32 teams.
• Split each league into two divisions of eight teams. Why do we need three divisions of five teams? That format never made a lot of sense given the potential inequities within divisions. (The AL Central has historically been much weaker than the AL East, for example.)
• Cut the regular season to 154 games. Or even 150 games and cut two weeks off the calendar. (I know, good luck with this idea.)
• Six teams make the playoffs in each league -- the two division winners and four wild cards.
• Division winners get a bye, and the other four teams play a best-of-three series (no days off).
• The division series is a best-of-seven with only one day off instead of two.
• The league championship series and World Series remain the same as now.
Lee: Honestly, I'm pretty fine with what the baseball playoffs look like right now. Between the three major American sports, baseball is the only one that routinely surprises in the postseason, where the favorites don't always raise the trophy. For years, the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers ended up in the NBA Finals. Being a Super Bowl favorite often requires having an elite quarterback, which makes picking and choosing NFL games more predictable than the MLB postseason, where few expected the Nationals to raise the trophy. The addition of the wild-card games has been an amazing, incredibly exhilarating bonus to the postseason every year.
Should expansion to 32 teams eventually happen, it would be interesting to see MLB get rid of divisions and start seeding the playoffs in a manner similar to that of the NBA. Since the explosion of social media, baseball has become a much more regional sport, and getting rid of the divisions would force teams to compete with everyone else in the American League than just in the division. A potential hurdle of getting rid of divisions would be general realignment of the schedule and the potential traveling hurdles without regions in each league.
I'd be curious to see the effects on roster construction that getting rid of the divisions would have, forcing teams to look even further beyond their region for teams competing for a playoff spot, and how that could potentially inspire fans to follow baseball through a more national lens.
Gonzalez: You didn't ask for all of this, but I'm going to give it to you anyway. I would first shorten the regular season to 150 games, giving teams an extra couple of days off each month, because playing almost every day for half the calendar year seems cruel. I would implement a universal designated hitter, because watching pitchers hit is embarrassing and degrading. And I would copy the model of the NHL and the NBA, splitting up leagues and divisions based on geography.
For the playoffs, I'm going to steal from the current alignment and the proposed future. I like the idea of three division winners and two wild-card teams making it, but I don't like the idea of a one-game elimination. Let's allow the wild-card teams to play a best-of-three series, the entirety of which is hosted by the team with the better record (the tiebreaker is run differential).
Let's make regular-season games more meaningful by playing fewer of them; let's keep star players in the lineup by keeping postseason spots limited; let's give those wild-card teams a fair shake; and for God's sake, let's wrap this whole thing up before Halloween.