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MLB’s proposed postseason expansion would reward mediocrity

The MLB proposal, if approved, would expand postseason from 10 to 14 teams.

Baltimore Orioles v. Texas Rangers Photo by John Williamson/MLB via Getty Images

Major League Baseball is considering expanding its postseason as early as 2022, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post. Doing so would reward a lot of mediocre teams.

Such a change would need to come through collective bargaining with the players, with the current agreement running through 2021. The details would greatly expand the wild card round, per Sherman:

In this concept, the team with the best record in each league would receive a bye to avoid the wild-card round and go directly to the Division Series. The two other division winners and the wild card with the next best record would each host all three games in a best-of-three wild card round. So the bottom three wild cards would have no first-round home games.

The division winner with the second-best record in a league would then get the first pick of its opponent from those lower three wild cards, then the other division winner would pick, leaving the last two wild cards to play each other.

The most bulletin-board-friendly aspect is the idea of two division winners in each league getting to pick their first-round opponent. Also, the wild card moves from two incredibly intense, but single games to a round of best-of-three series.

“Baseball is always a sport of series, two out of three, three out of five, four out of seven. It’s always made sense in our sport,” Rockies manager Bud Black told SB Nation back in September. “I’m not sure I would change it, but schedule-wise if it could be worked out where it’s two out of three to get to that division series, I’d like to be in that discussion or hear about it.”

But the biggest change in the proposed plan the team with the best record in each league getting a bye straight into the division series, avoiding that opening best-of-three round altogether. It gives an incentive among the very best teams to vie for the top spot, but at the cost of letting in a bunch of middling teams.

MLB’s last postseason alteration came in 2012, adding a second wild card to each league and balancing the AL and NL with 15 teams each. Under that system, a 90-win team has missed the playoffs only four times:

  • 2012 Rays (90-72)
  • 2013 Rangers (91-72; lost a Game-163 tiebreaker)
  • 2018 Rays (90-72)
  • 2019 Indians (93-69)

Had baseball utilized this expanded playoff system, those 90-win teams all would have made into October, but so would four teams that finished with a losing record:

Seven more teams with between 81-83 wins had a top-seven record in their league since 2012, which would have watered down the playoffs even more.

The commissioner might argue that with an increased chance to make the postseason, more teams might be more aggressive in pursuit of October baseball. The current setup has two wild card teams in each league play a single game, with the winner facing the best team in the league in the division series. The chances for a mid-80s win team that “goes for it” just for a shot at a coin-flip game sound grim, but just ask the 2019 Nationals about the benefits of winning the wild card.

But the incentive works both ways. Retroactively applying this expanded postseason format to every season of the current 30-team era (since 1998), at least one 83-win (or worse) team would have made the playoffs in 18 of the last 22 years. Why should a mid-80s win team try harder, when they can in most years relatively coast and take their chances as a barely-over-.500 squad? Why should a 93-win team spend money to stay ahead of the pack?

Even with concerns over watering down the product, some sort of expansion feels inevitable. Among the major North American professional sports leagues, MLB currently sends the smallest percentage of its teams to the postseason. This change would only vault MLB (46.7 percent) above the National Football League (37.5 percent) and National Women’s Soccer League (44.4 percent), and still leave baseball with under 50 percent of its teams making the playoffs.

The expanded wild card round means more playoff games to televise, which should bring more money into the sport once the new television contracts come around. The only question is whether the gain is enough to offset further cheapening the regular season. I expect MLB to make the choice it usually does, which is take the short-term revenue and figure out the long-term effects later.