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Why MLB Is Proposing an Expanded Postseason, Selection Show

We might not be far off from postseason teams choosing their October opponents in a selection show.

Major League Baseball held a discussion with the players association last month, floating the idea of an expanded postseason format that would alter regular season scheduling, possibly push the game closer to a universal designated hitter and be the vehicle toward a possible extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, according to baseball sources familiar with the presentation.

MLB made the presentation to the union and its chief, Tony Clark, on Jan. 8 in part to respond to issues raised by the union in recent years about a lack of spending and disincentive to win. 

MLB's ideas of an expanded postseason and an altered regular season were not offered to the players as a proposal, according to a union spokesperson, but instead were "part of an informal conversation" by commissioner Rob Manfred and do not address the union's "fundamental concerns" with the current economic system.

“Expanding the playoffs in a sensible way is something worth discussing when part of a much more comprehensive conversation about the current state of our game,” Clark said.

The league's presentation included these ideas:

• Seven teams in each league make the playoffs, up from the current five.

• The wild card games are replaced with a best-of-three wild card series.

• Playoff teams are seeded first by division winners and then by teams with the next four highest win totals. (Ties are broken by head-to-head series. No tiebreaker games for postseason entry or seeding will be held.)

• The No. 1 seed will get a first-round bye. On the Sunday night after teams play the last game of the regular season, a “selection show” will take place in which the No. 2 seed chooses which team it wants to play among the bottom three seeds (Nos. 5, 6 and 7). The No. 3 seed then makes its choice. The No. 4 seed plays the remaining club.

• The higher seed will host all three games in that round.

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• The remainder of the postseason–Championship and World Series–remain unchanged. There is no re-seeding after the “wild card series” takes place.

As an example with the American League last year, Houston would have earned a bye as the No. 1 seed. The Yankees, the No. 2 seed, would announce who they wanted to play from among Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Boston. Minnesota, the No. 3 seed, would choose from among the two remaining lower seeds. Oakland, the No. 4 seed, would play the remaining lower seed. New York, Minnesota and Oakland would be the host team for all games in those series.

MLB realizes that with more teams competing for playoff spots the regular season must be addressed. Such thinking likely pushes it to a more balanced regular season. The current thinking is that every team will play all 29 other teams every year, as in an NBA model. And if and when that concept is embraced, it’s more likely that all teams would be playing by the same rules–including a DH adopted for NL teams.

Why offer this format to the players? Here are some possible reasons:

• More money for them. Baseball has shopped the idea of the expanded playoff format among current and possible future television partners and found the appetite “robust,” according to one baseball source.

• Events. Sports fans increasingly respond to “events” more than a steady stream of content. The expanded playoff format creates up to 12 elimination games out of a maximum of 18 first-round games. The postseason would kick off with a Postseason Selection Show–something television partners have expressed strong interest in carrying. The events model also applies to the regular season. The Yankees and Dodgers would play each other every year, for instance, rather than every four or five years.

• Incentive to spend. In recent years teams have pulled back from spending to build more of what they believe is a likely playoff team. In short, they don’t see the wisdom in spending on what is likely an 80-win team. But with seven teams qualifying for the postseason–the Red Sox would have been a playoff team last year with 84 wins, for instance, more teams could be likely to spend thinking they are close to the playoffs.

• September. The strong incentives attached to seeding means even teams who are well positioned for postseason baseball will be playing meaningful games. The battle for the No. 1 seed, for instance, would be important because of the bye that comes with it. The battle for the No. 4 seed also would be huge: the 4 seed gets up to three home playoff games while the 5 gets none.

The players association is still reviewing the ideas. The format probably would be in place for 2022 at the earliest. The current collective bargaining agreement ends after the 2021 season.

The expanded playoff format could be used as a vehicle toward an extension of the CBA. For instance, MLB and the union could agree on the format while announcing an extension of the current economic system with or without some minor tweaks. In that way, they could sell to interested television partners the value of labor peace through the opening years of the expanded postseason format.